On comeback trail, Deepak Chahar hits Zimbabwe where it hurts


Aryan Surana

Commercials invariably consume the refreshment breaks during an innings when affluent nations organize top-flight cricket. The smaller boards, in comparison, have fewer advertisements to run given a modicum of sponsorship money comes their way. For those confronted with the challenge of filling up ad space, it is an age-old trick to broadcast a montage promoting local tourism. Zimbabwe Cricket showcased the flora and fauna of Antelope Park in Gweru, including an exhilarating slow-motion clip of adult lions making a dash towards the camera. Their sprint wasn't characterized by arrogance but was instead the quietly confident hustle of an experienced predator.

186 miles north-east from the jungle, Shikhar Dhawan and Shubman Gill were exhibiting a similar conviction as they went about chasing a lowly 190 at the Harare Sports Club. They could've been in pursuit of much less if not for Brad Evans and Richard Ngarava who added 70 to the total after Zimbabwe were jackhammered to 110/8. India had the better of the opening exchanges despite a lukewarm show by Mohammad Siraj and Deepak Chahar, who was playing his first competitive game after tearing his quadriceps during a T20I in February and injuring his back while recuperating. They leaked 14 extras within 4 overs, finding it cumbersome to administer the swing the pitch generally offers upfront.

While his first couple of overs were emblematic of a bowler who'd recently spent more time on the treatment table than in the nets, Chahar acquired the desired rhythm by his third over. His inswinging yorker whumped Innocent Kaia on the toes, but umpire Adrian Holdstock rightly felt it was doing too much even as India reviewed to no avail. His partner Tadiwanashe Marumani covered the inward movement to lean into a straight drive and it seemed like Zimbabwe had taken the measure of the new-ball merchants when their recent bugbear reared its ugly head.

In each of their wins against Bangladesh this month, Zimbabwe had their top-order jolted. Skipper Regis Chakabva said at the toss that they've addressed the issue within the team and were looking to rectify it in the series opener. But the Indian attack, notwithstanding the sloppiness, was too good to be denied. Chahar generated extra bounce to hurry Kaia on the pull and drew a false shot from Marumani, his frontfoot not budging to the off-stump let alone reaching out to the pitch of the away-swinger. Bustling in from over the wicket, Siraj accounted for Sean Williams as the top-order's hopes of survival vanished in a jiffy.

Between August 2019 to December 2021, wickets in the PowerPlay had been India's Achilles Heel as they managed only 10 in 21 games. They've improved by leaps and bounds, picking up 26 scalps in 13 matches since January 2022. ''The Indian bowlers bowled really well, put the pressure on us and we lost our way after the first 4-5 overs,'' Chakabva admitted in the presentation ceremony of the predictably lopsided affair that saw India pocket a 13th consecutive win against Zimbabwe, their best streak versus any opponent.

Into his sixth over, Chahar had miles under his legs. The openers had aided his resurgence with their shabby decision-making and execution, but the wicket of Wesley Madhevere reaffirmed Chahar's stature as one of the finest proponents of swing bowling on the circuit. The initial line of the ball duped the right-hander into thinking that he could access the leg-side, before it shaped away like a meandering river to catch him stone-dead.

''The landing was a little hard and when you play an international game after six and half months, obviously you will be a little nervous. Before coming here I played at least 4-5 practice games and the body and mind wasn't working together in the first few overs, but it got better after that. I'm fine and the body is fine as well. I bowled seven overs at one go. It is an indicator that my fitness levels are okay," Chahar reflected.

"My plan remains simple. When the ball is swinging, I try to bowl fuller length and take wickets. If the ball isn't swinging, there is a plan 'B' or 'C'. Today, it was swinging till the seventh over that I was bowling. So it was simple – bowl a fuller length, mix the swing and confuse the batter," he asserted.

Chahar's six-month-long absence might've jeopardized his ambitions of playing the T20 World Cup, but he's focusing on the controllables. "That [World Cup selection] is not in my hand. Skill-wise, though, I have worked really hard. There I can say I have probably started where I had left off.'' Evident as it was.