Deepak Chahar: Moving it at pace
The fourth delivery of Deepak Chahar’s second over in the Bangalore T20I cut Quinton de Kock into half. The left-handed South African was shaping up for the punch through the covers, and halfway through the delivery trail, the stroke seemed on, before the ball decked in devilishly after pitching marginally outside the off-stump, and beat the stunned batsman’s inside edge, evading the bails by a whisker. It’s the stuff of nightmares for left-handed batsmen — the ball that swings late into the pads.
From the moment he burst onto the domestic scene as a sinewy18-year-old in 2010, Chahar was skilled in swinging the ball either way. Only now, as he frequently reiterates, the addition of pace has envenomed the swing. In a way, the quest for pace and to marry it with swing has been the thread of Chahar’s narrative. It’s a coming-of-age journey that bears uncanny resemblance with Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s, only that the transformation took longer than in the Uttar Pradesh bowler’s case and he was ravaged as much by injuries as his insecurities.
Read | Deepak Chahar: ‘I like to keep my bowling unpredictable’
The opening scene takes place in Chahar’s bedroom at his home in Agra, midway through his sophomore year in domestic cricket. His body was jaundiced and weak. Forget picking up the ball, he could hardly stand on both feet. He spent most of the three months sleeping, but when he wasn’t, Chahar was thinking cricket and his dream of playing for his country. But for that, he was well aware, he needed to add a few yards of pace. At that point, he was barely touching 130kmph, though the swing was enough to reap a rich harvest of wickets on the domestic circuit. But swing alone, he realised, wouldn’t take him where he wanted to go. But he didn’t know how to add the yards of pace he needed.
He turned to his father Lokendra Singh Chahar, his coach and mentor, who advised him to stick to his strength, which is swing, and add pace incrementally. Chahar was restless but knew the wisdom of his father’s words. So the day the doctor cleared him of jaundice, he was up and running at his father’s cricket academy on the outskirts of Agra.
“I told him not to try too hard as it could upset his rhythm and action. Just bowl normally, work into a spell and then gradually increase his pace. Just one fine day, you can’t become a 140kmph bowler, and more importantly, it shouldn’t be at the expense of swing and control,” he remembers.
By the start of the subsequent season, Chahar did manage to get quicker without compromising on pace. But then struck a raft of injuries, one after the other. Just before the start of his third season, he tore a muscle in his lower abdomen, missing the first five games.
At the start of the fourth season, he split the webbing in his right hand and missed the first four games. The big dream was crashing into the gutters. From a 40-wicket first season, someone seemed to be playing a trick with his destiny, as he could bargain just nine scalps at an average of 112. Chahar was battered, but his father reassured and motivated him, with a line from one of his favourite movies, the Aamir Khan starrer ‘Three Idiots’ where the character played by Khan counsels his friends: “Follow your dream, not your fortunes.”
Chahar returned to grab 21 wickets at 21.52 from four games, but the father and son knew there was more sweat to be shed in his quest to become the best bowler in the country.
First, they assessed why his body was breaking down so often. “He was training excessively and so his body became stiff. He was losing flexibility,” his father says. At the time, Chahar had bought into the common mistake of young seamers that more muscle meant more pace. So to build leaner muscles, he sought the help of a local martial arts expert. “I told him to bowl and run more than hit the gym. He worked really hard in the off-season,” he adds.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, Chahar’s morale was as high as it had ever been. He had added a few yards of pace and was free of injuries. Only to realise that he couldn’t swing the ball as prodigiously as he once did, and wasn’t quite the same force. The next two season fetched him only 35 wickets at 36, and he was gradually slipping out of the selectors’ consciousness. His career was on the proverbial precipice. His action was a mess, his mind was messier. But Chahar wasn’t someone to surrender all too easily. The successive setbacks had forged a mongrel spirit. “I thought I would give my all before I disappear. I will keep fighting. The rest I will leave to destiny,” he had admitted in an interview to this paper last year.
The father-son pair would hit the academy nets before sunrise during the chilling Agra winters and would practise till late afternoon. The run-up strides were shortened, the leap during load-up was trimmed, and Chahar became more side-on at release. The run-up was shorter but faster and smoother, which meant he had momentum into the crease. Emphasis was put on his wrist position and release. Previously, his body used to slant too much to his right at the time of release, hampering balance. But now, it is straighter. More importantly, he stopped worrying about playing for India. “His mind became clearer and freer,” his father says.
While the rewards weren’t instant, destiny began to fall into place, piece by piece. At the 2018 IPL auction, Chennai Super Kings picked him. Though injury-ravaged his tenure was with the Rising Pune Supergiants in 2016, he had left MS Dhoni and coach Stephen Fleming impressed. “The thing I liked about him was that he was always looking to learn new things, was always chipping in with ideas even when he was not playing,” Fleming had remarked last year.
The CSK stint was to change Chahar’s career in more ways than one. That he managed to win the confidence of Dhoni lifted his morale to such an extent that he shed the insecurities that had afflicted him. Besides, there were a host of bowlers such as Dwayne Bravo, Shane Watson and Lungi Ngidi and coaches such as Andy Bichel and L Balaji from whom he could pick new weapons and nuance his craft. By the time the season ended, he had not only restored his plummetting stock but also strengthened his repertoire with new weapons, like a variety of slower balls — both the knuckle and cutter types — a slow bouncer, a sharp yorker and the game sense to know which one to use against which batsman at what juncture of the match. And all this without sacrificing his swing, a handy weapon even in the shortest format.
Chahar wouldn’t just look to york batsmen out or pound the full length in search of swing when it’s non-existent. Rather he’s quick to sum up conditions and batsman and bowl accordingly. Like in the second T20I against South Africa when Temba Bavuma was playing the short ball comfortably, he began alternating the length between good and back-of-a-length, cleverly mixing up the pace and eventually dismissed the batsman with a slower ball.
But generally, in his first spell, Chahar probes a fuller length, in search of swing. And all he needs, as he demonstrated at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Sunday, is just the slightest of assistance from the surface to move the ball around. And swing, at any pace, makes batting difficult, making him one of the finest powerplay bowlers around. So much so that the team management will be wondering how to accommodate him in the playing XI when Bhuvneshwar returns. Chahar’s overall economy rate in T20Is is a golden six, in the powerplays it’s 5.3. De Kock and Reeza Hendricks would testify. And these days, he swings at pace, allied with supreme control.
Chahar’s resurgence as a T20 bowler has carried over to first-class cricket too. In the previous season, he took 11 wickets at 23 in four games. Recognition winked as a call-up to the A team that played New Zealand. Chahar claims he’s not too worried about whether he would play red-ball cricket for the country.
“I’m just enjoying my cricket, not thinking too far ahead,” he recently said. He’s thus feeling the summer of 2010 all over again. Even better, for he’s not only swinging the ball, but doing it at a brisk pace. And in the blue of his country.