It was 9.30 PM on a Monday night, I had just finished a marathon interview with domestic veteran Pankaj Singh at the Taj Lands End hotel in Bandra, a poular suburb in western Mumbai. There was one more in the pipeline — Kuldeep Yadav. Both Pankaj and Kuldeep were playing for Rest of India in the Irani Trophy and had stayed put at the same hotel. I pondered whether to call up Kuldeep this late with the final day of the Irani Trophy to be played the next day. I took a chance, fortunately he answered the call and true to his promise, readily agreed to do the interview. As I entered the room, he greeted my colleague and me with his trademark swag.
Kuldeep belongs to a rare breed of spinners — the Chinaman, and with his unorthodox style, there always comes real excitement. The UP boy knew his selection was round the corner and his hard work has finally paid off. He has been given a maiden call-up for the Test side against Bangladesh, on the back of a successful domestic season, after leg spinner Amit Mishra was ruled out due to injury.
At the Taj Lands End hotel, Kuldeep didn't take time to get into the groove. There was an air of confidence as he spoke to Firstpost about his career and Chinaman bowling in his typical flamboyant style.
You started your cricket career as a fast bowler and later on went on to become a Chinaman bowler. Talk us through your transition.
Actually for me, it was very difficult when I started my cricketing career. I wasn't interested in cricket initially. Instead, I started (playing) for fitness. In 2003, maybe around the World Cup, I was a huge fan of Wasim bhai (Wasim Akram). So obviously, I loved fast bowling as I was a left-arm fast bowler. When I stepped on the field, I started with fast bowling at an academy where I only practiced it for about four-five months. Then one day, my coach called me and said that from today, you won't continue fast bowling. Then he told me to bowl spin. So the first ball I bowled was a Chinaman. I wasn't even aware what a Chinaman is. I just held the ball and bowled and it turned out to be a Chinaman. Luckily, it was natural for me. The coach thought it was something special and if we work on this, we could achieve some good results in the future. From there, the process of Chinaman bowling started. Then slowly I kept working on it and felt good that I was able to bowl Chinaman. Then I started taking wickets during nets, of seniors too, which instilled confidence in me that there is indeed a future for this kind of bowling. I felt if I keep bowling like this, maybe I can play at the district level. So, this was my plan, my first goal was to perform for the district and then play for state. So, these were the tiny goals that I achieved and I was able to breakthrough.
How much time did it take for you to perfect the Chinaman?
To be very honest, it took me a while because it required a lot of regular practice at that time. When I was in the seventh standard, I sparsely attended school because I practiced in the mornings. From 6 AM to 10 AM, I just bowled to the batsmen, then single wickets, drills etc. Then again I used to come back by 2 PM and continue that same routine in the nets. In that period, slowly it interested me. My sir showed me various ways of bowling, how it should be, how I should touch the feet, how the alignment should be. I was passionate about learning, thinking that if I follow what he says, improvements could be seen. From there, the whole process started.
Did you take up Chinaman bowling because it was rare and it would go in your favour against the batsman?
Actually, it was never in my mind that it was so rare. I had never witnessed something like that. That time, Brad Hogg used to bowl Chinaman. So, it was obviously a plus point for me that nobody could bowl Chinaman. It's not easy for the batsmen to pick whether I am bowling the wrong'un or Chinaman. That was a plus point for me and even the coach thought that it was a rare quality and nobody bowls a Chinaman ball. So, he thought it would be effective in the future. But the first time I went for trials, the selectors told me not to bowl Chinaman and instead bowl left-arm spin. I was a junior at that time so I went with left-arm spin and then wasn't selected . The coach was very angry and he scolded me because I didn't bowl the Chinaman that he taught me and instead bowled left-arm spin. Then I explained to him that I was told not to bowl a Chinaman but the way selectors told me to bowl. After that, I worked even more. My coach paid more attention to my bowling.
What are the advantages of being a Chinaman bowler?
I think there is nothing like an advantage as nowadays we watch a lot of videos, there are a lot of facilities. But obviously we don't see a Chinaman bowler in every team so it's a plus point because it will be difficult for the batsmen to pick whether it's a wrong'un, a flipper or a leg spin. So, that is the advantage but it is just for some time. Once it's revealed, there is not much advantage left for the bowlers. So then, working on your skill makes the batsmen uncomfortable; there isn't much advantage but slight 10-20 percent if you are bowling to a new batsman.
