“If you are a legspinner, you tend to bowl a lot of loose balls, but if you become consistent, you can succeed."
In Kuldeep Yadav’s own words, wrist spinners are of high variance. Consistency doesn’t come too naturally, it has to be attained over years and years of training and practice.
Even then, it wasn’t something that came so easily to Kuldeep when seemingly his career was breaking from all corners.
The year was 2020, and the time was just after the ODI World Cup. Kuldeep became the scapegoat of India’s lacklustre show with the ball, and Yuzvendra Chahal sealed his place as India’s primary spinner.
His Indian Premier League franchise, Kolkata Knight Riders, didn't want a piece of him either. KKR’s skipper, Eoin Morgan, was clear in his plans of operating with Shakib Al Hasan, Varun Chakravarthy and Sunil Narine as his spin trio during their resurgent run to the final in the Middle East.
"I don't know how Eoin Morgan sees me. In such cases, the communication gap increases. When it's an Indian (captain), you can literally walk up to them and ask why you are not playing,” Kuldeep said.
Maybe Kuldeep would have helped his cause if his bowling numbers were any better. It is well-known that Kuldeep’s game in the aftermath of the 2019 ODI World Cup defeat was on the decline.
The things that fetched him wickets were letting him down, and the lack of pace in his bowling resembled his confidence level.
In ODIs since the 2019 World Cup and the end of 2021, Kuldeep’s bowling was a tough take on his career. Someone once heralded by the late Shane Warne as India’s best spinner in overseas conditions now had a nosediving career.
In 14 innings, he had picked up 14 wickets, and the worst part was his average: 57.4 and an economy rate of 6.2.
None, including Lakshan Sandakan, had that high an economy rate that Kuldeep had. Nothing in Indian cricket is without the consequence of a domino effect. If one thing happens, another thing will follow, and so will the third.
In this case, Kuldeep’s struggle resulted in India having a terrible middle-over patch, resulting in the Indian bowling unit struggling. As a bowling unit, in the presence of Kuldeep, the Men in Blue averaged 42.25 with the ball in the 50-over format, where both their powerplay numbers and the middle-over numbers cost them games.
Something had to give in. Kuldeep’s place in the Indian setup gave in. In the span of two complete years, Kuldeep went from being an integral part of the Indian setup to not even being part of KKR’s playing XI.
Not many envisaged a spiral downfall, but several followed it quite closely. Add injuries to it. It is the perfect cocktail of all the bad things that could happen to a bowler.
Fast forward to 12 September, 2023.
23 days were left to go for the 2023 ODI World Cup in India. The conditions in India are never a mystery; it is a paradise for the spinners, so the focus naturally will always be on them.
43 wickets, an average of 18.9, an economy of 4.7. Absolute monster numbers, right? It should be Adam Zampa.
Oh, it isn’t? Oh hi, Wanindu Hasaranga. Not him, too? Wait, got it, Maheesh Theekshana, the mystery spinner for Sri Lanka.
Not even him. Maybe England’s Adil Rashid. Okay, stop this guessing game, who is it?
At the beginning of his ODI resurgence in 2022, it felt like a flash in the pan. At that time, Kuldeep was always known for his performance, but consistency was never his cup of tea.
India experienced it first-hand in the 2019 World Cup, so trusting him was kindaaaa, tough??
Especially after his peak in 2017-19, he was a criminal in the 2019 World Cup. Or in the two years that succeded. Narratives in Indian cricket work in a rather mysterious way.
Sometimes, some players are heralded as the ultimate champion despite performances saying otherwise, and others get dropped for the same.
What Kuldeep has done over the last two years is nothing short of incredible. Incredible in multiple categories, a) he’s India’s second-highest wicket-taker, b) he’s almost on par with the world-class Adam Zampa, and c) he provides India with a cutting edge.
Now, more about that cutting edge. Why is Kuldeep’s resurgence a topic of national interest and importance?
Simply put, there aren’t many spinners in the world like Kuldeep. There is Shamsi and Noor Ahmed. While Shamsi is world-class and simultaneously high variance, Noor isn’t even part of Afghanistan’s ODI scheme of things for the upcoming World Cup. Kuldeep is both effective and efficient.
Consistency is the word that has stung Kuldeep plenty of times in the past, but the 2022 onward version of the spinner wants not just to attach that as a synonym to his name but to make it a habit that both go hand-in-hand when uttered - Consistent Kuldeep.
The room for error is so small, and when it is that small, it has yet again a domino effect on the rest of the team. Kuldeep’s improved display had an uplifting effect on the entire bowling unit.
In the presence of Kuldeep, the Indian bowling unit has picked up 187 wickets, averaging 21.89, and only one player has picked up a five-wicket haul, and that’s Kuldeep Yadav. It is easy to push aside the opposition or attach a ‘home advantage’ next to every Kuldeep record, but the reality stands far from that.
Since the start of the year, no Indian bowler has picked as many wickets as Kuldeep (31). That’s just one part of the package. Over the last two years, in wins, only Siraj (40 wickets) has contributed more to any top-ten side’s victory in ODI cricket than Kuldeep’s (38 wickets).
Apart from just numbers, hear me out. India, for the longest time, were struggling in the powerplay. From thereon, it was catch-up cricket that they were playing more often than not. There wasn’t a simple workaround for that, except there was Kuldeep in prime form.
Kuldeep’s form solved multiple problems for India. Let me start layering them in front of you. Given that India have the cushion of Kuldeep in the middle-overs, they can afford to bowl more of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj in the powerplay.
That’s a beginner.
Knowing that Siraj and Bumrah will give India an early breakthrough most times, India can afford to slip in a couple of overs from Hardik Pandya. Considering that Shardul Thakur has been one of India’s backbone for picking up wickets in the middle-overs, bowling Hardik will delay the entry point for Shardul.
Given that Ravindra Jadeja will build pressure from one end with tight spells, the duo of Shardul and Kuldeep could gravely benefit from the pressure. And finally, Kuldeep’s numbers in the middle-overs (41 wickets), being the best in world cricket amongst the top ten teams, gives India a solution to one of their biggest problems in the bowling department.
For two games in a row, Kuldeep has shown that he’s essentially the backbone of this Indian outfit. In the game against Pakistan, he came in to bowl at the best possible time, and with figures of 5/25, he couldn’t have timed his spell better, especially with the upcoming Cricket World Cup.
“For the past year or so, he’s (Kuldeep) bowling really really well. He has done a lot of hard work on his rhythm. He went back to the drawing board and worked on it. The ball is coming out nicely and you can see the results in the last 10 ODIs,” said Rohit Sharma after India’s win over Sri Lanka.
The pitch was perhaps best suited for spinners in the clash against Sri Lanka. But there was an asterisk attached to it. KL Rahul’s intelligence as a wicketkeeper is perhaps undervalued in Indian cricket. Just before Kuldeep’s fourth over, Rahul approached him to chat with him.
While we weren’t too privy to the conversation, the right-hander walked right into the trap three deliveries later. Immediately, Kuldeep ran towards Rahul and kept pointing and high-fived the wicketkeeper. Kuldeep’s spell almost broke the back of the Sri Lankan batting unit.
And hence, it is no surprise that India are the second-best bowling team in ODI cricket.
All that India needed to solve a host of problems was one solution: a rampant Kuldeep Yadav.