It was 9.30 PM on a Monday night, I had just finished a marathon interview with domestic veteran Pankaj Singh at the Taj Lands End hotel in Bandra, a poular suburb in western Mumbai. There was one more in the pipeline - Kuldeep Yadav. Both Pankaj and Kuldeep were playing for Rest of India in the Irani Trophy and had stayed put at the same hotel. I pondered whether to call up Kuldeep this late with the final day of the Irani Trophy to be played the next day. I took a chance, fortunately he answered the call and true to his promise, readily agreed to do the interview. As I entered the room, he greeted my colleague and me with his trademark swag.
Kuldeep belongs to a rare breed of spinners — the Chinaman, and with his unorthodox style, there always comes real excitement. The UP boy knew his selection was round the corner and his hard work has finally paid off. He has been given a maiden call-up for the Test side against Bangladesh, on the back of a successful domestic season, after leg spinner Amit Mishra was ruled out due to injury.
At the Taj Lands End hotel, Kuldeep didn't take time to get into the groove. There was an air of confidence as he spoke to Firstpost about his career and Chinaman bowling in his typical flamboyant style.
You started your cricket career as a fast bowler and later on went on to become a Chinaman bowler. Talk us through your transition.
Actually for me, it was very difficult when I started my cricketing career. I wasn't interested in cricket initially. Instead, I started for fitness. In 2003, I was a huge fan of Wasim bhai (Wasim Akram). So obviously, I loved fast bowling as I was a left-arm fast bowler. When I stepped on the field at an academy, I only practiced fast bowling for about four-five months. Then one day, my coach called me and said that from today, you won't continue fast bowling. I don't know why he felt that. Then he told me to bowl spin. The first ball I bowled was Chinaman. I wasn't even aware what a Chinaman is. I just held the ball and bowled and it turned out to be a Chinaman. Luckily, it was natural for me. The coach thought it was something special and if we work on this, we would achieve some good results in the future.
How much time did it take for you to perfect the Chinaman?
To be very honest, it took me a while because it required a lot of regular practice. When I was in the seventh standard, I sparsely attended school because I practiced in the mornings. From 6 AM to 10 AM I just bowled to the batsmen, then single wickets, drills etc. Then again I used to come back by 2 PM and continue that same routine during the nets. In that period, slowly it interested me. My sir showed me various ways of bowling, how it should be, how I should touch the feet, how the alignment should be. I was passionate about learning, thinking that if I follow this, improvements can be seen. From there, the whole process started.
How much did Shane Warne influence you?
Obviously, since childhood I’ve been watching videos of Shane Warne. I used to follow him only as a Chinaman bowler. He bowls leg spin from his right-hand and I bowl from my left. So, that is the only difference. Rest, the releasing point, alignments, pivot etc I learnt by watching him. Watching him bowl inspired me. I used to watch a lot of his videos on how he turns the ball. The best thing about him is that he managed to pick wickets on Australian and English wickets, where the ball doesn’t turn much but he did it with his drift and turn and that is a big thing for spinners.
What are the advantages of being a Chinaman bowler?
I think there is nothing like an advantage as nowadays we watch a lot of videos, there are a lot of facilities (with advanced technology). But obviously, we don't see a Chinaman bowler in every team so it's a plus point because it is difficult for the batsmen to pick whether it's a wrong'un, a flipper or a leg spin. So, that is the advantage but it is just for some time as once it's revealed, there is not much advantage left for the bowlers.
When do you decide to bowl the 'wrong'un'?
The wrong’un depends on how the batsman is playing. Some of them are technically adept and play extremely well, attack well and will pick your wrong'un very early. So, I rarely bowl that delivery to them. But I always use the it against a new batsman. I shouldn't be revealing this (cheeky smile) but it is said that when a new batsman comes to the crease, any bowler would like to dismiss him as early as possible. Also, it depends on the format. If you are playing in T20s, then it is effective. If you are playing the longer format, you first set up the batsman, don't reveal much and then you bowl the wrong'un, which makes it easier for the bowler to trap the batsman.
What is the most difficult part of Chinaman bowling?
If you are doing all the hard work, I don't think you find anything difficult. If you start with it initially, you might face an issue with the landing. For a leg-spinner or a Chinaman bowler, it is not easy to bowl consistently on a particular spot. There are some batsmen who don't understand anything and go for the attack as an option to get away. So, to bowl at the right spot at that time with variations becomes difficult. Sometimes, you get a very good wicket for batting. It is difficult at the time to contain runs and take wickets. So, there are just the normal things which are problematic but if you work hard on your bowling, practice regularly, then I don't think it is that difficult.
What are the challenges that a Chinaman bowler faces while bowling on Indian wickets?
In India, sometimes we get good turners but nowadays in domestic cricket, we hardly find them. Since the time I started playing, I don't think I have bowled on any turning wicket. I prefer wickets with grass because it is very helpful — the ball skids and goes through the wickets. I find it better to bowl on those wickets rather than bowling on full or square turners, because it makes the bowl travel slow towards the batsman, making it easier for him to pick. So, I believe that a grassy wicket would be more effective for me.
What do you do when the pitch doesn’t assist you?
