“Only one thing was going in my mind: this is the kind of innings you dream of, when you start playing cricket and start batting. One day I’ll bat for India – bat at 7,8 maybe 9 – and finish the match. No better way to win the match for the country.”
The most remarkable thing about Chahar’s innings was not the quantum of his score. It was not that he went from 2 off 18, to 23 off 45, to his eventual score of 69* off 82. It was not even that he willed a batting dream into reality. It was how he dealt with the 48th over of the chase, when Wanindu Hasaranga was brought back. Chahar faced the last four balls of the over, with 15 required from 16 balls, and didn’t try to score off any of them. With the match in its final stages, the kind of batter who can play out a threatening bowler when practically a run a ball is needed is not often found at No.8. Those kinds of batters usually sit in the top half, secure in their skill and their belief that they can pull off victory against other bowlers, even with a steeper equation.
“His presence of mind, his calculation… even the last four overs they knew they don’t want to go against the legspinner,” captain Shikhar Dhawan would say after the match, admiringly.
Chahar came in at 160 for 6 and saw it become 193 for 7, but his composure was that of a top-order batter. When in partnership with Krunal Pandya, he played himself in. He let the more pedigreed batter do more of the scoring. In his match-winning stand with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Chahar seamlessly switched to being the senior partner. At the start, he continued to knock the ball around. The scorching pace set by India’s top order meant that Chahar had enough time, without needing to worry about big hits. By the time boundaries became necessary, he was as “in” as he was going to be. With 56 needed in eight overs, he took calculated risks, starting by thumping Lakshan Sandakan over long-off.
“When it (the target) came under 50, I thought we could win,” Chahar said of his approach. “I took a risk in between, got two-three boundaries. After the six, I thought I’m batting well.”
The only comparable innings Chahar has played on a similar stage was his 20-ball 39 for the Chennai Super Kings against Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2018, when MS Dhoni promoted him to No.6.
For most people, that IPL innings was the first glimmer of Chahar’s batting ability. Not for the former India batter Hrishikesh Kanitkar. who tweeted this:
— HRISHIKESH KANITKAR (@hrishikanitkar) May 20, 2018
Kanitkar had observed Chahar more closely than most. It was under Kanitkar’s captaincy that Chahar made his first-class debut for Rajasthan. It began with a record haul of 8 for 10, but while the results waned after that, Kanitkar’s belief and backing didn’t.
“I don’t have any political background or powerful backer, so maybe that’s where they thought I could be pushed around,” Chahar told ESPNcricinfo in 2019, when recalling his early years in senior cricket. “Generally people have backers. One person who backed me always was Hrishikesh Kantikar. He had come from outside (as a professional) so he was only concerned with your performances as players. It didn’t matter to him who has come from where. Till he was captain, he backed me fully. Now also he’s always supportive. Even when I had a bad phase in the middle, he was one person who believed I could play for India.”
What Kanitkar knew then was in evidence on Tuesday. Chahar didn’t just clinch a series-winning lead for India in the ODIs, he made a massive push for a spot in India’s regular starting XI. The India team playing Sri Lanka is not at full strength, but even when it is, it could do handily with a No.8 who can reel off an under-pressure half-century to turn a seemingly lost cause into victory. Players who can get into the side on their seam bowling and contribute runs are among the few areas India don’t have a whole lot of options to choose from.
Chahar’s primary skill remains his bowling, and he didn’t do too badly at that either. There was some amount of waywardness but there was also some bad luck in the form of a dropped catch, and a sixer that could have been a catch had Bhuvneshwar been standing at the rope at fine leg instead of ten yards inside the boundary. There was also precious little for a bowler like Chahar to work with: no swing or seam on offer, and sapping heat that made fast bowling more onerous. And still, there were two skilful knuckle balls that delivered wickets at important moments for his team.
“He has good capability, like he showed today. If he continues that, of course, India will have another allrounder,” Bhuvneshwar said at the press conference after the game. “It’s too early to say, but the ability he has… and the way he practices too. He keeps different situations in his mind when practicing, and thinks what he can do, what should be done.”
In his brief international career and a longer stint in the IPL, Chahar has grown from a powerplay specialist to a versatile bowler who can operate in every phase. Until now, he was one of several fast bowlers jostling for a place in India’s full-strength attack. His bowling had kept him in contention. Now, with his batting, he has shoulder-barged his way closer to the front of the queue. If he can stay there, India could finally have a solution to their vexing issue of white-ball batting depth.