In the past two weeks, Kuldeep Yadav has been labelled a mystery spinner, a magician, a freak and simply a left-arm wrist spinner. The 23-year-old from Kanpur has captured more headlines than his prominent captain, Virat Kohli. He has been the talk of the town, or shall we say the whole country. Before Kuldeep waved his magic in the white-ball format, he was not even guaranteed a berth in the Test squad, and now he is seen as the messiah that is expected to lead India to glory in the red-ball format.
A month ago, Kuldeep had nothing to lose, and now there is a sense of expectation. But first, he needs to be picked in the playing XI, and then try to dismantle batsmen that don't have the pressure of scoring runs at monumental rates. Recently, many spinners that have dominated in coloured clothing have found it difficult to apply their trade successfully in the longer format.
Kuldeep, however, has proved in his two Tests that he has the temperament and the skills to succeed with the red ball. He has also played 24 First-Class matches and bowled over 4,000 balls. Interestingly enough, back in 2015, the MSK Prasad-led selection panel wanted Kuldeep to play an abundance of First-Class cricket before picking up for India. It is an experience that is bound to help him bowl longer spells.
In his young career, Kuldeep has already bamboozled the likes of David Warner, Glenn Maxwell and Dinesh Chandimal in the Test arena. Now the challenge for him is whether he can replicate it on pitches that are unlikely to offer him the assistance he has had the luxury of in the first two Tests of his career.
The good news for Kuldeep is that England is experiencing the driest summer since 1976, meaning the pitches are expected to be waterless and aiding turn. The nature of the pitches is likely to persuade Kohli to partner Kuldeep alongside Ravichandran Ashwin for at least a couple of matches. Also, now that Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah have been ruled out for the first couple of matches, there is a sense of responsibility on Kuldeep to be a strike weapon.
Unlike in the one-dayers and T20, the batsmen will have the option of defending Kuldeep staunchly. Over after over, a player like Alistair Cook will continue to present the broad face of his bat for a mere defensive push. Kuldeep will need to figure out a method of deceiving batsmen that are hell-bent on defence. The five-Test series presents him with an opportunity to learn the craft of bowling in the longer format. He might come up trumps or even falter, but it is a chance for him to prove to himself, his captain and the Indian team management, he can continue to evolve as a bowler. The results will be important, but it will be the journey that will be scrutinised.
After the first ODI in Nottingham, Kuldeep stated spin bowling is all about getting purchase on the ball to ensure it drifts, dips and spins. He also said the action, the pivot at the bowling crease and the power of the wrist are instrumental in gaining the deception. Now in the Test arena, Kuldeep will have to make certain that he can be physically fit to impart sufficient rotations on the ball throughout the day. If he tries, the revolutions will decrease and the England batsmen will find him an easier commodity.
Joe Root has already shown signs of deciphering Kuldeep. The Yorkshireman has gone deep in his crease and played him behind square on both sides of the wicket. Many experts still believe Kuldeep bowls a tad too slow and if the pitch is on a slower side, then he can be negotiated comfortably of the back foot. There is also the element that the English batsmen have looked more comfortable against him as the tour has progressed and it may well be the case that his patience will be tested. The upcoming five-Test series will provide a stern examination of his mental and physical strength.
Kuldeep, after all, is only 23 and has loads of cricket ahead of him, but the way he finds a solution during the tougher periods of the match will give us a fair indication of his development. For now, he has the English batsmen clutching at straws; he will have a captain that is prepared to back up, conditions that he should prevail in, and above all, an aura about his bowling.
Mystery spinner or a simple left-arm wrist spinner, whichever way you look at it, Kuldeep has a golden chance to be cementing a place in all three formats and lead India to glory on foreign soil.