It is April 2012. A chubby 16-year-old boy is sitting on the bench at Endeavour Field in the city of Townsville on the north coast of Australia. He is wearing a blue India jersey with ‘Yadav' written on the back. There is hardly anyone present at the ground apart from a couple of cricket enthusiasts who ask the kid what he does? The young boy answers in Hindi "mai left arm wrist spinner – chinaman hu" (I'm a left arm wrist spinner)- just like Shane Warne but left-handed."
Kuldeep is there to play the U-19 quadrangular tournament. It is also the first time he has been outside of India. R Sridhar, who is the fielding coach with the team reveals to a couple of people present at the Endeavour Field that such is the supreme skills of Kuldeep that he bamboozles even the elite India A players and the tail-enders stand no chance against his wizardry.
Fast forward six years, at the Sydney Cricket ground, Kuldeep accomplished his boyhood dream in the land of wrist-spin bowlers. With figures of 5/99, he becomes the first Indian spinner to take a five-wicket haul on debut in Australia. As he walks off raising the ball in his hand, he tells the local broadcaster, Foxsports, "It is an amazing feeling to play in Australia and get five wickets. I know Shane Warne is here watching from commentary box and ever since I have landed here, we have been talking to each other, so it feels so great." On air, Harsha Bhogle states Warne is truly humbled by Kuldeep's words. "I have never seen Shane Warne blush as much as he did during that interview," Bhogle said.
Australia has always been considered the place where wrist spinners tend to prosper. Bowlers such as Clarrie Grimmitt, Bill O'Reilly, Richie Benaud, Terry Jenner, Shane Warne, and Brag Hogg have mastered their art on the hard, bouncy tracks and almost buried the theory that finger spinners cannot succeed Down Under. It is a hypothesis that Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri firmly believed in. India had even tried in 2014 by picking Karn Sharma in the first Test in Adelaide.
The plan failed, but this time around Kohli and Shastri were more conscious and calculative. They wanted to test the waters, but only once they were ahead in the series or the conditions were prone to playing two spinners. They wanted to keep Kuldeep as the surprise weapon, just like Anil Kumble and Rahane did in the fourth Test against Australia in Dharamsala in 2017. Both times Kuldeep had come up trumps by slicing through the Australian batting.
It is no easy feat for a bowler to continuously practice his art in the confinements of the practice nets and then be suddenly told to replicate it in a Test match. Kuldeep had spent the past month, bowling ball after ball in the nets. However, he conceded that Ravindra Jadeja and Ashwin had constantly pushed him in the nets to work on his accuracy and variations.
One trait that Kuldeep has had instilled from his young days is that he needs to be able to beat a batsman in the air. In three of his five dismissals, he deceived the batsmen with the dip on the ball. It was the pace and revolutions on the ball that Kuldeep imparted that ensured he got enough dip on the ball. Statistics showed that Kuldeep's average pace 79 kmph was slowest by any bowler in a match since Warne. He was also the first visiting spinner since Danish Kaneria in 2010 to take five wickets at the SCG.
The wickets of Head and Paine on the third day summed up Kuldeep's maturity and class. Travis Head's eyes lit up the second he saw the delivery rise above eye-line, but during the last path of its journey, the ball dropped and hit the toe end of Head's bat. It resulted in the batsmen stopping his shot and offering Kudeep a return catch.
It was the wicket of Tim Paine that was arguably the best delivery of his outing. Similar to Head, Paine felt he was close to the pitch of the ball, but the sharp plunge and drift saw the ball slip between bat and pat to hit the top of leg-stump. It was a pure masterclass.
Kuldeep had nullified the placid nature of the pitch by defeating the batsmen in the air. When it came to the tail-enders, it was more about setting them up for the googly or the flatter one. Knowing Nathan Lyon is a compulsive sweeper, he bowled the faster one to trap him in front. Then against Josh Hazlewood, he bowled three leg-spinners, before slipping in the wrong'un to trap him plumb in front. In between, Hanuma Vihari dropped a catch and Kuldeep let out in angst by clinching his fist and squatting in disdain. He desperately wanted a five-wicket haul, importantly, Kohli was aware of it as well. The Indian skipper persisted with his young spinner and Kuldeep got his reward.