India have won another white-ball series at home. The Men in Blue have not lost a home bilateral series since March, 2019. The domination is unreal. Like a team eyeing a bonus point alongside a win (in tournaments where the provision of a bonus point is available), the Indian team also looks for positives in a win. To such an extent that they are as important as the win. Especially in a World Cup year.
So what did India gain in the second ODI against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens on Thursday (January 12)? Well, they received a massive boost in an area they have largely flunked.
Believe it or not, between the end of the 2019 World Cup and 2022, India had been one of the worst spin-bowling units in ODI cricket. The Indian spinners had the second worst economy (5.5) among all Test playing nations, after England. At the same time, they also carried the third worst bowling average (29), after England and Zimbabwe. Neither able to pick wickets nor stop runs.
For India, these poor numbers mattered more than they did for England and Zimbabwe.
Two reasons: India are more reliant on their spinners. In addition, India had poor numbers in the first 10 overs. That made it 40 overs of below-par bowling returns. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to comprehend how dangerous this situation is in any form of cricket, let alone a 50-over contest.
At 99/1 in 16 overs, Sri Lanka posed the threat of exploiting the same in Kolkata. And that is when things changed for good, with the first introduction of spin in the 17th over. Sri Lanka slid to 133/6 in 25 overs with four wickets falling to spin (the other being a run out).
Nine overs, 34 runs, five wickets.
When was the last time you saw India pulling a game back with their spinners? This was a checkbox the Men in Blue were seeking to tick for a long time.
At the heart of this turnaround was the left-arm spin of Kuldeep Yadav who nabbed three wickets during this collapse.
Kuldeep’s career can be divided into three phases. He had a rollicking start between 2017 and 2018 before fading away for three years. But since 2022, he seems to have worked on the shortcomings that caused the period of lull.
Kuldeep was perceived as an easy bowler to line up due to the lack of pace. It is vital for spinners to flight the ball but it is also important to maintain a balance and not make it too easy for the batters. During an injury lay-off post the second half of IPL 2021, Kuldeep understood the flaw and worked on it upon gaining full fitness.
"After the injury (in the knee) layoff of four months, I realized that I need to bowl quicker and began working on it. After surgery, I have changed that rhythm, bowling with more effort and more control,” Kuldeep said after picking a hat-trick in a List-A game against New Zealand A in September 2022. The effort put in by the wrist-spinner is clearly visible in his average speeds per series. Although it is only one game in the ongoing series against Sri Lanka, he cranked his highest average bowling speed of 86.5 kph in Kolkata.
Highlighting the control part of Kuldeep’s aforementioned quote, he is bowling in line with the stumps. In fact, since 2022, he has maintained the stump-to-stump line more than he had done before.
It reflects in the proportion of bowled and lbw dismissals going in his favor. It is nearly 50% (7 out of his 15 ODI wickets since 2022 are now bowled and lbws). The previous best was 36.4% in 2018, his sophomore year at the highest level (16 out of 45 wickets were bowled/lbws).
Before this game, Kuldeep had delivered the most overs by an Indian spinner in this incumbent ODI World Cup cycle with abysmal spin numbers for India. In 197.1 overs, Kuldeep had 26 wickets at 43.7 runs apiece. A prime reason behind this uninspiring bowling average was his record against the top and middle-order batters. In 2019 and 2020, he bowled at an average of 50.8 against the top six batters of the opposition. In 2021, the number soared up to 116.5. In 2022, however, it came down to a manageable 34 runs per wicket. Against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens, all of his three wickets were of the top six batters.
Like Umran Malik, Kuldeep also has a high risk-reward factor attached to him. Even in this ODI, Kuldeep’s finished with figures of 10-0-51-3 after being 5-0-20-3 at one point. But the Indian team is hunting for a specialist spinner for the World Cup in home conditions. And the Kanpur-born, with the little but relevant tweaks in his bowling, is presenting a strong case to leapfrog Yuzvendra Chahal. The left-arm spinner also adds value with his batting.
The turnaround began with the knee injury. Sometimes, time away from the game is more helpful than forcing yourself in. "The injury was lucky for me. I could understand my body and on the comeback, began thinking about my rhythm,” admitted Kuldeep in the same interview post the hat-trick against New Zealand A. Whatever happens, happens for good, eh?
The question now is if Kuldeep can sustain this redemption for long enough and lead India’s spin attack with his rejigged version.