As six Indian bowlers gear up for the upcoming Test series against New Zealand with searing pace and finger spin bowling in the warm-up game at Hamilton, there was a familiar face missing in action for the visitors. That familiar face was India’s ‘primary overseas spinner’ Kuldeep Yadav. It was India's head coach Ravi Shastri who had bestowed that prestigious tag over the 25-year-old left-arm wrist-spinner just last year.
As Kuldeep breezed his way to a five-wicket haul in the historic Sydney Test in January last year, Shastri declared to the world that Kuldeep would be the first name amongst spinners on India’s team sheet in Test matches played overseas. That Sydney Test ended in a draw but the result helped India secure their maiden Test series win down under.
"He plays overseas Test cricket and he gets five wickets, so he becomes our primary overseas spinner. Going ahead, if we have to play one spinner, he is the one we will pick," Shastri said after the Sydney Test in January 2019.
The coach’s enthusiasm was understandable. With that five-for, Kuldeep became the first Indian bowler to take five-wicket hauls outside Asia across all three formats. India had undoubtedly found an incredible talent, who was winning games with his wizardry all round the globe.
Kuldeep's special talent was evident on his debut itself. Almost four years ago, the 22-year-old from Kanpur proved to be the series-defining difference for India against Australia in the fourth and final Test of the home series — which would prove to be one of the most thrilling and closely-contested series of the last decade.
At first, he was a novelty, but later, he became a rage. While he found it tough to nail a permanent spot in the Test XI with Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja proving to be immovable rivals. He quickly became India’s No 1 choice in ODIs and T20Is. With Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep pushed Ashwin and Jadeja out of the shorter formats.
However, things since then have taken a sharp downward turn for the spinner. On the ongoing tour of New Zealand, Kuldeep could only force himself once into Virat Kohli’s India lineup in eight limited-overs fixtures, before getting dropped altogether for the Tests. And on that one occasion (1st ODI), he ended up conceding 84 runs in 10 overs — third most expensive spell by an Indian spinner. Just a few weeks back, he had become the fastest Indian spinner to take 100 ODI wickets for India, against Australia. It was his killer strike rate that made him India’s favourite spin son, albeit for a short period, and it was the awful economy rate (along with diminishing wicket-taking ability) that knocked him off that pedestal.
In 2017 and 2018, including the year of his debut, Kuldeep featured in over 64 percent of India’s matches in ODIs and T20Is. That number in 2019 came down to 56 percent as his wicket-taking ability took a hit. Kuldeep’s entrance into the ODI setup was down to Ashwin-Jadeja’s inability to take regular wickets in middle overs as India prepared for the ODI World Cup. Kuldeep himself had a forgetful World Cup in England. With only six wickets in seven games at a strike rate of 67, Kuldeep failed to live up to his reputation of a wicket-taking bowler as India were bundled out from the mega event.
A more detailed look at the numbers tells a far more disturbing story. The combined bowling average for Kuldeep for 2017 and 2018 stood at an impressive 20.07 in the 50-over format, while the economy rate was well below the 5-run mark. For the year of 2019, the bowling average was 34.69, and the economy rate was close to 5.4. His numbers in T20Is witnessed a minute fluctuation but that was down to this exclusion from most of the matches.
What’s ailing Kuldeep
In today’s era of advanced analytics and data dossiers, it’s not a surprise that the secret of Kuldeep’s mystery spin is out. As an out and out wicket-taking bowler, Kuldeep relies heavily on flighting his deliveries. At first, the left-arm wrist-spinner’s flip of the wrist remained a mystery. However, with time, batsmen have started to read his deliveries better. The bamboozling factor seems to have been decoded.
The downfall began with the thrashing he took in the IPL last year when Moeen Ali smashed 27 runs for RCB off a single over from the KKR spinner. He finished with a spell of 1/59 in that match. In nine matches in the edition, Kuldeep only managed four wickets at an average of 71.50 and an economy rate of close to 9. His confidence also took a massive hit after the T20 tournament and the tweaker hasn’t been the same bowler ever since.
Experts have had a similar opinion on Kuldeep’s struggle in international cricket.
“I have been saying this from the day when he became successful that Kuldeep has a technical flaw in his action and if that is not looked into, he will get caught out soon. His front arm drops very quickly, because of which the life in the ball (the revolutions and pace on the ball) is not as much as it should be to sustain success,” former India spinner Maninder Singh told Hindustan Times.
“He has got caught out now. He has played a lot of international cricket and people have seen his videos and they know what is his ball speed and with what speed, it comes from the pitch.”
Poor form in the shorter formats had a huge role behind Kuldeep’s exclusion from the longer format as well. From being termed as the ‘primary overseas spinner’ to being reduced to just a squad member has a cruel reality attached to it. In fact, his last Test was that same historic Sydney outing. With his worth reducing with every match, he found opportunities hard to come by, even when India had the series in their kitty.
Indian cricket is in its healthiest stage with a regular supply of top performers waiting to be delivered through the conveyor belt of domestic cricket, where one can find replacements for every spot in the national side. Shreyas Gopal, Rahul Chahar, Ravi Bishnoi pose immediate threat to Kuldeep in the wrist-spin department.
International cricket is an unforgiving arena with numerous players losing their way despite memorable starts. In such a harsh environment, constant innovation and learning are the only ways to survive, especially for a wrist-spinner in the age of big hits and gung-ho aggression. Kuldeep also needs to do the same. It’s time to hit the nets, get back to basics and add more weapons to his arsenal.
The T20 extravaganza of IPL is not far. It was in the same tournament last year where Kuldeep’s bad run had begun and nothing could be a better opportunity for him to spring back into favour.
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