Kuldeep Yadav’s life has changed a good deal in the past few months. He had already been marked for the long haul after his 14-wicket haul at the 2014 Under-19 World Cup, which was followed by strong returns for Uttar Pradesh in the domestic circuit and then, when he got the chance, at the Indian Premier League with Kolkata Knight Riders.
On his Test debut, against Australia in Dharamsala earlier this year, Kuldeep netted the scalps of David Warner, Peter Handscomb, Glenn Maxwell and Pat Cummins on his first day at the job. He didn’t get any more wickets in the match but India won. It was about as bright a start as one could expect.
Catching up with Kuldeep on the sidelines of the 2017 IPL, one can’t help but note how little the swing in fortunes had changed him. So far, at least.
He is open, speaks off the cuff and a little irreverently about seniors. At some level, he is very much his age, you don’t need to be told he is just 22.
It was quite a quick transition for Kuldeep. He had been picked in the squad for the one-off Test against Bangladesh in early February, but wasn’t in the fray for a spot in the XI with R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja the first-choice options for Virat Kohli, and Jayant Yadav in the squad as well. But, by the end of the long Test season, Kuldeep was out bowling in tandem with Ashwin and Jadeja, and making his presence felt.
“I didn’t feel like a new guy at all,” Kuldeep tells Wisden India. “I was treated very well. We had all met during the IPL, so everything was very normal. In the IPL, everyone gets to know one another and it’s very comfortable.
“I had been doing so well in first-class cricket that I believed I would make my Test debut by 21, but it got late,” he adds with a laugh. “But whatever happened, happened for the best. It’s a dream to be a Test cricketer. Test match. I am picking up wickets. India winning. What more can I ask for?” He is unselfconscious, casual.
Kuldeep has gone from watching Shane Warne videos with his coach, Kapil Pandey, in Kanpur to spending time with Amit Mishra, around the IPL and the Indian team, as well as Brad Hogg, in the Kolkata set-up. Besides, Ashwin, Jadeja and the others have all shown keenness in helping the obviously talented youngster.
“Whoever is senior you learn from. Hogg … I spent a lot of time with him, watched him and his approach to a game, his preparation. When I met Shane Warne, this was during the Test series against Australia, I was so happy to meet sir. I chatted with him a lot, and cleared a lot of doubts. It was obviously very helpful. And he was very open with me,” gushes Kuldeep.
Not to forget Anil Kumble, the coach of the Indian team and about as good a wrist-spinner as there ever has been in India. Any special privileges, legspinner to legspinner? “Obviously,” says Kuldeep without a pause. “He has motivated me a lot. He has watched me in great detail while I was with the team. He spent a lot of time with me in the nets, even during lunch and tea breaks. He likes me a lot, I think. He is a legend. I am so lucky to work with him. He introduced me to Shane Warne too. They are friends, I think.”
He likes me a lot. They are friends, I think. You feel a laugh coming, but Kuldeep’s dead serious. He also talks about Kohli and Gautam Gambhir, his India and Kolkata captains respectively, liking him “a lot”.
Do Kohli and Gambhir ask specific things of him or leave him to his own devices? “Gauti bhai leaves it to me completely. He believes in me, for four years. His support has been great, even when I haven’t played. When I have played, he has given me the 18th or 19th overs. He isn’t worried about me giving away runs. He has so much faith in me.
“The same as Virat bhai, who believes in me. He spoke to me a lot when I was with the team. When I got my first wicket, he got water for me [Kohli missed the game with a shoulder injury]. A captain like that, who appreciates you … I have been very lucky; I can’t ask for anything more.”
“When I started bowling chinamen, I didn’t know if it was common or not. I found out later that it was rare in India. Maybe my coach knew that it would be different. As I kept playing, I even thought that it was not good to bowl like this. It was too different, people looked at me strangely. Maybe there was something wrong with it, that’s why no one did it. All left-armers bowled normal spin. But I got a lot of wickets, so I got excited and went on.”
Kuldeep started out as a fast bowler under Pandey’s tutelage in Kanpur in the mid-2000s, when he was just ten. While the boy thought fast bowling “was more fun”, the coach felt a spot of wrist spin might work better for him.
