It is difficult to find another example of an international cricketer who has represented India in one other sport. Yuzvendra Chahal has the sole bragging rights on the subject if one considers the members of the World Cup squad.
Hailing from Jind (Haryana) where the opportunities to excel remain understandably limited, Chahal took to chess, became the 2002 National (under-11) champion at Kolkata and, in the following year, represented the country in the World (under-12) Championship in Halkidiki, Greece.
In short, Chahal pursued chess from 1997 to 2003 and then focussed entirely on cricket. In fact, he once scored a match-winning century against Himachal Pradesh in under-19 cricket.
Get Chahal talking and you notice his sharp recall when it comes to events, dates and numbers. Perhaps, the grooming in chess has something to do with this quality.
The story of Chahal making his move from chess to cricket, from Haryana to Mumbai Indians, from Royal Challengers Bangalore to the Indian cricket team in shorter formats is fascinating.
A small-made, small-town boy dreamt big. With the advantage of hindsight, it can be said that he justified the decision to move to cricket. He is now promising to make an impact in his maiden World Cup.
“When I decided to leave chess and concentrate on cricket, there was surely a sign from God” says Chahal and continues, “I always felt I was destined to play this sport and do well. Even when I was not making the playing XI of Haryana, with Amit Mishra and Jayant Yadav around, I always enjoyed bowling at the nets. I felt I would do well in cricket. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in any other field.”
Indeed, this patient performer surely made the most of the chances that came his way. Whether it was for Haryana or for Mumbai Indians, Chahal waited for his chance.
Not many remember that he put the finishing touches, with the bat, to Mumbai Indians’ chase against Trinidad and Tobago in the now-discontinued Champions Trophy. Later, Chahal’s exploits for the Bangalore franchisee brought him into the forefront.
Reflecting on his journey, Chahal says: “In the 2014 auction, RCB opted for me. In the first match at Sharjah against Delhi Capitals, I was man-of-the-match. In 2015, I was the third highest wicket-taker with 23 wickets. The following year, when we lost the final to Sunrisers Hyderabad, I was the second highest wicket-taker with 22 victims.”
Chahal’s performances earned him a call for India’s tour of Zimbabwe. “I was the man-of-the-match in my second outing. In the ODIs, I was named the Emerging Player of the Tournament.
“After I took 34 wickets from six Ranji Trophy matches in 2016, I received a call for the T20 series against England (at home). My best performance (six for 25) in Bangalore helped India win the series. Thereafter, I was part of the India-A team until I was selected, in September 2017, to tour Sri Lanka. Since then, God has been kind to me,” said Chahal.
Coached by New Delhi-based Randhir Singh, Chahal constantly stays in touch with former cricketers like Haryana’s left-arm spinner Rajinder Goel and Indore-based leg-spinner Narendra Hirwani.
Who are the players who have influenced or inspired Chahal? “Virat (Kohli) Bhaiya, Rohit (Sharma) Bhaiya, Shikhar (Dhawan) Bhaiya, among others, have inspired and believed in me. They keep saying, ‘Yuzi, you have it you to serve the country for long. In the past two years, Ashish (Nehra) Bhaiya has supported me a lot. Our Video Analyst (of Haryana and RCB) Sandeep Raj Bhaiya was the one instrumental in my joining RCB.”
Dhoni played a special role in Chahal’s growth. “I got my India cap from Mahi Bhai. What helps me a great deal is that, by the time I come to bowl the ninth or the 10th over (in ODI), Mahi Bhai is ready with his reading of the pitch and the batsmen. He suggests where to pitch the ball for a particular batsman. As a result, I feel very comfortable that I know about the pitch even before bowling my first delivery.”
Captain Kohli has the final word. “I always back someone like Chahal. He never says no to bowling with the new ball or in the middle overs, so I mean, having a guy like this is great. He doesn’t say no to any situation.”