How many times do you vary your pace in an over?
It depends on the who the batsman is. If it's T20, then of course, it is important to vary the pace while bowling. You know that you can't bowl the same way every single time as you can concede a lot of runs. If you are playing in 'days' cricket, then you should bowl slow, give it flight, and deceive the batsman. It depends on what format I bowl. Let's say if I am playing in ODI, then it is a must to vary the pace and so is the case with T20s. In 'days' cricket I normally provide more flight because I like it. I sometimes do that while playing T20s and ODIs too.
What are the challenges that a Chinaman bowler face bowling on Indian wickets?
In India, sometimes we get good turners but nowadays in domestic cricket, we hardly find them. Since the time I started playing, I don't think I might have bowled on any turner wicket. I prefer wickets with grass because it is very helpful; the ball skids and goes through the wickets. So, I find it better to bowl in those wickets rather than bowling on full or square turners, because it makes the ball travel slow towards the batsman, making it easier for him to be picked. So, I believe that a grassy wicket would me more effective for me.
So will the conditions and wickets overseas prove beneficial to you?
Obviously, when I was on the Australia tour, it was really helpful for me. I performed well because you get good bounce there and the ball drifts if you bowl slowly. If you vary your pace and give it flight, it becomes difficult for the batsman to pick which ball is it and the batsman falls prey easily there and gets caught at slips most times. This was helpful for me on the tour and I had a decent performance too.
Do you play any mind games with the batsman?
Very rarely. I just look at the batsman and sort of change the positions of the fielders. I don't speak much with the batsman but instead I focus more on myself. Sometimes, I do speak with the batsman but then I focus more on where I should bowl. I always visualise. I always keep planning in my mind that if I bowl this way, this is how I will get the wicket and vice versa. That's all I think, I don't talk much with the batsman.
Do you read the mind of the batsman that is he going to hit you coming down the track or defend?
Obviously, you come to know that, if you have played T20s and ODIs, you can quickly analyse when the batsman is going to step out of the crease, defend or hit. That's not the case in 'days' cricket but sometimes you will come to know when the batsman is falling under your trap, he is not able to understand your bowling; you will realise that if he is going to step out or swing or hit.
How do you plan a dismissal in the longer format?
To be very honest, I have just one plan that you have to bowl in good areas. In 'days' cricket, Indian batsmen play spin really well. So the plan is to bowl in the right areas, then set up the batsman via visualisation. If the wicket is turning then there is use of a short-leg and if not then the slip comes into play. So, I bowl accordingly with the thinking of when to go round the wicket and over the wicket. It's like a plan going in my head continuously. Also, the angle plays an important role in days cricket.
What goes in your head when the batsman is continuously attacking?
Obviously, when a batsman attacks, you think that there's a chance of him getting out. It's like a 50-50 game, we can get hit or we can dismiss him. So, I always bowl thinking that the batsman should hit where I want him to. Then I push the position of my fielders further behind, knowing that if I bowl a bit into the batsman, the ball will travel towards mid-wicket or if I bowl a googly, it will run towards the cover. So according to that, I set up the field position. If the batsman hits even after that, then it's a great shot. But if he is trapped, then surely it's a wicket.
What has been your greatest strength?
What I feel is my biggest strength is flight, I can turn the ball well, I have a good release. So my biggest strength is flight and turn.
When do you decide to bowl the 'wrong'un'?
The 'wrong'un' depends on how the batsman is playing. Some of them are technically adept and play extremely well, attack well and will pick your wrong'un very early. So, I rarely bowl a wrong'un to them. But I always use the wrong'un against a new batsman. I shouldn't be revealing this (cheeky smile) but it is said that when a new batsman comes to the crease, any bowler would like to dismiss him as early as possible. So, I use my variations at that time. Also, it depends on the format. If you are playing in T20s, then it is effective. If you are playing days cricket, you first set up the batsman, don't reveal much and then you bowl the wrong'un, which makes it easier for the bowler to trap the batsman.
