Every athlete goes through the proverbial circle of life. Their journey takes many turns – some for better and some worse. Twenty-seven years ago, on March 27, 1994, captain Mohammad Azharuddin's decision to open with Sachin Tendulkar in Auckland because regular opener Navjot Singh Sidhu had a stiff neck was one such turning point - not just for Tendulkar but for India's ODI history. At the other end of the spectrum, Sanath Jayasuriya's onslaught on Manoj Prabhakar in the 1996 World Cup ended the Delhi allrounder’s career.
Kuldeep’s Turning Point
In Kuldeep Yadav's career, one such hinge point was the 17th over of the match between Kolkata Knight Riders and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the 2019 edition of the IPL, in Kolkata. After conceding 20 runs in his first spell of two overs, Kuldeep gave away 39 more runs in his second spell. The 16th over of the innings, in which he pretty much bowled similar deliveries without any variation, went for 27 runs as Moeen Ali took to him, clobbering him for two fours and three sixes.
At the end of the over, a visibly distraught Kuldeep collected his cap from the umpire and threw it to the ground in utter disappointment. During the strategic time out that followed, the support staff rallied to assuage his distress; after the game, which KKR lost, he broke down in tears.
Those scars run deep – Kuldeep has never been the same bowler ever since, appearing to have lost all confidence in himself after being at the receiving end of the carnage.
In his formative years, Kuldeep wanted to become a left-arm seamer like Wasim Akram. His coach suggested that given his lack of inches, wrist spin might be a better option. A child prodigy, Kuldeep impressed by becoming the second-highest wicket-taker in the ICC Under-19 World Cup in 2014.
In his IPL debut year, he played just three games for KKR in 2016, but became a regular the following season. Kuldeep made his ODI debut in the middle of 2017 and a year later, he was the world’s second-highest wicket-taker in ODIs. Since his ODI debut, he has been the leading wicket-taker in a series/tournament for India the most number of times (7), against four apiece by Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami.
He formed a formidable combination with fellow wrist spinner Yuzvendra Chahal; the two dominated batsmen in the middle overs, their storied success giving rise to the acronym - KulCha. Of the 34 ODIs in which they bowled in tandem, India won 24.
Kuldeep’s dismissal of Babar Azam both in the 2018 Asia Cup, where he did the batsman with his stock delivery, and in the 2019 World Cup, where he breached Babar’s defence with a googly, linger in the memory. Cricket pundits described Babar's dismissal as the ball of the World Cup.
But since then, Kuldeep’s form has plummeted to such an extent that he is not the first-choice spinner for either the national side or for his franchise. Kuldeep has played just 14 matches in the last two seasons of the IPL, picking up five wickets at an average of 75.60 and an economy rate of 8.40. At just 26 years of age, Kuldeep is at a crossroads in his career.
What went wrong?
Kuldeep is one of the slowest wrist spinners in the contemporary game, bowling almost 10 kph slower than a Yasir Shah or Adam Zampa. This lack of speed through the air gives batsmen the extra time to adjust to length and line; even batsmen who can’t read him out of the hand enjoy the luxury of reading him off the pitch. But then, that is exactly how he bowled to become the third quickest to reach the 100-wicket milestone for India in ODIs – so that lack of pace alone cannot be held to be his weakness.
Currently, consistency in line and length is eluding Kuldeep, who in the ongoing ODI series against England has bowled 19 overs, going wicketless and giving away eight runs an over. At a time when India needs wicket-taking bowlers in the middle overs to peg back the rampant England batsmen, Kuldeep has been unable to exert any kind of pressure at all. In Pune, in the second ODI of the series, 48% of his deliveries were either too short or too full.
What causes such a dramatic implosion? It could be a combination of factors: the devastating feeling he struggled with on the back of the Moeen Ali blitz; his captains at the national and franchise levels obvious lack of faith in him are contributing factors.
Spending most of his time on the bench adds to the pressure on him to perform whenever he gets a rare opportunity. He has spent the last seven months moving from bubble to bubble, and in the process managed to play in just ten games.
What he clearly lacks is confidence in his own abilities; his siege mentality is only heightened by the feeling that the captain and team don’t have much faith in him anymore. If he is to recover and reach former heights, that is where the rehab process should begin: in a concerted effort by his team and management to shore up the confidence he currently lacks.
Right now, Kuldeep feels like a supernumerary; like all sportsmen, he needs to know that he is a valued member of his side, so he can gradually climb back to his peak.