It was the first delivery of the 15th over. The mid-innings light show had just ended a couple of overs back but the England batters had seen nothing yet. Their bowlers had bowled India out for 229 on a Lucknow wicket that clearly had something for the bowlers and there was still a little hope in the air.
At that point, there wasn’t much to choose between the sides. After 13 overs, India were 42/3. England now were 45/4. One wicket more, but with a small total to chase all they needed was one batter to get going.
That batter could have been Jos Buttler. On his day, he can be a one-man demolition army. But the first delivery – and what a ball it was – of the 15th over from Kuldeep Yadav finished him and England off.
The left-arm spinner tossed it up outside the off-stump, and then the ball gripped the surface before turning in sharply. Buttler had stayed on the back foot and looked like he was shaping up to punch it but he was beaten by the turn, a massive 7.2 degrees, and watched the ball crash into middle stump.
It was a brilliant display of spin bowling and one that Indian fans had got used to seeing from Kuldeep before the 2019 World Cup. But it all changed when England’s batters started to go after him during the Birmingham game. He ended up with figures of 10-0-72-1.
The mental scars of that mauling stayed with him for a while. Up to that point, he had played 50 matches and taken 92 wickets at an average of 23.59. Between 30th June 2019 and December 31, his numbers went south in a hurry. In 24 matches in that period, his average moved to 45.25 and his economy rate went up to 5.83.
So, in Lucknow, four years later, it felt like things had come a full circle.
One remembers interviewing Sourav Ganguly in March 2018 when Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep were the toast of the nation. The ‘KulCha’ pairing had oppositions in a tizzy and much of that was built around the batters just not being able to read Kuldeep.
The left-arm wrist spinner was playing match after match and the opposition was starting to get used to him. So, the question to Ganguly was simple: how does he keep this going? Should India shield him a little?
“There’s no point in doing that,” Ganguly had then declared. “If batters start reading his variations, then he has to adapt. Can you hide him away? Can you keep him under the wraps? I would never do that.
“Throw them at the deep end. That is the only way to see whether they will sink or swim. That is what I did with Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Zaheer and Sehwag. Well, not just them but others too. We remember the ones who came through but there were others who couldn’t make it. Could we have helped them along? Perhaps. But international cricket isn’t the place to do that. The best talents find a way.”
And now, Kuldeep has too. It took a while. It almost broke him. But he went back to his personal coach and figured out what his bowling needed. He needed to be quicker in the air, carry momentum from his straightened run-up and be more accurate. And it meant less turn (on average), but it made him a bowler who the captain could trust. The England match four years ago did take him off-track, but it also made him better.
Kuldeep’s stutter is the story of so many other young stars. They come into international cricket, stun everyone with their play and are looked upon as the future of the game. Some of that early charm is down to the rookie season syndrome.
The opposition doesn’t know much about you. The plans haven’t been firmed and you can make merry until they are. Then, the good teams get together and figure out a way. That is when things get interesting. That is when you understand how good the player truly is.
Iyer comes up short
Vinod Kambli’s talent was undeniable but then so were his troubles against the short ball. It ended him. Now, we see Shreyas Iyer struggling a bit too and one wonders whether he will find a way to escape the predicament that he now finds himself in.
Iyer, in a sense, can take a leaf out of Kuldeep’s book and perhaps change how he tackles the problem. Can he leave the short ball alone or should he just continue attacking? With competition for slots in the batting order fierce, the fear of failure can often lead you down the wrong path. However, as Ganguly said, he needs to find his way too.
We have seen other talents emerge in this World Cup. New Zealand’s Rachin Ravindra (23 years), Afghanistan’s Rahmanullah Gurbaz (21) and Ibrahim Zadran (21) are prime among them, but at some point they too will run into a rut.
But that too is part of the challenge of the game; part of its charm. If things are too easy, the game gets boring. But run into a wall; something that requires creative thinking and that is when the competitive juices truly start flowing.