It is the 27th over of the Champions Trophy Final in 2017. Ravichandran Ashwin is trying to cramp Fakhar Zaman by angling the ball towards the leg-stump. The first two balls are wides. Commentating on-air, Nasser Hussain asks his fellow commentator "How are India or Ashwin trying to get a wicket here?". India don’t pick a wicket for while and the day ends in a crushing 180-run defeat. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja concede 137 runs from their 18 combined overs. It is an end of the finger-spinning era. It will be the last time India opt to play an ODI match without a wrist-spinner in the playing XI.
In the next couple of tours, Kuldeep Yadav is blooded into the system at the expense of Jadeja and Yuzvendra Chahal was incorporated for Ashwin. It is the start of the wrist-spin chapter in the 50-over format. Ever since the launch of the new age, Chahal and Kuldeep have revolutionised India’s mindset, and the results are astonishing. Since the Champions Trophy final, India have won 31 out of the 43 ODI matches. In that time period, Kuldeep and Chahal have taken 128 wickets between them.
In the period after the 2015 World Cup and the Champion Trophy in 2017, India had trialled four finger spinners — Jadeja, Ashwin, Axar Patel, and Harbhajan Singh. The four had combined to play 53 matches and picked up 55 wickets. During that period, India had won 19 and lost 14. The defeat to Pakistan in the final was the last nail in the coffin. An alteration was inevitable. Virat Kohli and the team management had realised that no longer could India be a dominant force in the 50-over format without taking wickets in the middle overs.
Fast forward to the opening game in New Zealand and the deadly duo combined to snare six wickets to dismantle New Zealand for a paltry total of 157. "If the pitch is flat then you have no way out unless you have wrist-spinners who do the job in the middle overs," is what Kohli had stated in England last year. The pitch at Napier was flat, just like the Champions Trophy final, but unlike 18 months ago, India are now armed with two genuine wicket-taking bowlers.
It was Chahal who started the rot. Ross Taylor had survived the early onslaught and was looking to attack the leg-spinner. Chahal sensed the moment perfectly. The leggie gave the ball more air and slowed it up a touch. Looking to drive, Taylor's hands pushed in front of his body and it resulted in a simple return catch. Tom Latham fell in a similar manner as New Zealand slumped to 76-4. Chahal had done his job. He had built up the pressure and taken wickets.
Now it was Kuldeep's turn. The left-arm wrist-spinner might have been slightly off-colour in Australia, but he found his rhythm to bamboozle the Black Caps lower-order. Between them, Chahal and Kuldeep finished with figures of 6-82 from 20 overs. Importantly, they once again proved how lethal the duo is when paired together during the middle stages of the game.
On the 24 occasions that Chahal and Kuldeep have played together, India have won 17 times. In each of those matches, never has the pair gone wicketless. Add to that, the opposition has only managed to score in excess of 300 just twice. Both have an economy rate of under-five and a strike-rate in the high 20s.
The rapid development of Hardik Panday as a fast-bowling all-rounder allowed Kohli to play the couple in tandem. In Australia, the absence of Pandya had led the team management to prefer Jadeja, meaning only one of the wrist-spinners could be accommodated in the playing XI.
India triumphed in Australia, but it hasn't taken Kohli and Ravi Shastri long to revert to a duo that is becoming India's trump card for the World Cup. In the past year, India defeated South Africa and Australia on their home turf. Chahal and Kuldeep have played a major role in scripting those famous wins. In South Africa, the pair claimed 31 wickets in six matches; in Australia, Chahal picked career-best figures of 6-42 in the deciding match. Today in Napier, they once again proved how difficult it is for opposition to untangle their mysteries after the first powerplay.
The loss to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final may remain inked in an Indian fans memory for a long time, but the defeat has led to significant transformation. No longer is Kohli satisfied with the economy in the middle stages; he strives for wickets even if it comes at an expense of few runs. Kuldeep and Chahal arrived at the right time and chances are that we are not going to hear "How are India trying to take a wicket" in the middle overs anytime soon.
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