Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have been at the heart of India's sensational One-Day International (ODI) run since the Champions Trophy. India have lost just four of the 21 matches they have played since the mini World Cup in England and it is safe to say that the duo have played a handy role in team's fabulous run.
The eye-catching twin wrist-spinners sit at No 2 (Kuldeep Yadav with 25 wickets in 15 games) and No 4 (Yuzvendra Chahal with 23 in 15 games) respectively in the wicket-takers' chart in ODIs since the Champions Trophy, and have all but wiped out the probability of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja making a comeback in limited-overs cricket.
That said, playing both of them — a move that paid rich dividends in the sub-continent — in the greener, grassier conditions of South Africa would be a brave call. But that is what Virat Kohli does. He loves going unconventional and believes in dispelling every set notion in cricket. Perhaps it is this trait of his that prompted Mike Brearley, often called England's best ever skipper, to pick Kohli as among the three best captains of all time alongside Ray Illingworth and Ian Chappell.
“I haven’t been close enough to (Virat) Kohli but I admire him enormously, he has given the team pride and aggression. He is always attentive, keen-eyed and he is shrewd,” Brearley has said.
Kohli’s unusual selection can be put down to the fact that India enjoyed tremendous success in limited-overs cricket last year owing to these spin twins. Also, South Africa struggle to score in the middle-overs against spin. With no AB de Villiers, their middle-order batsmen — Aiden Markram, JP Duminy, David Miller and Chris Morris — were all susceptible to spinners.
Whatever the reasons, by the time Chahal and Kuldeep completed their initial bowling partnership, South Africa were well and truly on the back-foot after having won the toss and opting to bat first.
The leg-spinner, Chahal, found dip and turn to bamboozle a confused Quinton de Kock and trap him in front of the stumps. Completely befuddled, the South African opener did not even bother consulting his partner for a review and walked off with replays showing that the ball would have missed leg-stump.
Chahal and India, though, didn't mind that. They had pressed the panic button in the South African camp.
Aiden Markram walked out having faced a slew of deliveries from Chinaman, Tabraiz Shamsi, in the nets. But an on-song Kuldeep Yadav was a different proposition and Markram found that out soon enough. He appeared unconvincing against Kuldeep, not reading the googlies or the arm-ball and playing full balls from the back foot to give himself more time to read the delivery off the pitch.
Soon enough, he was stepping out to Yuzvendra Chahal, who had plotted his dismissal with the help of MS Dhoni by bowling wide on the leg-stump. Markram greeted him early but could only chip a catch to short mid-wicket.
Duminy was foxed by a brilliant googly from Kuldeep and Miller fired a catch to short cover off the same bowler. While Chahal's initial spell read a miserly 6-0-20-2, Kuldeep's was no worse with 7-0-22-2.
Faf du Plessis and Chris Morris would go on to resurrect the innings but only because the Indian skipper let them off the hook by taking the spinners off the attack. When the duo returned to bowl, Kuldeep cleaned up Morris to grab his third wicket of the day.
That is exactly what the two are capable of doing in this format of the game. They choke the run flow, put immense pressure on batsmen, forcing them to take them on, which inevitably doesn't end well for the men with the willow.
That said, there are no set plans to which the two work. The maturity to understand the need for change according to conditions is what stands out in Chahal and Kuldeep. “In South Africa, the wickets will be bouncy and there will be less turn, so I have to change my style a bit. Since the ball doesn’t turn much, I won’t be bowling full and will keep it shorter (pull back the length by 4-5 inches),” Chahal had said ahead of the ODI series.
The last time India played ODIs in South Africa, Quinton de Kock and Co carted the spinners for 361 runs off 372 balls, conceding just two wickets in three matches to them. This time around, they have already taken five in a single game, conceding a niggardly 79 runs in 20 tight overs.
What has stood out in the Chahal-Kuldeep show since the Champions Trophy is their strike-rate and economy.
Kuldeep's 25 wickets have come at strike-rate of 29.2 and an economy of 4.75 runs per over. Chahal, on the other hand, has been equally effective, giving away runs at a rate of 4.92 and a strike rate of 34.1.
To put things into perspective, the No 1 ODI bowler, Imran Tahir, another wrist-spinner, had a strike-rate of 34.5 in 2017 and an economy of 4.65. Chahal and Kuldeep have been equally good, if not better.
It is their teasing line combined with astute field placements that have had opposition batsmen in a fix. With ample variations up their sleeve, the two wrist-spinners tie down batsmen at the crease and enforce mistakes. Kohli, for one, understands what the two bring to the table.
“It augers well for the team when you have two fearless youngsters. They set their own fields as well. They will have to keep this going for the rest of the series,” the skipper said post-match.
Despite the remaining matches scheduled on more seamer-friendly surfaces, there is every likelihood of Kohli bringing back his two favourite spinners to do the job against a South African ODI batting line-up that is increasingly showing signs of vulnerability against spin, irrespective of the pitch.