Pugnacious Rahul Chahar throws his hat in T20 World Cup fray

The T20I series between India and Sri Lanka turned out to be a trainwreck. The invisible foe which has caught humankind by the scruff of its neck probed Krunal Pandya’s immune system, and as a repercussion, it was raining debuts at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. India stretched their bench strength to the last fiber, by compulsion rather than choice, to concede only their second bilateral series decider since 2016.

However, the silver lining to their cloud was Rahul Chahar, whose performances on the tour align with coach Rahul Dravid’s preliminary vision of identifying a young gun or two to furnish the think-tank with extra options in the build-up to the T20 World Cup. His co-passengers on the flight to the island were Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, both raring to reclaim lost ground. Unfazed, Rahul spun his way to seven wickets in three games across formats, the highest aggregate for an Indian spinner. The tyro had twinkled brighter than the stars.

Rahul was riding a wave of confidence as he packed his bags for the Lankan assignment. He had earned the prized scalps of Jonny Bairstow and Dawid Malan in the 4th T20I against England before wrapping up the initial half of the IPL 2021 with 11 wickets in seven matches. And the self-assured rookie wasted little time to get into the thick of the action as the rotation policy saw Chahal cooling down in the ODI dead rubber. Late in his spell, Rahul triggered a flurry of quintessential leg-spinner’s wickets, with batsmen groping at the ball like stiff-legged robots to bring catching cover and the men behind the sticks into play. Rewarded with 3/54, he could’ve been the worthy owner of a five-wicket haul had India not smeared chock full of butter onto their palms.

The one-dayers done and dusted, India’s collective brainpower shifted to the shortest format. Until recently, spin twins Kul-Cha had guarded their kingdom with gusto, but the clout of the old soldiers had waned in unison in the last year or so, leaving Virat Kohli with a fragmented attack and another strand of grey hair in his beard. Much to the management’s respite, Chahal and Kuldeep seemed to have rediscovered their mojo on Sri Lanka’s dry puddings, while they also found in Rahul a proxy should either of the potent pair upset the applecart again.

Having made his presence felt early in the second T20I with an ingenious juggling act on the rope, Rahul outslicked Wanindu Hasaranga to give a glimpse of his ability to think on his feet and thrive under pressure, something that will arrive in bucketloads at the marquee event. Sri Lanka needed 46 off 36 to score an equalizer as Dhananjaya de Silva was anchoring the chase alongside Hasaranga, who flat-batted four on the penultimate delivery of Rahul’s final over.

It ushered a moment of truth for the tweaker. Just one ball at his disposal to make a difference. Does he bomb it in to try and escape the hurt of being thwacked for consecutive boundaries? Or does he stay true to his conscience of a breakthrough provider and dangle the carrot once more? He saw merit in the latter and lobbed it up wide of off-stump as Hasaranga took the bait, perishing to a loose drive away from the body. Rahul punched the air in delight and words weren’t minced; nonetheless, the victim himself acknowledged the fact that he had been beguiled into submission.

Rahul had plucked a leaf out of Chahal’s book, given the senior pro has a knack for coaxing greedy batsmen into an unsolicited encore of a productive shot. The common theme shared by the wristy duo is that you don’t throw in the towel against pinch-hitting biffers. It is a priceless trait picked up during their respective stints in the IPL, for Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore. Alike Chahal, Rahul is happy to trade off a few runs for crucial wickets as uniform strikes bring with them dots and stymie the opposition’s progress anyway. He has proven to be a quick learner and is putting the wealth of experience gleaned from the IPL and India duties to good use.

“I’ve bowled to the Indian team, the big players in the nets, and when you do that, the pressure is less in a match scenario. This is my fourth year with Mumbai Indians, and I bowl to some of the world’s best hitters, so I don’t feel pressure in the match,” Rahul had remarked during IPL 2021.

He gives the credit for eroding the fear factor to Zaheer Khan, MI’s director of cricket. “Initially I was bowling on the safer side, I wasn’t attacking, but he kept on telling me that you are an attacking bowler and can take wickets, go attack, don’t worry if you are hit for a six, he gives me confidence and says bowl freely,” Rahul asserted.

Talking about attacking, India was left with no alternative but to do so in the winner-takes-all bout on Thursday as they jogged out to defend an abhorrent 81/8, their third-lowest total ever in the format. Introduced inside the PowerPlay, Rahul drew first blood with Avishka Fernando toe-edging one straight back at him. Sadeera Samarawickrama was destined for a golden duck had the nick carried to slip. Never mind, the leggie uncorked a devilish topspinner to rap Minod Bhanuka’s knee roll and grant India, for a fleeting millisecond, the semblance of ascendancy in the otherwise damp squib.

Pundit Aakash Chopra was effusive in his praise for the new kid on the block. “Rahul Chahar has grabbed every opportunity that has come his way to play for India,” Chopra said on his YouTube channel.

“He bowls with a lot of confidence and is incisive and accurate. He bowls quick through the air and the ball often zips past the batsman on pitching. From his action, it seems like he is bowling a googly when he is actually delivering a leg-spinner. He has got this mystery about him and variations, which remind me a little about Rashid Khan. If he does well in the UAE leg of IPL, India will be tempted to play him in the T20 World Cup along with Chahal.”

Bolstering Rahul’s case for a berth in India’s T20 World Cup squad is his multifaceted promise. No slouch with the bat, the right-hander has an 84 against Sri Lanka A under his belt. Willow-wielding credentials lend him a firm edge over Varun Chakravarthy, Chahal, and Kuldeep, the only one among the tail-ending trio you can trust to get the ball off the square.

Loud noises have been made at a very opportune time, with Rahul clinching 7 wickets in five T20I appearances at a reasonable economy of 7.61. He is still wet behind the ears as far as international cricket is concerned, but the sheer skill, smarts and sagacity with which he has gone about doing his job is hard to ignore. Rahul has shown his mettle at the big stage, and parked the proverbial ball in the selectors’ court.