At Old Trafford, two young wrist spinners were brought on by their respective captains with the game in the balance. Shadab Khan buckled under pressure while Kuldeep Yadav thrived on it. Shadab was introduced in the 12th over when India had made a rocketed to 62 for no loss, and Pakistan needed their premier wicket-taker to strike.
The first ball was a rank long hop, second landed even shorter, fourth was juicy full toss, and all of them were deposited to the boundary with ease. Shadab's first over went for 16. Instead of halting India's momentum, he had given it a push. In a way, it was understandable given the high-octane clash and pressure of the occasion. Add to that, wrist spin bowling is a fine art and difficult to execute under any circumstances.
Then there was Kuldeep Yadav. Virat Kohli had introduced him into the attack with Pakistan well set on 49/1 after 12 overs. Kuldeep did have the luxury of having 336 runs on the board, but this was a bowler that had struggled during the IPL and his form questioned. The first ball, a lovely tossed up leg-spinner had Fakhar Zaman stretching forward as he played the delivery into the off-side. "Ye accha he idar he rakhna," shouted MS Dhoni from behind the stumps.
For the next nine overs, Kuldeep put on an exhibition. As the ball left his hand, there was a beautiful loop, dip and the extra fizz that seemed to have disappeared during the IPL. Above all, it was his length that was impeccable. On the majority of the occasions, he made the batsmen play on the front foot. Drawing the batsmen forward has always been vital for a spinner and Kuldeep was doing it successfully against both Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam. The right and left-hand combination didn't hinder his lines. One could sense there was a rhythm to his bowling.
Such was his control that both Azam and Zaman tried to disturb his length by playing balls off the back foot that could have been easily negotiated by stepping forward. The tactic didn't work. Frustrated Zaman whacked him over cow corner with a sweep. The shot yielded six runs, but it warranted a risk. A couple of balls later, Kuldeep nearly had Zaman stumped by the big turning leg-break.
Kuldeep clutched his lips and his frustration was visible on his face. Behind the stumps, Dhoni with his remarkable sixth sense, could sense a wicket was around the corner. "Ye achha he ayega daal te rhena".
The left-arm spinner would get his chance again but from the pavilion end. The change of end bought immediate success. The wind helped the ball to drop and Kuldeep's ideal length drew Azam forward. The Pakistan batsman felt he was close to the pitch, but side-on replays showed he was nearly two meters from where the ball had landed. The misjudgment of length was enough for the ball to spin sharply through bat and pad to flip the off-bail.
Kuldeep sprinted away from his teammates and leaped in pure joy. He had broken a 104-run partnership. He had delivered when it mattered most. Two balls later, he was at it again by having Zaman, caught off the top edge at short fine-leg. Kuldeep's double act triggered a collapse as Pakistan went from 117/1 to 129/5 in space of 18 balls.
This was the Kuldeep that India wanted at his prime and delivering on the biggest stage. Against Pakistan, he had proved that he had shrugged off all the rust and was back to sublime best. Kuldeep finished the day with figures of 9-1-32-2.
At the post-match press conference, Virat Kohli praised his young spinner by stating "Kuldeep was brilliant, those guys were only trying to play him out. A longer spell helped in that situation and he was getting into the rhythm. They were thinking that he would go out of the attack sooner rather than later. That ball to dismiss Babar was just outstanding with the drift, the turn and just beating the batsman batting so well. This is the best he has been bowling since coming to England and along with Chahal is going to be an important factor for us in the tournament."
Kuldeep would be immensely satisfied with his day's work while Shadab will be bitterly disappointed. In the end, India and Pakistan matches are all about handling pressure and it is fair to say Kuldeep flourished and returned to form.