One spin too many?

You do not have to strain your ears to hear the continuing buzz on 23-year-old Piyush Chawla and his selection in the Indian team for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011. After he spent more than two years in the sidelines when others like Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha travelled with India’s Test and one-day international teams, the 23-year-old who answers to the call of Paras after the fabled stone that is reputed to turn all metal it touches to gold was picked ostensibly because captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni sought to have variety in the bowling attack.

And while there is still some time for the first ball to be bowled in the World Cup, Chawla’s showing in the final game he got to play in South Africa last week was anything but magical and did not do his cause any good. If anything it only added to the growing discussion about the Uttar Pradesh leg-spinner’s inclusion in the squad for the tournament that will hook all of India to ‘cricketitis’.

Coming on the heels of some frenetic bidding for him in the IPL auction when he was retained by Kings XI Punjab for $900,000 – the same as a certain Adam Gilchrist and a good $100,000 more than Praveen Kumar and Abhishek Nayar – Chawla’s selection to the World Cup squad has sparked a variety of emotions ranging from applause for the selectors to consternation. All of these will combine to place some extra pressure on his young shoulders when he gets to the bowling crease in any of the World Cup games.

He may find it heartening that former India captains like Ajit Wadekar and Dilip Vengsarkar have welcomed his selection as one that will give the captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni an additional bowling option. Yet, there are others who are hedging and some like Bishan Singh Bedi who wonder what really the selectors were thinking and call Chawla’s selection in the World Cup squad baffling.

“I am amazed that they preferred the leg-spinner who now bowls with a chest on action ahead of Pragyan Ojha, whose left-arm spin would have been really handy,” Bedi says. “I remember watching Piyush along with Erapalli (Prasanna) at the National Cricket Academy a few years ago and thinking that his was a lad with immense potential. But somewhere he seems to have lost the edge that a match winning leg-spinner should have.

The left-arm spinning great is from that school of thought which believes that it would have helped to pick an extra batsman like Rohit Sharma or even a Manish Pandey in the squad. “That would give the team management some insurance against batting failures or loss of form of some in the middle-order,” he says. “And with Yuvraj Singh bowling really well and looking good to bowl eight to 10 overs himself and with others like Yusuf Pathan, Suresh Raina, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, I wonder if India will ever play two specialist spinners in a match. The team may end up having both R Ashwin and Piyush Chawla in the reserves, even if Ashwin deserves to be looked at a first choice for the off-spinner’s place.

“If indeed, Dhoni and the others in the team management believed that Chawla can make a significant contribution, they should have played him in each of the matches in South Africa so that he could have got some match practice rather than in just the final game,” Bedi says, pointing out that the leg-spinner did not come close to making his presence felt in that game in Centurion where he was picked ahead of left-arm seamer Ashish Nehra.

Of course, Chairman of Selectors K Srikkanth suggested that his panel factored in expectations that the pitches could be dry and spinner-friendly, the opposition and Chawla being the most experienced spinner of the contenders. And, expectedly, India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was quick to rush to Chawla’s defence. “It is good to have Piyush in the side as he provides that variety to the attack. He is one guy who can bat a bit. He has scored decent runs in Ranji and also while playing in county circuit. If we plan to play with five bowlers, then he can be a handy number seven or eight batsman,” Dhoni said.

Chawla has come across as mentally strong as he continued to work on his craft while the selectors kept playing musical chairs with the likes of left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, leg-spinner Amit Mishra and Ashwin in the past couple of years.  To be fair, Chawla averaged 36.20 runs when scoring 1086 runs in 23 first class games in India and England in the past two seasons. In this time he has also claimed 97 first class wickets.

But the most question is what has Chawla done in the shorter versions of the game to emerge as one of India’s most valuable fringe players? In the two and a half years between his last two one-day international matches, the young man from Aligarh has taken two wickets in three T20 games for India, including two in the ICC World Twenty20 in the West Indies last year. Overall, he has 37 wickets in T20 games and 17 wickets in the 50-over format. Nothing much to write home about, his critics will point out.

More than anything else, critics of Chawla’s selection point out that Dhoni’s statement in Cape Town is a clear indication that the leg-spinner would come into the fray only if India thinks of playing five specialist bowlers. And it will take some effort to recall when last the team played with a full complement of bowlers – a top of the mind recall suggests that it was against Australia in the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa in 2009.

So what other reason can explain Chawla’s presence in the squad? His being in the squad enhances Dhoni’s luck, suggests one former India player. “You see the captain believes Chawla helped by being part of the squad that won the ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007 and played the two victorious finals against Australia in the Commonwealth Bank Series in Sydney and Brisbane in March 2008,” he says.

Chawla’s selection may have baffled not a few but his real challenge will come when he is picked to play a World Cup game and is given the task of baffling batsmen with his brand of leg-spin. Indeed, the ball is really in the 23-year-old’s court. After all, in his Aligarh home, he is called Paras. Perhaps he can bring some magic to the table and ensure that the team makes the dreams of a billion plus come true on April 2.

This piece was first published in India Today (issue dated February 7,  2011)