Kuldeep Yadav tosses it up in the air, imparting about a million revolutions. It's enticing. It's mouth-watering. There is a square leg, short mid-wicket, mid-wicket and a short cover. It’s a predominantly a leg-side field. The ball is slower through the air. Peter Handscomb gets enough time to think about the shot. In fact, he would have played that cover drive three-four times in his mind until the ball gets pitched. It's full, outside off, Handscomb leans into the drive. There is drift and then it lands, the Australian is halfway through the shot but the ball takes an altogether different trajectory than expected. It spins back in viciously and castles Handscomb through the gate even before he could recover from a fall over. Kuldeep pumps his fist in the air in delight. Handscomb is still befuddled, as if he is gotten up from a hangover. Even Sunil Gavaskar is left in awe: “Beauty...absolute beauty.”
That one ball, to send back Handscomb, perfectly encapsulates the player that is Kuldeep Yadav. A fearless, astute and thinking cricketer with a little bit of swagger. India befuddled the cricketing world by unleashing their surprise weapon in Kuldeep in the deciding Test in Dharamsala, who in turn bamboozled the Australian batsmen on what turned out to be a special debut. Everything surrounding Kuldeep has been intriguing. In fact, Kuldeep himself has been an enigma.
Growing up in Kanpur, Kuldeep wasn't interested in cricket. In fact, he only started playing the sport to keep himself fit. But then he developed a love for fast bowling after watching Wasim Akram. He wanted to be a fast bowler and practiced the art for few months. And then he converted into a Chinaman. Interestingly, Kuldeep didn't even know what a Chinaman delivery was until he bowled spin for the first time, but his action turned out to be that most uncommon of bowling styles. It's a bit mind-boggling, just like his variations. It was natural. It was something special. And once his coach, Kapil Pandey, realised it he advised his ward to take up spin bowling.
Kuldeep started taking wickets of seniors in the nets which further instilled confidence. Now it was one step at a time for him. The Chinaman is a difficult art to sustain, as he soon started realising. So there were hours and hours of practice put into achieving perfection.
"When I was in the seventh standard, I rarely attended school because I practiced in the mornings. From 6 am to 10 am, I just bowled to the batsmen, then bowling at single wickets, drills etc. Then again I used to come back at 2 pm and continue that same routine in the nets," Kuldeep tells Firstpost.
Kapil's involvement got deeper as he worked on improving Kuldeep's technicalities. He just didn't want Kuldeep to pursue any other art apart from bowling the Chinaman.
"The first time I went for trials, the selectors told me not to bowl Chinaman and instead bowl left-arm spin," Kuldeep says. I was a junior at that time so I went with left-arm spin and then wasn't selected. Kapil sir was very angry and he scolded me because I didn't bowl the Chinaman that he taught me and instead bowled left-arm spin. Then I explained to him that I was told not to bowl a Chinaman but bowl orthodox spin. After that, I worked even harder and Kapil sir increased his attention on my bowling," Kuldeep adds.
Kuldeep's confidence went a notch higher. The progress was slow, but steady at first. But then things started changing at a brisk pace. In the year in which he made his U-19 India debut, he scalped seven wickets and scored 80-odd runs in his first year for UP at the Wankhede Stadium which caught the eye of Mumbai Indians think tank present at the venue for scouting. He was roped in by the franchise. The two-year experience proved to be extremely valuable and charted the blueprint of his future path. He also scalped a hat-trick in U-19 World Cup against Scotland in 2014 which grabbed a lot of attention.
"I felt really good after meeting the senior players (at Mumbai Indians) and got to learn a lot," Kuldeep says with a shy smile. “In 2014, I played in the U-19 World Cup and performed well. Then I played for KKR and also met Wasim bhai. It was like a dream to meet Wasim bhai, talking to him and sharing my experiences. It felt good. Everyone was really good in the KKR squad, they were very helpful, right from Gauti bhai (Gautam Gambhir) to all the seniors. I got to learn a lot and I improved a lot there," he adds.
He even managed to impress Sachin Tendulkar in the nets during the Mumbai Indians stint.
"It was my first day, I had flown back from Australia after playing U-19s. On the first day, 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," Kuldeep says with giddy excitement.
“I bowled a normal Chinaman ball, Tendulkar got an inside edge onto his stumps. He was very impressed that someone was bowling the Chinaman as he had played only Brad Hogg before this. He spoke to me for 10-15 minutes, at that time I was silent and wasn't able to say anything. It was a big thing for me that I met him and spoke to him,” Kuldeep adds.
The two IPL stints, first with Mumbai Indians and then with KKR, set the tone. He finished as the second-highest wicket-taker in the 2014 Champions League and played a crucial role in helping KKR reach the final. A few days later, he made his first-class debut playing for Central Zone in the Duleep Trophy.