Actually, sometimes it happens that bowlers don’t get supporting wickets, so it’s best to contain runs, which I find it difficult to do. I have tried it sometimes. If you want to try and contain, you must take wickets. If you take wickets, runs will automatically be contained. So, whenever I get a batting wicket, I focus on bowling good length balls and don’t provide room to the batsman. If he hits a good shot, it does not matter that your ball was good. That has been my plan — to bowl in a particular section of the pitch, stop runs from both sides, keep the batsmen under pressure which will give you the upper hand and chances of getting them out.
What goes on in your head when the batsman is continuously attacking?
Obviously, when a batsman attacks, you think that there's a chance of him getting out. It's like a 50-50 game, we can get hit or we can dismiss him. So, I always bowl thinking that the batsman should hit where I want him to. Then I push the position of my fielders further behind, knowing that if I bowl a bit into the batsman, the ball will travel towards mid-wicket or if I bowl a googly, it will run towards the cover. So according to that, I set up the field position. If the batsman hits even after that then it's a great shot but if he is trapped then surely it's a wicket.
How many times do you vary your pace in an over?
It depends on the who the batsman is. If it's a T20, then of course, it is important to vary the pace while bowling. You know that you can't bowl the same way every single time as you will concede a lot of runs. If you are playing in 'days' cricket then you should bowl slow, give it flight, and deceive the batsman. So, it depends on what format I bowl. Let's say if I am playing in ODI, then it is a must to vary the pace and so is the case with T20s. In 'days' cricket I normally provide more flight because I like it. I sometimes do that while playing T20s and ODIs too.
What has been the turning point in your career so far?
Turning point... Obviously when I was playing U-19, it was my first year for the state, I took seven wickets and scored 80-odd runs at the Wankhede Stadium, at that time the Mumbai Indians squad had come there to watch and they selected me (after watching that performance). I was with them for two years, it was a very good experience for me. I was U-16 that time. I felt really good after meeting the senior players and got to learn a lot. Then in the same year, I played for India U-19. So getting that exposure in that U-16 age was a big thing for me. In 2014, I played in World Cup for India U-19 and performed well. Then I played for KKR and also met Wasim bhai. It was like a dream that I was meeting Wasim bhai, talking to him and sharing my experiences. It felt good and helped me improve a lot.
What inputs from Anil Kumble proved to be helpful?
Anil sir told me that my right hand comes into use a bit less. If you use it more, you will extract more turn and bounce and that was very effective for me when I tried. I am trying to improve that slowly and hopefully it will be a good thing for me.
You also impressed Sachin Tendulkar in the nets?
It was my first day, I had flown back from Australia after playing U-19s. The Mumbai Indians manager called me up in the morning and said Sachin Paaji will bat in the nets at around 1 PM, you have to come to bowl. I went blank, I have to bowl to Sachin Tendulkar! At that time I just kept thinking how do I bowl, what do I plan. Then I went to the nets, bowled to him and got him out too. That was the best moment for me at that time. I was really happy. Then I spoke to (Sachin) sir, he asked me about the U-19 series and what's happening there. I told him it didn't go well for me, I just scalped three wickets from two matches, it wasn't my best. He replied saying don't worry, you are bowling well, just work on it. He asked me to talk to the other players, there is Bhajju pa, he told me to talk to him and learn from him. He spoke with me for 10-15 minutes, at that time I was silent and wasn't able to speak anything. So it was a big thing for me that I met him and spoke to him.
Which delivery did you bowl? A wrong'un or a Chinaman?
No, I bowled him a normal Chinaman ball, he got an inside edge onto his stumps. He was very impressed that someone was bowling Chinaman, he had played only Brad Hogg before this.
What was the biggest thing you learnt from Hogg while in KKR?
The biggest thing for me was the way a 45-year-old Brad Hogg remains involved in the game and that is the one thing I’ve been thinking of. To be as involved as him. I have also learnt a lot in the bowling department. How to read the batsman, how to plan for the next one and how to bowl if the batsman is looking to attack. There is a difference between our style of bowling. He bowls a bit faster than what I do. He knows it and I know it. We worked a lot on variation - the wrong'un and the flipper. He provided me immense support during nets, where he backed me with various drills and bowling methods.
You were the highest wicket-taker and the highest run-getter for UP in the Ranji Trophy and you also had a good Duleep Trophy. So, how did you achieve this turnaround?
When the IPL ended, I was in constant touch with Adrian (Le Roux) sir. I worked a lot on my fitness. After IPL, I just concentrated on training and bowling all the time. These were the only two things I was into. But as the Duleep Trophy approached, I felt light, bowled with ease and my fitness levels had gone up. I was fielding gracefully and never felt weak. So, my biggest secret was that I was extremely fit. Even when I bowled long spells, I didn’t feel tired. Before that, I had gone for my fitness tests in NCA and even my results were good. And then Duleep Trophy started, I felt very confident and ready for a good performance. I followed the same thing during the Ranji Trophy. I was regularly training and even between the matches, I continued training. I never felt weak and I continued following a proper diet which allowed me to play well later on.
What do you do to switch off from the game?
Obviously, I love football. I don’t watch cricket that much but I watch a lot of football, play games on PlayStation 4 , watch movies. I love watching movies. I’m a huge Barcelona fan, so I don’t miss any of the their matches even though it's at late in the night. In the Premier League, I support Liverpool.