As much as Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan contributed to the Indian dominance in the ODI series against South Africa with four scintillating centuries between them, it’s the wristspin of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal that ensured South Africa’s humiliating defeat.
The domination of South African batsmen by wristspinners is nothing new. Kuldeep and Chahal join a list dominated by Australian wristspinners who have decimated South African batting line-ups all the way back to 1935-36 and the dynamic duo of Bill “Tiger” O’Reilly and Clarrie “the Fox” Grimmett.
And Australian leggies didn’t have to bear an animal nickname to succeed against South Africa, as instanced by the stellar performances of both Richie Benaud and Shane Warne. Like Kuldeep and Chahal currently, those legendary Australian wristspinners wreaked a lot of havoc playing in South Africa.
The dominance enjoyed by Grimmett and O’Reilly is phenomenal. Of the 98 wickets taken by Australian bowlers in the 1935-36 series, the two claimed 71 between them, Grimmett achieving the incredible feat of three ten-wicket hauls in only five matches.
Grimmett averaged 14.59 and O’Reilly 17.04. Nevertheless, in helping India to clinch the ODI series, Kuldeep, with 17 wickets at 13.88, and Chahal, with 16 at 16.37, managed to improve on the amazing figures of the Australian combination.
Even O’Reilly, who despised one-day cricket, referring to it as “the pyjama game” in his newspaper columns, would have beamed with pride at those figures in an era of big bats and short boundaries. As the greatest promoter of wristspin in those same columns, he would have enjoyed the aggressiveness of the India duo as they bamboozled the South African batsmen with their variety of deliveries.
O’Reilly was not exactly enamoured of batsmen. Once asked if he ever tried to Mankad a player, his response was comic genius. “Son,” he proclaimed, “I never found a batsman that keen to get to the other end.”
He would have enjoyed the South African batsmen’s embarrassment as they failed to pick the spin of either Kuldeep or Chahal. This is one reason why wristspinners are enjoying so much success in short-form cricket. Very few batsmen pick the wrong’un, and consequently they are hesitant when going for the big shot, often resulting in a mishit.
Kuldeep and Chahal have exploited this flaw unmercifully and they have been both brave and shrewd in knowing exactly when and where to flight their deliveries. The first time I saw Kuldeep, I was impressed when he dismissed David Warner in the deciding Test of the 2016-17 series against Australia. It was courageous captaincy by Ajinkya Rahane in the tense circumstances but Kuldeep’s composure soon changed it to a match-turning decision. That was another notable thing about his bowling. He’s a rarity for his breed in that he’s much more accurate than the average left-arm wristspinner.
In an era where the popularity of wristspin is booming in limited-overs cricket, India have unearthed a pair who are outstanding in skill and confidence. It takes a lot of skill to be a good wristspinner but it also requires a big heart to be a top-class purveyor of the art.
It will be interesting to see what approach India take in their ODI joust when they tour Australia next. The current coach, Ravi Shastri, will be well aware of what results good wristspin can achieve in Australia from his participation in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket. India won that tournament and Shastri was Player of the Series, but the legspin of L Sivaramakrisnan also played a big part in the overall team success.
On large Australian grounds, good wristspin can reap vital rewards. If both Kuldeep and Chahal maintain their form, they could become famous (or infamous) in Australia, the spiritual home of wristspin bowling. The irony would appeal to O’Reilly’s devilish sense of humour.