“I was ten then, I didn’t know a lot. I loved playing with tennis balls. I didn’t know I wanted to be a cricketer. My parents put me in an academy, so I copied the seniors. The coach wanted me to try spin and I tried to bowl legspin,” recalls Kuldeep. “I wasn’t happy with the change. Later on, I realised this was the right thing to do, so I continued to work. Sometimes I got a chance to play, sometimes I didn’t, and when I got my chance in the Under-15s for the first time, I realised this was right – and cricket was everything after that.”
Kuldeep on Kumble: “He has motivated me a lot. He spent a lot of time with me in the nets, even during lunch and tea breaks. He likes me a lot, I think. He is a legend. I am so lucky to work with him. He introduced me to Shane Warne too. They are friends, I think.”
He still marks a longer run-up when he can, though, even if it’s only in the nets: “I bowl fast sometimes in the nets, but I suppose I had a talent for legspin, which worked out well.”
It’s a bit of a vexing question: If we have so many right-arm legspinners around the world, why so few left-arm legspinners? Surely it should be the same?
“I don’t know, but I suppose it’s easier to bowl normal spin,” offers Kuldeep, before adding, “Let me think.” He does, and comes back with: “To be a top-class spinner you need skills. If you can take wickets, you have that role as a spinner. Left-arm spinners usually think they will bat a bit and bowl a bit. But bowling chinaman is very difficult. That’s why there aren’t so many. We don’t have role models, no one to watch and learn from.”
Fair argument. Though if he has held forth with these thoughts with, say, Jadeja, it might not have ended well for Kuldeep. He laughs when it’s put to him.
There’s no big difference between right-arm and left-arm legspin, Kuldeep explains. Pandey and he watched hours of videos of Warne to perfect his art.
“The coach used to work with me a lot; sometimes I would bowl for two hours or more, and then we would watch Shane Warne’s bowling. His feet. The alignment of his body. In a way, that was our coaching. How he released the ball, his grips … only difference was left and right. I just had to copy,” explains Kuldeep, telling the story he has many times before.
He has certainly done a decent job of copying Warne, even though getting around to the rarefied Warne territory is still some time – and 704 Test wickets – away.
Before wrapping up, we move to the oft-discussed topic this IPL – the success of the wrist-spinners: Imran Tahir, Yuzvendra Chahal, Rashid Khan … Kuldeep to an extent. He was left out of the playing XI for the all-important Eliminator against Sunrisers Hyderabad, but did have a few good outings prior to that this season. Like in the game against Kings XI Punjab late in the league phase, when he sent back a dangerous-looking Glenn Maxwell with a googly that the batsman read fine but couldn’t get hold of, and then Wriddhiman Saha, in the 18th over, with a googly bowled well wide that ended with Saha stumped. Earlier in the script, the twin stumpings – both with googlies, both in the 18th over again – of MS Dhoni and Manoj Tiwary in the game against Rising Pune Supergiant was an achievement as well.
“Gauti bhai leaves it to me completely. He has given me the 18th or 19th overs. He isn’t worried about me giving away runs. He has so much faith in me. The same as Virat bhai, who believes in me. When I got my first wicket, he got water for me. A captain like that, who appreciates you … I have been very lucky.”
“T20 is useful for spinners, whoever has variations,” says Kuldeep. “Legspinners, if you have a googly, you can beat batsmen. Imran Tahir is a googly master, so is Rashid Khan. A good googly is tough to pick. It works better in T20s. Maar to padhna hi hai (You are bound to get hit), so no point worrying,” he says cheekily.
“You have to work hard to move up to the Test level, be successful there. In T20s, you get wickets when batsmen try to hit you. In Tests, you need to buy wickets; much more skill is needed. In T20s, you just do what you can. Mix it up. And wickets will come. But I didn’t do many different things in the Test match also. Like in first-class games, I just gave the ball more air. That’s all. Just don’t worry about giving away runs.”
You get the impression that Kuldeep thinks about his game a fair bit. Something Ashwin has made into a fine art over the years: Think, think, think; improvise, invent, innovate.
“Ash says the right thing,” says Kuldeep. “For an offspinner, or a finger spinner, there aren’t many variations – carrom balls, this and that. Legspinners have more options. I want to have all the variations. I trust my stock balls the most, so that’s what I mainly work on, but I work on the variations too, like Ash says.”
Kuldeep has been good without being spectacular in the ongoing IPL 2017: 12 wickets in 11 innings with an economy rate of 8.29 is not bad. Not spectacular, but not bad. He’ll take it. And keep adding to his arsenal.
One hopes he will also keep that cheekiness and candour.