A dozen playing days in this India-Australia series have packed more fairytales into them than Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm managed in their combined lifetime — and the latest in a memorable series of stories came on Saturday, in the unlikely shape of debutant left-arm chinaman/googly bowler Kuldeep Yadav.
Everything about his story flirted with the boundaries of probability, beginning with the fact of his playing. Who would have predicted that with captain and number four batsman Virat Kohli pulling out, the team management would chose as replacement a bowler, that too a left-arm spinner in a side that already boasts the ICC’s two top-ranked bowlers?
That he made the side was surprising enough; that he would then produce a series of impossibly brilliant deliveries to slice through the Australian batting lineup after the visitors had taken total control of the game in a first session that produced 131 runs for one wicket in 31 overs stretched credulity to the limit and beyond.
Having bowled his first over just before lunch, Kuldeep resumed after the break and off the first ball of the second over after the break, began producing magic. He floated one down the channel at the left-handed David Warner, pushing the batsman back with flight and loop and prodigious bounce off the deck, the turn finding the thick edge for India’s 33rd captain, Ajinkya Rahane, to hold well at slip.
Umesh Yadav at the other end had choked Australia’s Ranchi hero Shaun Marsh with a bouncer down the line of middle to find the glove; Kuldeep then produced possibly the ball of the match — a lovely floater across Peter Handscomb, teasing the batsman with looping flight, landing in what looked like a right-hand batsman’s driving zone, turning and beating the drive to go through the gap and hit the top of off. Glenn Maxwell was his next victim, falling to the perfect wrong ‘un delivered off the back of the hand, deceiving the batsman with the variation, squaring him up and flicking the pad en route to the middle stump.
Australia was 143/1 when Kuldeep sorted out his lines and lengths and got down to work; before you could blink, the visitors were 178/5 and reeling in the face of relentless bowling by a young man who, in his first international, bowled with the panache and control of a veteran. Surprisingly for a left arm bowler who flights a lot, his length was relentless on the spot, the variations almost too numerous to keep track of: there was the chinaman, the googly, both again having variations when he used the straight and scrambled seams alternately; there was the odd flipper shooting through on a straighter line… it was a masterclass and, here is where the fairytale gets some needless gilding, it was delivered by a reluctant spinner.
A Times of India profile from some time back, by Gaurav Gupta, talks of how he was more interested in studies than in cricket, despite his father’s persuasions. The sight of Wasim Akram bowling in the 2003 World Cup fired his imagination, however, and he decided to become a left arm quick — only for his first coach to ask him to try spin.
As the story goes, the very first ball he bowled slow was a chinaman, and he had no idea what he had done, no clue what a chinaman was even when his coach named the ball, and wasn’t particularly happy with whatever the hell it was. But he kept bowling those, and at some point, the profile quotes him as saying, it became an obsession. Junoon.
He was picked by Mumbai Indians as a 16-year-old, and then he ended up at Kolkata Knight Riders, where the bowling coach was Akram, the man who inspired him to take to the game. Between the talismanic Pakistani quick and Kuldeep’s declared idol Shane Warne, he began working on his bowling, developing the craft and perfecting his skills. And — some fairytales just go on and on — he ended up taking the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar, another of his idols. “I didn’t sleep that night,” he says in a video interview.
He will sleep well tonight, knowing that he was singularly responsible for his team wrenching control of a game that appeared, in the morning session, to have gone completely out of hand.
India could have had a dream start with Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, in the side for Ishant Sharma, finding Warner’s outer edge only to watch in dismay as Karun Nair at third slip tanked what should have been a regulation catch. Warner shook off his nerves, and with Steve Smith in sublime, attacking touch after the early loss of Matt Renshaw, Australia ran away with the session.
The Warner of uncertain footwork and unstable mind slowly gave place to a more settled player, who as he spent time at the crease, began gaining the confidence to play to his strengths square on the off. He was 54 not out off 79 balls at lunch, with eight fours and a lovely straight six off Ravichandran Ashwin when the bowler’s excess flight landed one in the left-handed opener’s hitting arc. But his story is best told not in how many runs he scored in that first session, but in where he scored them — 24 of his 54 came in the point-cover arc, showcasing his chief strength, and a further 16 came to third man, showcasing the extra-thick edge of his bat, sometimes deliberate, most often inadvertent.
Smith, meanwhile, seemed in a mood to continue his assault on Donald Bradman’s totemic average. Throughout this series he has showcased the concentration of a monk and the discipline of a Marine; here, he changed up the gears, batting with a fluidity that was as visually appealing as it was ruthlessly effective.