So is there any batsman who reads you really well in the domestic arena?
Within my team, Surya (Suryakumar Yadav of KKR) plays me well. We have been playing together for a while now, it's been six-seven years now so obviously we already know our strengths and weaknesses. He plays the spinners really well and also against my bowling. He knows my wrong'un that's why I don't bowl them to him. And another guy from my club, Faiz Ahmed, who also plays for Railways in domestic (cricket). He plays me the best. He is simply the best against me because we have been playing together since childhood. From club team, state to school, we played together, so obviously he has an idea about my bowling and he plays me well.
Why is it that Chinaman and left arm spinners are good against right-handers but not against left-handers?
It's not like the right-handers are weak against Chinaman but they are not used to it. Maybe in future, when more Chinaman bowlers will appear at that time, you will see players getting used to it. Now it is rare, very few bowlers bowl the Chinaman and it's not that easy to bowl Chinaman. It is very different. No one even tries it. All the left-arm spinners, from their childhood, start their career as a left-arm orthodox, nobody tries Chinaman. Just like I was inspired by Brad Hogg, maybe somebody will look at me and get inspired (to take up Chinaman) and at my club, where I practice, I saw three-four small kids who are Chinaman bowlers. So, maybe we get to witness a lot of Chinaman bowlers in the near future.
What is the most difficult part of Chinaman bowling?
If you are doing all the hard work, I don't think you find anything difficult. If you start with it initially, you might face an issue with the landing, or if it's natural then you will have a normal landing. To land the ball so consistently on the right spot is a difficult challenge itself, because for a leg-spinner or a Chinaman bowler, it is not easy to bowl consistently on a particular spot. The most difficult part is to bowl at the right spot. There are some batsmen who don't understand anything and go for the attack as an option to get away. To bowl at the right spot at that time with variations becomes difficult. Sometimes, you get a very good wicket for batting. It is difficult at the time to contain runs and take wickets. These are just the normal things which are problematic but if you work hard on your bowling and regularly practice, then I don't think it is that difficult.
So is it difficult to control?
If you bowl leg-spin, there should be control and even if you are bowling Chinaman, the control should be there. If you work on that, it will be normal for you and if not then it will be difficult.
How much has Shane Warne influenced you?
Obviously, since childhood I’ve been watching videos of Shane Warne. I used to follow him only as a Chinaman bowler. He bowls leg spin from his right-hand and I bowl from my left. So, that is the only difference. Rest, the releasing point, alignments, pivot etc I learnt by watching him. Watching him bowl inspired me. I used to watch a lot of his videos on how he turns the ball. The best thing about him is that he managed to pick wickets on Australian and English wickets, where the ball doesn’t turn much but he did it with his drift and turn and that is a big thing for spinners.
There aren't many coaches who know about Chinaman bowling, so from whom do you take suggestions to improve?
Obviously, from my personal coach Kapil Pandey sir, I take suggestions from him. He has a good idea about my bowling. Even if I am here, he knows how and where I’m going to bowl. He has a very good idea of my bowling so much so that even if I am out of town and have a problem with my bowling, he rectifies it from a remote destination. This is the best thing about coaches. There are a lot of coaches who know their students very well. Kapil sir is just like that. I know him very well, almost since I was a kid and even now. If I face any problem, he’s the one for suggestions. I even practice often when there are no matches. I go to him and practice with him. So, it becomes very easy for me as I just have to consult him for suggestions and that is more important. Later on, I met Anil (Kumble) sir even he gave a bit of help and others too who give a lot of inputs and it is really helpful for me.
What inputs from Anil Kumble proved to be helpful?
Anil sir told me that my right hand comes into use a bit less. If you use it more, you will extract more turn and bounce; that was very effective for me when I tried. I am trying to improve that slowly and hopefully it will be a good thing for me.
What has been the turning point in your career so far?