It's 9.30 PM on a humid Monday night in January 2017. There is a sense of disappointment as Kuldeep has missed out on selection for England T20 series. He had scalped a five-for a few days ago at the Brabourne Stadium in the practice match against England and had a decent domestic season with both bat and ball. But true to his promise, he readily sits down for a 45-minute interview with me. He hasn’t even had his dinner. He shrugs off the disappointment in seconds. Throughout our chat, his confidence stands out. The swagger with which he talks brings out the fearlessness in the youngster. He knows his selection for the national side team isn't far away. A couple of years ago, the UP selectors didn't think Kuldeep was good enough to play in the Ranji Trophy. The constant ignorance robbed him of playing time and he returned with mediocre figures in the 2014/15 season. The disappointment was lingering but the only way to answer to critics was to work hard. He made few technical changes while spending time with his coach Kapil. A fitter and more determined Kuldeep bounced back to become the highest wicket-taker and run-getter for UP in 2015/16 Ranji Trophy and ended up as highest wicket-taker in 2016/17 Duleep Trophy.
"I worked a lot on my fitness. After the IPL, I just concentrated on training and bowling all the time. These were the only two things I was concentrating on. As the Duleep Trophy approached, I felt lighter, bowled with ease and my fitness levels had gone up. Even when I bowled long spells, I didn’t feel tired. The biggest secret was that I was training regularly," Kuldeep says.
Kuldeep flights one (of many) up again, this time it’s on the leg stump, on a good length. Glenn Maxwell is back in his crease anticipating another Chinaman but it lands and zips away in the other direction. A clueless Maxwell is squared up and before he could realise what has happened, finds his stumps shattered. "That is magnificent bowling from the young man. Chinaman, Chinaman, googly, bamboozles Maxwell," Ravi Shastri screams. Maxwell walks back with eyes gazing at the big screen, trying to find out what in the world had happened.
"I am impressed with @imkuldeep18's variations and the way he has started. Keep going strong, this can be your match to shine," Sachin Tendulkar tweeted during the match.
While Kuldeep's variations are key to his success, his biggest strength is his flight. And he gives a lot of importance to giving air to his deliveries in the longest format of the game.
"If you are playing in 'days' cricket, then you should bowl slow, give it flight, and deceive the batsman. In 'days' cricket I normally provide more flight because I like it," Kuldeep says.
Three of the four Australian batsmen scalped by Kuldeep in the first innings were initially deceived in the flight — Handscomb, Maxwell and Pat Cummins.
What makes Kuldeep a complete package is his visualisation and his control. He has already planned a dismissal in his mind beforehand.
"I always visualise. I always keep planning in my mind that if I bowl this way, this is how I will get the wicket and vice versa," Kuldeep says.
"In 'days' cricket, Indian batsmen play spin really well. So the plan is to bowl in the right areas, then set up the batsman via visualisation. If the wicket is turning then there is use of a short-leg and if not then the slip comes into play. So, I bowl accordingly with the thinking of when to go round the wicket and over the wicket. It's like a plan going in my head continuously. Also, the angle plays an important role," Kuldeep adds.
Kuldeep said that Handscomb and Maxwell’s wickets were satisfying as he captured them exactly how he had visualised. His accuracy stood out against Australia and he rarely gave the batsmen an inch. That is a testimony to the hard work he has put in achieving that control through continuous practice.
One of the keys to success for Kuldeep against Australia was the extra bounce on offer. While turners allure most spinners in the world, Kuldeep's taste is completely different. "I prefer wickets with grass because it is very helpful; the ball skids and goes through the wickets. So, I find it better to bowl in 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 be picked," says Kuldeep.
Kuldeep's learning process doesn't stop. He watches a lot of Shane Warne videos on YouTube and takes tips from his mentor Brad Hogg on Skype. He is learning from the Aussies and giving it back to them.
"Did you see the first wicket (Warner)? That wasn’t a Chinaman. It was a flipper which I learnt from Shane Warne. So learning from Warne and then getting out his countryman is great thing," Kuldeep said in the post-match conference.
"At first I showed Handscomb that I am going to bowl a wrong 'un. And I bowled a wrong 'un only, via cross-seam. Then I again held the ball cross seam, I showed him that I was going to bowl a wrong 'un, but I bowled one that came into him. He thought I will bowl a wrong 'un and went for a drive." Kuldeep's explanation of how he planned Handscomb's dismissal gives a fascinating insight into the mind of an intelligent cricketer.
All of 22, Kuldeep is a rare talent that needs to be nurtured well. The first innings performance against Australia left everyone in awe. And hopefully there will be many more moments where our minds, in sync with the commentators, will scream, "Beauty...absolute beauty," while watching Kuldeep Yadav bowl.