He signaled intent as early as the eighth over, when he greeted Umesh with a flowing drive through point and followed it up with a shot he would never have dreamed of playing during his various rearguard acts earlier in the series — standing tall, hitting on the up off the line of his off with an almost casual contempt, over the head of the cover fielder.
Smith’s various knocks have been characterized by his deft use of the crease, his ability to use its depth to alter the lengths of the bowlers. Even by his standards, though, his batting in the first session was a masterclass in footwork. And again, it is not the runs he scored — 72 in the first session at a strike rate of 71.2 and studded with 10 fours — but where he scored them that tell the story of a knock of majestic authority: 28 of those runs came through the covers and 21 in the arc between square leg and midwicket, testimony to his ability to drive off either foot, on either side of the wicket, with immaculate control.
Against the twin assault, India’s game went to pieces. The ground fielding was appallingly inept, the catching ordinary, the bowlers with the exception of Bhuvaneshwar very flat, pedestrian.
And then Kuldeep began to script a dream. He bowled with control and penetration; his performance had the Indians, so flat earlier, buzzing around; after each over, he trotted to his fielding position on the boundary and had coach Anil Kumble and captain Kohli fetching him drinks, talking to him, keeping him ‘up’ and focused — it was brilliant to watch.
It is not the wickets — though they were key to the Indian fightback — so much as the way Kuldeep, almost single-handedly, shackled Smith, turning him from the free-stroking player of the morning session to a grimly defensive version after lunch. Again, consider numbers: 72 off 101 balls before lunch with 10 fours, 39 runs off 101 balls after lunch with four fours. It was Kuldeep who troubled him the most, and Ashwin who took him out — the off-spinner barring a few deliveries wasn’t getting any turn off the pitch. Those few deliveries that did turn, however, were what fetched him the wicket.
In the 60th over, Mathew Wade — by then realizing that Ashwin was getting no turn — decided to try and play him as a slow seam bowler, went back, pulled, and was beaten for turn. Ashwin then tossed one right up, the ball turned dramatically past the edge, hit the finger tips of a startled Wriddhiman Saha with bounce, and nearly took Rahane’s face off at slip before he managed to get a hand up and fend it away.
The resulting bye brought Smith on strike; Ashwin bowled one straight and on line just outside off, Smith played inside the line looking for that huge turn, and edged to Rahane taking a very sharp chance to his left.
That magical second session, which produced five wickets for just 77 runs off 29 overs, turned the game on its axis. “We need three or four wickets,” Rahane said at the toss, pointing out that India had lost the toss and were going one batsman short into the game. His side got him 10 — and he deserves a lot of personal credit for very proactive captaincy.
In the second session, with the ball quite hard and the debutant spinner getting bounce and turn, Rahane was content to give the youngster a very long spell and block up the other end by rotating Umesh, Ashwin and Jadeja; in the third session, with a ball gone soft after 70 plus overs and not gripping and turning as much, he began rotating his bowlers more rapidly, not letting batsmen settle against any one type, and using proactive, sometimes unusual, field settings to push each batsman out of his comfort zone.
Five bowlers are almost always seen as a bit of a luxury, but here every single bowler played a role: Umesh getting Renshaw early and then returning to take out Marsh; Ashwin getting the Australian captain after Smith had scored his 20th Test century (his 100 came in a team total, at the time, of just 185), the seventh against India; Jadeja producing one of his magical deliveries to defeat a Wade sweep and hit top of off with bounce and turn off better than good length, and Bhuvneshwar nicely rounding things off, taking the new ball, setting Nathan Lyon up with a series of outswingers, then producing the inswinger to have Lyon driving uppishly to midwicket, where Cheteshwar Pujara dived and held.
It was yet another day of captivating Test cricket — brilliant batting, superb bowling, control swinging from one side to the other, a great rearguard innings by Wade… pretty much everything you want out of a contest between these two sides.
But the image that lingers, and will remain for long, is of a debutant in his early twenties, boyishly clean-shaven in a team that has made facial hair a collective signature.
With the cloud-capped peaks of the Himalayas framing him in the background, he is poised at the top of his bowling run, calmly arranging his field, often overruling his captain, waving his seniors around to just where he wants them, confident in his accidentally acquired craft and sure of his outcomes. He gets everything the way he wants it, ambles in, rolls his arm over and now out of the front of the hand and now out of the back, magic floats in the air.