In his first-ever Test match in Australia, Kuldeep Yadav bamboozled the rivals as he went on to pick 5 for 99 in Sydney in 2019. After an indifferent outing at the Lord’s in his previous overseas game, the left-arm wrist-spinner, playing ahead of Ravichandran Ashwin, impressed as he tossed the ball up throughout the innings and got the rivals to play away from the body, while getting the cherry to dip and drift.
The entire first innings was defined by the batsmen not reading the wrong ‘uns and getting flummoxed as he perfectly set up dismissals with his tight lines.
A few days after the performance, head coach of the Indian team, Ravi Shastri stated that Kuldeep had earned the honours of being the first-choice spinner whenever India toured overseas courtesy his showing Down Under.
“I was very impressed with the way Kuldeep bowled in Sydney. Even in Test cricket, it is going to be the age of wrist spin, especially in overseas Test cricket. The way he bowled in Sydney, he becomes our number one spinner in overseas Test cricket,” Shastri asserted.
The superstitious ones might just say Kuldeep was jinxed as he is yet to feature in a Test match abroad since Shastri’s proclamation. Others might just call it extreme bad timing as by the time the side flew to New Zealand for their next encounter in the longest format, his decline was evident to all.
Within three months of his dream game in Sydney, Kuldeep conceded over 60 runs in the last three ODIs against Australia at home – a precursor for things to come. Five months after his five-wicket haul against the Australians, the sight of the player sobbing in an IPL game after being clobbered for 59 off his four overs, including being taken apart for 27 in six deliveries by Moeen Ali, did the rounds.
A few weeks since the game, Kuldeep returned home after an ordinary World Cup outing where he had picked only five wickets at a strike rate of 67 and a bowling average of 56.16. He had been smacked for 72 off his 10 overs against England at Birmingham, and never played for the Men in Blue in the tournament again.
A Fulfilling Few Years of International Cricket
Kuldeep, who moved from Mumbai Indians to Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL, first got his opportunity in 2016 under Gautam Gambhir. His strong revs, dip, top spin, variations and traditional leg-break deliveries along with his angles made him a threat to face and he got his big chance when he made his Team India debut against Australia in Dharamshala in 2017. Replacing an injured Virat Kohli in the fourth Test, Kuldeep picked up four wickets as he emerged as a player to watch out for.
He combined with Yuzvendra Chahal in white-ball cricket to seal many a memorable win for the Indian side. The presence of the Haryana spinner allowed Kuldeep to attack even more from one end, and the fact that his performances improved whenever Chahal played showed how the two fed off each other’s energies.
In 64 ODIs, Kuldeep picked up 105 wickets, 65 of which came with Chahal in the side. His career average of 27.90 fell to 22.73 with Chahal around, while the T20Is saw a marked difference as well. 22 of Kuldeep’s 39 wickets in the shortest format have been with the RCB bowler in the XI.
Aided wonderfully by MS Dhoni, whose signals behind the stumps complimented them immensely, the spin duo were the next big thing in Indian cricket.
With immense confidence, Kuldeep scripted his own fairytale as he bagged 45 wickets from 2018 in 19 ODI games till the 2019 World Cup – the second-highest by any bowler. He picked up two hattricks as well and become the fastest Indian to the 100-wicket milestone.
In T20 Internationals, his economy rate of just over 6 in the same interim was mind-boggling as he scalped 23 wickets in 19 games at a strike rate of just 10.
The Start of the Downfall
Since the World Cup in England, Kuldeep has played just three T20Is whilst giving away runs at 10.37 an over. He has been in and out (mostly out) of the ODI set-up as well, having played 12 games in the last two years with a bowling average of 58.41.
Once regarded as a must-pick spinner overseas, Kuldeep’s Test stats have dwindled, as he has played just one Test since 2019 – against England earlier this year – where he bowled just 12.2 overs with Ashwin and Axar Patel doing the bulk of the work.
His career graph, clearly in two halves, is another proof of how modern mystery spinners are unable to taste prolonged success. With high-end TV cameras that are able to display footages in slo-mo, the batsmen can easily figure out how to tackle the likes of Kuldeep.
The bowler has drastically reduced his speed as well, which has allowed the batter to stay back in his crease and play for the turn.
Against England earlier this year, Axar Patel bowled at 90 kmph on an average, Ashwin was varying his pace but kept it to 85 kmph while Kuldeep was sending down delivering at 80 kmph, which prompted Rishabh Pant to almost plead, “thoda sa tez daal bhai (Please bowl quicker, brother).”
What also stands out for a wrist spinner, is their brand of playing attacking cricket where the players are not afraid to leak runs for wickets in return. However, as batters focused on playing out Kuldeep in the middle overs, which meant low returns, the bowler’s confidence took a huge hit, which unfortunately continues to pummel with limited chances that are being offered to him.
He was the only player in the Indian squad who did not feature in any game throughout the series of Australia recently. Picked as the third spinner behind Jadeja and Ashwin, Kuldeep saw from the sidelines as Washington Sundar first and then Axar and Shahbaz Ahmed against England piped him in the pecking order.
He did not feature in a single game for KKR in the IPL this season, as Varun Chakravarthy was the first-choice spinner. Harbhajan Singh, who last played an IPL game in 2019, started ahead of Kuldeep in the opener, which would have dented his already all-time low confidence.
The player, who had profusely praised his former KKR skipper Gautam Gambhir on the latter’s birthday in 2020, might feel undone by the lack of faith that his skippers Kohli, Dinesh Karthik and Eoin Morgan (the last two for KKR) have shown in him.
The conservatism in picking the player has been evident, with Morgan defending his move to select Chakravarthy instead by saying, “I think given the circumstances which dictate where the spinners turn the ball, potentially in the day game, the evidence showed that the ball didn’t turn a great deal, hence no opportunity for KD (Kuldeep).”
It is interesting to note that it is Chakravarthy, not Kuldeep, who relies more on turn while Kuldeep looks to give the ball air. It is, however, not to say that more chances for Kuldeep would have guaranteed success for the player. It could have only increased his morale, which could have led to greater success.
As Ajinkya Rahane ended the historical series win against Australia with the words, “Kuldeep, I know it was tough for you. You did not play a game here, but your attitude was really good. Your time will come; just keep working hard,” the bowler’s mind would have raced back to two years ago, when, in the same country, in a similar situation, he had been showered with effusive praise for his efforts by Shastri.
His career had looked up then; his career is at crossroads now with uncertainty over the next domestic season, and it remains to be seen if he can escape this abyss to achieve greats peaks once again.
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