(Smiles) Turning point... Obviously when I was playing U-19, it was my first year for the state, I took seven wickets and scored 80-odd runs at the Wankhede Stadium, at that time the Mumbai Indians squad had come there to watch and they selected me (after watching that performance). I was with them for two years, it was a very good experience for me. I was U-16 that time. I felt really good after meeting the senior players and got to learn a lot. Then in the same year, I played for India U-19. So getting that exposure in that U-16 age was a big thing for me. In 2014, I played in World Cup for India U-19 and performed well. Then I played for KKR and also met Wasim bhai. It was like a dream that I was meeting Wasim bhai, talking to him and sharing my experiences. It felt good. Everyone was really good in the KKR squad, they were very helpful, right from Gauti bhai (Gautam Gambhir) to all the seniors. I got to learn at lot and I improved a lot there.
Did you inform Wasim bhai that you started fast bowling because of him?
Obviously, I told him, he started laughing. Good that you didn't continue with fast bowling else you wouldn't have been able to meet me (laughs). I also started laughing and told him, sach bol rahe ho sir, yeh to mera sapna tha, agar mai Chinaman nahi fek raha hota aur fast bowling daal raha hota to mai kahi nahi khel paata. (This is the truth, this was my dream. Had I never bowled Chinaman and had continued with fast bowling, I wouldn't have played anywhere.)
You impressed Sachin Tendulkar in the nets?
It was my first day, I had flown back from Australia after playing U-19s. On the first day, the Mumbai Indians manager called me up in the morning and said Sachin Paaji will bat in the nets at around 1 PM, you have to come to bowl. I went blank, I have to bowl to Sachin Tendulkar! At that time I just kept thinking how do I bowl, what do I plan. Then I went to the nets, bowled to him and got him out too. That was the best moment for me at that time. I was really happy. Then I spoke to (Sachin) sir, he asked me about the U-19 series and what's happening there. I told him it didn't go well for me, I just scalped three wickets from two matches, it wasn't my best. He replied saying don't worry, you are bowling well, just work on it and he told me many small things. He asked me to talk to the other players, there is Bhajju pa, he told me to talk to him and learn from him. He spoke with me for 10-15 minutes, at that time I was silent and wasn't able to speak anything. So it was a big thing for me that I met him and spoke to him.
Which delivery did you bowl? A wrong'un or a Chinaman?
No, I bowled him a normal Chinaman ball, he got an inside edge onto his stumps. He was very impressed that someone was bowling Chinaman, he had played only Brad Hogg before this.
You were the highest wicket-taker and the highest run-getter for UP in the Ranji Trophy and you also had a good Duleep Trophy. What would you credit these performances to?
When the IPL ended, I was in constant touch with Adrian sir. I worked a lot on my fitness. After IPL, I just concentrated on training and bowling all the time. These were the only two things I was into. But as the Duleep Trophy approached, I felt light, bowled with ease and my fitness levels had gone up. I was fielding gracefully and never felt weak. So, my biggest secret was that I was extremely fit. Even when I bowled long spells, I didn’t feel tired. The biggest secret was that I was training regularly and when the Duleep Trophy was about to start, I was well prepared for it. Before that, I had gone for my fitness tests in NCA and even my results were good. And then Duleep Trophy started, I felt very confident and ready for a good performance. I followed the same thing during the Ranji Trophy. I was regularly training and even between the matches, I continued training. I never felt weak and I continued following a proper diet, which allowed me to play well later on.
Did you make any technical changes?
Obviously, I spent a lot of time with Kapil sir so I trained a lot with him. Also, I was bowling with him so I was talking a lot to him about what all improvements are needed in my bowling. I was bowling for an hour in the nets. I was bowling normal balls and sharpening my variation but I never tried something new. I just kept practicing and then the season came and I played well.
What are the various deliveries you can bowl?
There are a lot of variations, like the Chinaman, the wrong'un, flipper and top-spin. Also, I just learned how Hogg bowls his flipper. It is difficult but I keep on practicing, things will improve slowly and it will be quite an effective ball.
What do you do when the pitch doesn’t assist you? What is your lethal weapon then?
Actually, sometimes it happens that bowlers don’t get supporting wickets, so it’s best to contain runs, which I find it difficult to do. I have tried it sometimes. If you want to try and contain, you must take wickets. If you take wickets, runs will automatically be contained. So, whenever I get a batting wicket, I focus on trying to bowl good-length balls, don’t provide room to the batsman. If he hits a good shot, it does not matter that your ball was good. So, that has been my plan – to bowl in a particular section of the pitch, stop runs from both sides, keep the batsmen under pressure which will give you the upper hand and chances of getting them out.
