Former Pakistan leggie Mushtaq Ahmed once said of T20 that, "For spinners, this game is like chess. You need to plan every move.” A former backroom coach for England, Mushy may have recalled those words last week as his former employers were knocked over in Bangalore by India’s Yuzvendra Chahal, a man who has represented India with not only bat and ball, but also with board and bishops.
Chahal has previously suggested his chess training helps him stay focused on the cricket field, but whether he had – or needed – a particular plan for each England batsman is unclear. Eoin Morgan’s side largely sacrificed their wickets, but the young spinner’s success nonetheless meant both he and his chequered history were back in focus. A talent from an early age, Chahal’s proficiency at chess led to him becoming national junior champion and representing India at both the World and Asian youth championships when a teenager. A decade later he was precipitating one of the greatest collapses in international cricketing history. On the board or on the square, Chahal can certainly claim to know a thing or two about blitzes.
Chahal is not the only link between the two sports, even if the undisputed king of Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, once admitted that he was “largely unsuccessful” when it came to taking pieces rather than guard. Given the prominence of strategy in cricket, it is probably inevitable that possibly its most vaunted tactician, Mike Brearley, was a noted fan of chess. In his book The Art of Captaincy, the ex-England skipper relates how firm a grip the game could have on not just him but his teammates: "In South Africa in 1965 I was acting as twelfth man while England batted in a Test at Johannesburg. Bob Barber and I happened to be in the middle of a chess game. When he called me on to the field during his innings, ostensibly for some dry gloves, his purpose was to inform me that his next move was Queen's pawn to QB4."
With both games being played to some degree in the mind, another famous captain, Steve Waugh, might appreciate the words of former world chess champion and inscrutable, flawed sorcerer Bobby Fischer. In a quote evocative of Waugh’s famous “mental disintegration” tactics, the American once said of his approach to crushing opponents: “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” That happens many times in cricket, but using your opponent’s ego can also be equally effective in both disciplines.
Last year Magnus Carlsen retained his world chess title against Russian Sergey Karjakin, but only just. After being expected to win comfortably, the Norwegian was frustrated by his challenger, who at times employed a rope-a-dope strategy, goading his opponent into being fatally over-aggressive. It might be a bit unfair to compare Magnus Carlsen to Tino Best. Ok, it is very unfair. But the same strategy was used by one of cricket’s self-proclaimed leading chess players, Andrew Flintoff, to lure the West Indian into one of the most notorious ego-induced dismissals in memory.
Flintoff might not be the first name that comes to mind when trying to think of a chess-playing cricketer, but his liking for such a cerebral game fits in with his multi-faceted character.
For all his rumbustious post-retirement goofing around on game shows and (on the subject of rope-a-dope) in the boxing ring, he is actually an adept interviewer on his BBC radio show and, according to him, equally adept with his chess pieces:
"I played for Lancashire, which is bizarre really,” he told The Guardian. “I had a teacher at primary school, and it was almost like something out of a film where you had this school on an estate and you had these kids coming to play chess on their lunchtime." Although his brother played for England, Flintoff says he turned his back on the game, but with his diverse range of retirement interests we might once again see him take it up. The Pedalo Gambit could make quite a catchy name for an opening strategy.
The love can cut both ways. Nigel Short, the British Grandmaster, is a huge cricket fan, but more intriguingly another Grandmaster from a nation not known as a bastion of willow and leather is also besotted.
Russian Peter Svidler, who was introduced to the sport by Short after the Englishman invited him to watch the India versus Pakistan World Cup clash in 1999, is a self-confirmed cricket nut. He has even used the handle “Tendulkar” to play online and once appeared in a chess tournament in Gibraltar solely because the organiser was an Australian who promised him a net session.
Svidler explained the appeal in an interview with the Yorkshire Chess website: “It’s my kind of game. I love the slow development of a well-nuanced story. From a certain point in my life, it felt like home to me. I will always be grateful to the English chess player Nigel Short for introducing me to cricket. I would say it has made my life better. It’s nice when something suddenly appears in your life which makes you happy.” He is not, however, a fan of T20.
Unsurprisingly India’s first ever Grandmaster and former world champion, Viswanathan Anand, also has his connections to cricket. He once waded into the debate over Tendulkar playing into his forties, saying the batsman should carry on “as long as he wanted”. Anand also took part in an advert for computer processors where he swapped his black and whites for just whites and faced a few balls. He displayed a defence which was more Afridian than Sicilian, seeing him bowled many times before telling the camera you have to make the right choice in life and for your computer. It wasn’t cricket and chess’s finest exchange, but did again show that the two games share plenty more common ground than just Yuzvendra Chahal.