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What is behind Kuldeep Yadav’s recent struggles?

Kuldeep struggles
by Aadya Sharma 3 minute read

India’s first-choice spinner not too long ago, Kuldeep Yadav has seen his stocks fall dramatically. What exactly has gone wrong for the left-arm wrist-spinner?

Just two years, Kuldeep Yadav was at the top of his game. He was ranked No.2 in the T20I rankings, having become the third-ranked ODI bowler in September 2018, and was shaping up to be a key piece in India’s World Cup campaign. That ascension was on the back of a superb run – in 2018, he picked up 45 wickets @ 17.77 at an economy of 4.64, bettered only by Rashid Khan. 2019 started with him taking five wickets at the SCG to seal India’s first-ever Test series victory in Australia, prompting Ravi Shastri to declare him India’s “frontline No.1 overseas spinner”. All was good. But from the top, the only way is the down.

The second India-England ODI, the 63rd of his career, saw him send down his joint-most expensive spell –  worth 84 runs and no wickets – off 10 overs. He conceded eight sixes, the most by any Indian bowler in an innings. His last five ODI spells now read: 1-62, 2-84, 1-57, 0-68, 0-84.

If his recent returns are any indication, India’s trump card has wilted from the edges. And as is the case with such situations, it seems to be a multi-layered issue.

His confidence has taken a beating

“Kuldeep’s confidence is his USP” – Virat Kohli, in 2017, detailed the biggest quality of India’s newest X-factor player when he first emerged to the scene. Combining well with his bowling style, a rare art in itself, was his unwavering zeal for positive, attacking cricket. So much was his confidence that, in his debut international year, he was brazen enough to proclaim that David Warner “puts pressure on himself” while facing him.

However, it all came crashing down, with an onslaught during a 2019 IPL game dramatically showing what happens when the confidence goes. Moeen Ali carted him for 27 in an over, including three consecutive sixes and images of a teary-eyed Kuldeep being consoled by his teammates did the rounds. He admitted he felt “very emotional” after the pounding.

The repercussions were long-lasting. After the match, he didn’t feature in the remainder of the IPL. In 2017 and 2018, he played a combined 28 games. In 2019 he was reduced to just five picking up one wicket at 92.00. His second ODI hat-trick against West Indies later that year gave hopes of redemption, but Kuldeep, seemingly holding back his expressive style, has not mustered the same impact since, often resorting to more defensive lines rather than backing his attacking weapons to see him good.

Trading accuracy for speed

Usually, when a spinner is out of rhythm, it is very easy to lose track of the basics and eagerly try a different method, with hopes of finding the sweet spot again. The effects are even more pronounced for mystery spinners, who risk the possibility of being found out – for Kuldeep, operating at his usual, slowish pace once he was being read better, made him an easy target.

In recent times, Kuldeep has seemingly lost touch of his accuracy, one of his most potent weapons, in search of his magical wicket-taking expertise. Sanjay Manjrekar, on ESPNcricinfo, spoke about how Kuldeep was “trying to be something he’s not” by bowling quicker than he usually does. “He mostly bowled in the mid-80s [in the first ODI]. There was just one ball that was 70 kph. Earlier, he used to bowl many deliveries in the 70 kph range. He bowled a 109 kph delivery as well.”

Has he been worked out?

Given how rare left-arm leg-spin is, it isn’t easy for other teams to mimic the style in practice and come up with ways to counter it. However, with technology’s heightened imprint on the sport, and the vast resource of footage available, mysteries in cricket aren’t as difficult to unravel with time.

On the 2018 tour of England, the first signs of a possible chink emerged, when Joe Root systematically found him out by reading him off the hand. Kuldeep had started the tour magnificently, taking five-for in the first T20I and six-for in the first ODI. But having installed a state-of-the-art bowling machine named Merlyn (the same one used in the 2005 Ashes to counter Shane Warne), England led the way for the world to find a way to extinguish Kuldeep’s magic. “I don’t believe in bowling machines,” Kuldeep said. “The machine doesn’t have hands or fingers.” But Root made two consecutive hundreds, and after trailing 1-0 in the ODIs, England prevailed 2-1.

In his sole Test appearance that summer, England plundered him for 44 in nine overs on a green Lord’s pitch. The mystery had been defused.

By next year, the crevasse widened. In 11 full-quota spells since the 2019 World Cup, Kuldeep has managed an economy of less than five only once and has picked up three wickets just the one time.

Lack of game time in Tests, T20Is

Even though his IPL numbers dwindled, Kuldeep remained a key presence in India’s one-day team – since the start of 2019, he has played 30 games, the most by any Indian bowler. However, going hand-in-hand with the confidence factor is Kuldeep’s lop-sided participation across formats, which have put more pressure on him to bowl a certain way. Kuldeep has played just one Test since February 2019, with India increasingly looking to pack their team with spinners who can bat.

Since that IPL game, Kuldeep has played a total of three T20Is, with India increasingly looking at lining up all-round spin options. It’s a steady decline for a spinner who was a firm first-choice not long ago, and Kuldeep has been caught in the vicious cycle of performing to keep his place, and retaining his spot to have the confidence to perform.

The missing MSD factor?

Over the years, Kuldeep has been vocal about MS Dhoni’s role in his rapid growth. The former India skipper would help set fields, give live inputs between deliveries [of which there are several stump-mic recordings], and also help analyse particular batsmen. “Whenever I played with Dhoni, I never felt the absence of my coach,” Kuldeep once said.

However, Dhoni’s departure has closely been followed by a sharp dip in Kuldeep’s career trajectory. Under Dhoni, Kuldeep averaged 22.53 at an economy of 4.87 in 47 games, picking up 91 wickets in ODIs. However, since Dhoni’s exit, Kuldeep has, in 16 games, picked up just 14 wickets at 61.71, and an economy of 6.22.

While dismissing it as pure coincidence would be naive, so would pinning all of Kuldeep’s success on Dhoni. However, the reliance on the wicketkeeper had to end someday, and Kuldeep has found it difficult to readjust, with the influence of the Kuldeep-Yuzvendra Chahal pairing also waning

“In the early part of their [Kuldeep and Chahal’s] career, MS Dhoni has helped them enough,” former India opener Virender Sehwag told Cricbuzz. “Now, they need to help themselves, and learn how to read batsmen to analyse which shot they play with ease, which shot troubles them, when they step out and when they stay on backfoot.”

At 26, there’s a long road ahead for Kuldeep to reclaim his lost mojo. Plenty of spinners in the past have found ways to reinvent themselves, and Kuldeep, too, might just need the right guidance to see his way out of this rough patch.

Perhaps it’s also time India ropes in a spin-bowling consultant, to complement Bharat Arun’s ever-developing pace attack. Kuldeep is too precious a talent to be left to wither away, and a bit of course correction could put him back on the right path.

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