We saw in the practice match against England at the Brabourne Stadium you took 5 wickets. How did you succeed against such an aggressive batting line-up?
I was not selected for the ODIs but I was in India A, so I was happy that I got a chance to prove myself and finally my dream of playing under Mahi bhai (MS Dhoni) would be turning into a reality . So, I was really happy when I got the chance but at the same time, I was also eager to perform and to impress Mahi bhai behind the stumps. I was like this is the match where I have to bowl well. When I came on to bowl, I already had a plan ready as to what type of delivery to bowl to a particular batsman and the field set up. So, I went on with my plan and spoke to Mahi bhai at regular intervals in between overs where he used to advise me on how to bowl to a particular batsman, whom to bowl slow in the air and against which batsman I should vary my pace. His suggestions were really helpful and it was an honour to play under Mahi bhai's captaincy. I got to learn a lot how he he keeps calm and cool under pressure and the way he handles the bowlers is amazing. As I kept on taking wickets, he was getting happy. Everything was going according to the proper plan.
So, what was Dhoni’s best suggestion to you?
While I was bowling, I bowled a couple of faster balls to a batsman. Mahi bhai advised me to bowl slower through the air, and not fast, because the faster ones were coming nicely onto the batsman's bat. So I varied my pace and I got the wicket through a slow delivery with a tinge of flight. He was continuously advising me, for example, when Alex Hales was batting, he told me to change the field, and get someone up inside the circle so I brought point up; when Jason Roy was batting he advised me to to keep the point fielder deep and bring mid-off up. There was a plan and it went on like that.
It was going the same way as Dhoni was telling you...
Yes, just like the way I was talking and I never felt like I was playing with Mahi bhai for the first time. All my suggestions were approved by Mahi and his suggestions were also acknowledged. And there was a good understanding while I was talking to him, he was understanding my points and even I was listening closely to what he had to say. It was the best thing.
So, would you say the way Dhoni reads the game from behind the stumps is brilliant?
Absolutely unbelievable! Mahi bhai was planning and I was executing. So, it was a good thing that I played under his captaincy. Before this, I was in the national squad but never got the opportunity but when I played, I got the idea of bowling. The way Mahi bhai handles the bowlers, it was a great experience for me.
It was an emotional match, the stadium was full as it was his last match as captain. So were you emotional too?
Obviously. I kept thinking I wouldn’t be playing under Mahi Bhai's captaincy anymore but at the same time, I was happy that I played in his last match. Maybe if I hadn’t been selected for India A, I would’ve never played under him. So, I was happy to play with him and learned a lot. Emotions were all over the place and players, including me, thought that I won’t be playing ahead.
How much confidence did that game against England give you?
Yes, a lot. I was expecting a call for the England T20s. I felt that I could succeed against the England batsmen. I had the confidence to take wickets and trap them with all the weapons that I possess. So yes, confidence is always high when you are bowling against an international side and scalping important wickets. That’s how confidence comes in. England is a strong team, one of the best teams in ODIs, at least in the top four. So, confidence comes in if you take top four-five wickets which is a big thing.
We also saw that you did pretty well in the Duleep Trophy, where the pink ball was used, and even in the Ranji Trophy. Tell us how different it is to bowl with different balls?
It is very different. If you bowl with a pink ball, it becomes difficult for the spinners, it's difficult to grip the Kookaburra ball, it doesn't seam much. Pink ball is a bit hard and because of the dew factor during the night, it becomes difficult to grip. It was a decent performance as a day-night match was happening for the first time and it doesn’t really matter to me if I am bowling with a pink or a red ball. I had just one thing on my mind and that was to take wickets, Yuvi Paa (Yuvraj Singh) motivated me a lot, he showed a lot of faith in me when I played under him and he had the belief in my wicket-taking abilities. So, whenever we went past eight overs, he passed the ball to me and told me to take wickets. So, it was a big thing for me that Yuvi Pa stood with me. He made me bowl longer spells and then also asked me to tell him whenever I feel tired. So, a captain’s role is the most important role if you play in any team. From taking wickets to planning, the captain has a big role to play.
