Kuldeep Yadav flying high, on tweaked technique and confidence
The left-arm wrist spinner's 5/25 in the 228-run thrashing of Pakistan in the Asia Cup in Colombo will boost India as they prepare for the ODI World Cup at home
Kuldeep Yadav will go into the 2023 ODI World Cup just like he entered the previous edition in 2019: as a potential match-winner carrying a disarming smile and the confidence of wickets behind him. But if you think it’s been a smooth passage for the 28-year-old left-arm wrist spinner over the last four years, think again. Be it losing his place in the Indian team, falling out of favour with Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League (IPL) before shifting to Delhi Capitals, or undergoing a knee surgery that consigned him to the sidelines for four months, he’s had many setbacks between the two World Cups.
And yet if he’s “just loving it at the moment”, as he said after claiming 5/25 in eight overs in the huge win over Pakistan in their Asia Cup Super Four clash in Colombo on Monday, it’s because he has worked his way up the pecking order once again. If Kuldeep was a bowler largely impervious to the harsh realities of international cricket ahead of the 2019 World Cup, the version we see ahead of the upcoming edition has surmounted hard knocks and tweaked his game to bounce back at the highest level.
The turning point was the knee injury that forced Yadav to return home prematurely from the Covid-enforced second leg of IPL in the United Arab Emirates in September 2021. Since coming back in February 2022 after surgery, Yadav has claimed 39 scalps in 22 ODIs at an economy of 4.73. For context, he had played just nine ODIs across 2020 and 2021 for eight wickets at 6.56 runs per over.
“I have been playing for one-and-a-half years after my surgery. My run up has become straighter. My rhythm has become aggressive. My approach is good. My hand (non-bowling arm) perhaps used to fall a bit earlier. Now that has come under control. It is pointing more towards the batter. That has helped me a lot,” Yadav told reporters at the Premadasa Stadium on Monday.
“At the same time, I’ve not lost my spin or drift. That hasn’t gone away. Perhaps my pace has increased a bit, which is helping me. I mainly think about hitting a good length as much as possible as a wrist spinner. What I think is that if you don’t bowl loose balls and stay consistent, it increases your chances of being successful.”
None of these technical adjustments must have been easy to make, especially given Yadav was already four years into his international career and habituated to bowling a certain way. But the forced break allowed for necessary contemplation.
“When I had my surgery, it was very frustrating because I was out of the game for five months. These changes did not happen overnight. It took a lot of time. A lot of people made suggestions. I realised on my own that I did not want to lose my zip. When I completed three months of rehab after surgery, NCA physio Ashish Kaushik said the load on the knee should be less. As a result, I thought that my rhythm should be fast and felt a few changes were needed.”
His pace is certainly the most perceptible change. Often derided for being too slow through the air and giving batters too much time to play on the back foot, Yadav has upped his speeds effectively. On Monday, his dismissals of Fakhar Zaman and Iftikhar Ahmed were examples of the benefit derived from it.
Zaman’s eyes lit up at seeing a hint of flight, only to be done in by a straighter delivery at 87kph. By the time he brought his bat down for a heave to the leg side, the ball had already passed him and crashed into the stumps. In Ahmed’s case, the delivery – one of Yadav’s quickest at 93kph – was slightly short, but the middle-order batter wasn’t able to get the desired connection on his pull.
In the search for that extra pace, he hasn’t lost his loop or guile. So, when he wants to draw the outside edge of a left-hand batter with his stock ball or dangle a googly against a right-hander on a fuller length, he does so at his command.
“Earlier his average speed was around 75-80 kph, now it is closer to 90kph. When the weight transfer is good, the ball comes out well,” said his coach Kapil Pandey. “He used to have a tendency to bowl short balls. I said we need to improve on the number of bad balls. You cannot bowl short, you have to keep it up. Earlier, if he was bowling 10 bad balls, now it is one or two. The intention is to keep the ball on a good length as much as possible.”
Six years into his international career, Yadav also seems to be more at ease with himself. As someone who gave the impression of needing a hand on his shoulder at all times, Yadav wasn’t perhaps comfortable with the uncertainty that surrounded his spot until a while ago. That’s no longer the case, buoyed by the assurance of being the sole specialist spinner in India’s squad for next month’s World Cup.
“When he played his first Test in Sydney, he spoke to me 3-4 times on the phone and asked what he should be doing. Now we talk maybe once before a game. He knows where he should be bowling. He has become relaxed now,” said Pandey.
The pressure, of course, will mount with the arrival of the World Cup at home, but it’s up to Yadav to maintain this demeanour and continue enjoying his craft. As we have learned over the last four years, it will bode well for a bowler who will be a crucial cog in India’s wheel over the next two months.