India's ODI series win in New Zealand belongs to the spinners, and Poonam Yadav especially deserves more credit.
The ball leaves the small hand, teasing an innocuous path. The batswoman’s eyes rise, the hands clench, and like saliva touching the tongue before the actual food, there is a rush of blood to the brain in anticipation of a half volley. Up go the eyes, forward the feet, sure as the steel in the cleats of the boots.
That’s when the trouble starts. The ball is AWOL, not in it’s expected position. It lands a yard shorter than it should, and alarm bells are now ringing. Where there was adrenalin, now there is simply dread. The steel in the boots feels like lead. The hands push out to cover the line, but the ball grins as it passes the batswoman. The small hand that looked so easy to read now closes into a fist pump, and the batswoman is wondering what has gone wrong.
Most coaches tell you that you can step out of the safety of the crease if the ball is above the eye-level. That’s how I was taught to read length.
Except that when the bowler is Poonam Yadav, that doesn’t work. Instead, we have various versions of what’s described above.
18 percent of Yadav's ODI wickets and 21 percent of her T20I wickets are stumped. Warne had 17 percent, just saying. She turns the ball enough, but she doesn’t consistently rip it, which suggests she doesn’t have as many revolutions on the ball as someone with longer fingers might. But she still gets the dip, once again defeating traditional coaching wisdom, which links dip to revs. Maybe that’s just the arc the ball makes when it’s released by someone who isn’t even five feet tall. Warne had revolutions. Yadav has gravity.
I saw it happen countless times in domestic cricket towards the end of my career. Most times, I remembered thinking, ‘These batswomen are throwing their wickets away to someone who is just tossing it up slowly. To a floater.’ Few really thought her bowling would be effective at international level. We didn’t give her enough credit.
Yadav now has more than 100 international wickets.
In the first two ODIs against New Zealand, in her first visit to the country, Yadav has taken five wickets, three in the first, and two in the second. In both games, she dismissed the well-set Amy Satterthwaite, the White Ferns' captain, their best player of spin, and the only left-hander in their line up. While Smriti Mandhana’s batting has pocketed the awards, the spinners have been responsible for 14 of the 20 wickets that have fallen. But most juries don’t give the bowlers enough credit. Yadav must be used to it.
Two years ago, she wasn’t even a certainty in the Indian ODI team. She first got a run as a T20 specialist, in the 2014 World T20. She finished as the only Indian to figure in the Team of the Tournament. Still, she was in and out for three years, and only in the 2017 World Cup did she establish herself as a regular.
It made sense at the time. Yadav is the most dangerous of the bottom feeders of the speed pyramid, happily existing below 60 kmph. If fast bowlers are cars and spinners are bikes, she is the Luna. She forced batswomen to provide all the pace, and it worked well in the frenzy of T20: in her first two years of international cricket, she had the fourth best average and strike rate in the world (among top 15 wicket takers). Now she has 69 wickets in 48 matches in the short format, at a strike rate of 14.6.
But back then few picked her as a world beater. She’s always seemed to have to prove herself. Even in international cricket, she had to show that she’s more than a just floater.
Look at her career graph since then. In the 2017 World Cup, she first unveiled the googly against a flowing Chamari Athapaththu, whisking India out of a tight spot. She finished with 11 wickets in that tournament. And then went one step ahead in 2018, topping the wicket charts in both formats. She led India’s charge in the 2018 World T20, finishing as joint third-highest on the wickets chart.
By now the world was sitting up. Batswomen in the World T20 were preparing for her by having coaches bowl to them kneeling. She was preparing to bowl to taller batswomen by bowling to the male support staff. Yadav could bowl from a yard behind the crease, and still get the ball in the same spot. Her googly had grown teeth, sometimes turned more than her leg break. Perhaps the biggest sign of how important she had become to India, is that it was her ineffectiveness in the semi-final of the World T20 — where India were dulled by dew — that meant India lost tamely to England.
By then she was the leader of the attack and the first bowler on the team sheet. If India don’t upgrade her contract from Grade B to A this year, they will not be giving her enough credit.
There is one glaring hole in her 37 match ODI career which has earned her 58 wickets: the lack of five wicket hauls. The five-for is the equivalent of the century for the batswoman and often used as a yardstick for success. Poonam has none.
Four times she has taken four wickets, but never hit the magic mark. You could say she’s the bowling version of Mithali Raj, who you can bet your life on to get a start, bet your house on her getting fifty, but wouldn’t bet your watch on her getting a hundred. But to judge either player by that would be to look at the wrong figures. Rather, like Mithali’s consistency, look at how Yadav has gone wicketless in only seven games so far, and only thrice in her last 26.
Another anomaly is that somehow, she doesn’t have a WBBL or KSL contract. She’s the best in the world at what she does, but the best competitions in the world don’t seem to have noticed. Maybe she needs to succeed against Australia, against whom she averages 50 (She doesn’t cross 20 against any other team). Or maybe they are looking at the wrong figures too.
In the list of all time wicket-takers in ODIs, Poonam isn’t even in the top 50. Whittle that down to just the spinners, and she is still 29th. At first glance, there is nothing so far that suggests she is headed for greatness. Just like there once seemed nothing in her bowling that suggested she would succeed internationally.
You’ll notice one more thing in that latter list: there are only four leg spinners in the top 30 spinners.
The three others have more wickets than her. Shazia Khan of Pakistan. Sune Luus, Dane van Niekerk. The first played her last ODI in 2004. The second has lost her bowling radar and her spot in her team. And van Neikerk, with 126 wickets in 98 games, is focussing on her batting more with every passing year. With a strike rate comparable to van Neikerk’s, and a massive 61 games less, it’s not unreasonable to think that Yadav might finish as the most successful leg spinner in the history of the game.
We need to give her more credit. We need to watch her, applaud her, follow her, admire her, criticise her. But whatever you do, don’t underestimate her. Because if you do, you will not find her where you think she should have been, and you’ll see her grinning as she turns past the outside edge of your expectations.
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