Who has been your biggest inspiration so far?
As I play for my state, so (Suresh) Raina Bhai is always there for me. Rest whomsoever I meet, Yuvi Pa supports me a lot, Mahi bhai spoke with me many times, the more I meet people the more I learn from them. And most of the times, Raina Bhai always speaks to me, we are always in touch. He's like an elder brother. He is there for you, helping you all the time. So obviously you have a senior player to monitor you, who is calling and explaining things for improvements. It feels very good.
You did well with the bat too this season. Talk about your batting.
Obviously, when I started playing cricket I was scoring runs in the U-16 and U-19 also but I just had to convert it on a bigger stage. My coach always believed that I’m a good batsman. When you are scoring 30-50 runs, you can score 100 also. That was on my mind and when I played for KKR. Simon Katich helped me a lot with my batting; I practiced a lot with him. Whenever I wasn't playing a match I used to do batting drills along with bowling with the Australian. Then, in the Duleep Trophy, I spoke largely about batting with Yuvi Bhai. When I played well in the tournament it gave (me) lot of confidence as I had had faced quality bowlers. When the Ranji Trophy began, I managed to score 45 runs in the first match and my confidence level went sky high. In total, I scored some 70-80 runs.
Then in the next matches, I got out on 70- 80. I was disappointed as I would’ve reached 100. Again in the next match, I was out on 40. I was getting good starts but failing to convert them. Against Punjab, I got out for 80 and Yuvi Pa shouted at me saying that I played a bad shot and got out. Then I realised that I played a bad shot and Yuvi got angry. After that, I scored 120 in the next match. So, batting is natural for me but I had to develop patience and Katich taught me how to play short balls with ease. So, that’s what I applied and scored well in the season.
What would you want to call yourself? A bowling all-rounder or just pure bowler?
I see myself as a bowling all-rounder. A bowler who can bat. Obviously, first priority is bowling. My job is to take wickets and while at the crease, I have to bat like a proper batsman. No batsman would like to get out early.
How much has batting helped your bowling and vice versa?
Sometimes, when you don’t bowl well, you don’t get wickets, so that is the time where I think I will cover it up with my batting for the team. These two go hand in hand which make a perfect all-rounder. It feels great.
And technically, do you think to not bowl in a particular area because you know the batsman can hit a shot?
Of course, there is a lot of advantage when your batting is good. So, there is a fair idea where to bowl a left-hander and where he will face issues just the way I do as a batsman. Everybody’s strength and weaknesses are different. So, you have a slight advantage if you bat properly and have an idea of bowling correctly.
What was the biggest thing you learnt from Hogg while in KKR?
The biggest thing for me was the way a 45-year-old Hogg remains involved in the game and that is the one thing I’ve been thinking of. To be as involved as him. I have also learnt a lot in the bowling department. How to read the batsman, how to plan to the next one and how to bowl if the batsman is looking to attack. There is a difference between our style of bowling. He bowls a bit faster than what I do. He knows it and I know it. We worked a lot on variation - the wrong'un and the flipper. He provided me immense support during nets where he backed me with various drills and bowling methods that were helpful.
Are you still in touch with him?
Obviously, even now, he follows me a lot. I received a message from him when I took five-for against England. During the Ranji season, he was very happy with my all-round performance. Even Katich messaged, which means people are following you. It feels good to know that.
What do you do to switch off from the game?
Obviously, I love football. I don’t watch cricket that much but I watch a lot of football, play games on PlayStation 4 , watch movies. I love watching movies. I’m a huge Barcelona fan, so I don’t miss any of the their matches even though it's at late in the night. In the Premier League, I support Liverpool.
What’s the next step for Kuldeep Yadav?
Every game is important for me. You can’t perform in every match but you can always give your 100 percent. Performance is a normal thing. If you play good, you will perform well. So, my goal stays that whenever I play, I give my 100 percent. I don’t think about the selections because it’s something not in my hands. I would love to give 100 percent in bowling and batting. There are times when you don't get wickets and there are times when you get heaps of wickets. This is what the game is all about. So, all I want to do is perform at and give my best in every match.