“Agar aise daalna hai tho, main nahi dalwata hu tere se” (if you are going to bowl like this, then I am not going to bowl you), Rohit Sharma spat out from the slips this February. The new captain wasn’t too pleased that Kuldeep Yadav had resorted to firing his deliveries.
That one moment, even if taken out of context, seemed to capture the Kuldeep story: low on confidence, shrinking of the big heart needed for a spinner, captains losing trust, and an atrophy of talent. But, luckily, the upturn was just around the bend.
At the heart of Kuldeep’s revival story this IPL season—among other features like a faster arm speed, bolstered morale and a feeling of being loved—has been his reacquaintance with his old ally: the flight, the aerial suspension of the ball.
Yadav burst forth with a punkish flight that foxed and flummoxed batsmen. Babar Azam would recollect the twin deception, first in the Asia Cup 2017 and then in the World Cup in 2019, his flight had wrought on him.
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Or you could ask unwitting Englishmen and Australians who duelled him in a three-year span from 2017 to 2020, wherein Yadav seemed like a conjurer with an inexhaustible bag of tricks.
But somewhere, somehow, he lost that trick that made his magic work. Maybe, he lent his ears to too much advice, as he once told this newspaper, or maybe, he was hyper obsessive to leap the next leap, or maybe, he was too hasty to impart further dimensions to the game. His game, and the magic, fell apart.
Whatever the reasons be, in his forlorn years—where he was not only ousted from the national team but also thrust into the cold by his ex-franchise—the soul of his craft had deserted him. He still gave the ball some air, but the ball would often tumble rather than rip out, float rather than fizz, bereft of its power, rather than property, to produce an illusion.
Flight would coax the other two friends with it—drift and dip, a fusion of all these elements make wrist-spin so spectral a craft, that takes the pitch and conditions out of the equation to prosper, that makes him a dreaded proposition in England and Australia (where the next T20 World Cup is scheduled).
Some criticised that it was an offshoot of him trying to bowl faster—there was a widespread perception that he was too slow to torment batsmen, once they began to decode his variations. He was flat and flaccid, batsmen could read him off the hands; And at his pace, they could read him off the pitch as well.
There were few telltale signs of his regression either—he was not hurrying through the action, he was not using too much shoulder, he was pivoting as usual and the action with his usual fluency. Yadav would say that “the ball is just not coming out of my hands in the way I want it to come.” A simple but complex assessment, in that he knows something is wrong, yet cannot nail it down.
Bharat Arun, former India bowling coach, had rubbished the ‘too slow’ theory. “It’s not about bowling quicker,” he once told the Indian Express. “All I want from him is to get more vigour through the crease. Getting that vigour is a combination of working more on the bowling and getting fitter. Once you get that vigour through the crease, the body comes fully into the action, you get more fizz.”
That fizz, vigour, and his old friend the loopy flight has returned this summer. The ball now rips out of his palms, it traverses a delicious arc from his palms (the tossed-up balls were devoid of the curve), like a giant white eye, staring into the batsman’s eyes, then rising just above his eye-line , and dropping abruptly under his eyes, as if by a sudden gravitational pull.
The prodigious drift still eludes him, but he gets the beguiling dip that has fooled many a batsman in the past. If he could woo flight and drip back, drift too would not be far behind.
There were several instances in this IPL wherein his flight and dip have hoaxed batsmen—with Yadav it is seldom the turn off the pitch that dupes them. You keep going back to his dismissal of Shreyas Iyer in the first of the two encounters between Delhi Capitals and Kolkata Knight Riders. Iyer had just fetched his wrong-un (one breaking away) for a six-over long-on.
The line of the next ball was similar, angling away from around the stumps, but more flighted up. Iyer sashayed down the track, opened up his shoulders to repeat the shot, only that the ball suddenly dropped. One moment, the ball was there, the next moment it was not. Iyer tried to stab-defend, but the ball spun away from him and he was stumped.
The same game, his flight deceived Andre Russell too, after an elaborate (by T20 standards) set-up involving shuffling his angles and lengths.
— Kuldeep yadav (@imkuldeep18) April 29, 2022
Other small tweaks, too, have starred in the remaking of Yadav narrative. He has quickened up his action—from strides to the arm-speed. Apart from a front-arm that tends to break away a fraction too early, the rest of the action has been retained. A lot of bowlers tend to lose their bite and go flatter when they bowl faster, but not Yadav because he relies less on shoulders and more on arm speed to regulate pace.
This also ensures that he can modulate his pace—he could bowl anywhere between 75 kph to 90 kph without losing his sting—making him a more lethal bowler.
His body language too has changed. When he gets hit for a six or a four, he does not blow his cheeks to swipe the air in exasperation. These days, he just smiles, or throws a knowing look that might give the impression that the last boundary conceded was in fact all part of an elaborate, cunning plan. Such bluffing is an important element in the spinner’s armoury.
Little wonder then that he immediately returned to the national side. An in-sync Yadav would be invaluable in Australia later this year. Should he sustain his form, he could turn out to be the match-changing, tournament-defining proposition.
The biggest difference, according to Yadav, is that he has shed the fear of failure. “I have probably become a better bowler. I don’t know. But one thing is certain. I have become a lot stronger mentally. When you fail in life, you think, ‘Where can I improve?’ You learn from your mistakes when you face failure in life. I have worked on it, and now I have no fear of failure.”
The shift from KKR to Delhi Capitals has played a huge role in his mindset change. At Delhi, he has felt both wanted and loved. Before the start of the season, coach Ricky Ponting had texted him, saying he desperately wanted Yadav. Captain Rishabh Pant told him before the season that he was the first person the team wanted to acquire. Ponting later promised him that he would play all 14 games.
“When you are given the freedom to express yourself then you start to enjoy everything. When I spoke to Ricky during my first practice session with the team, he told me that I am bowling very well and that he’s looking to play me for all 14 league matches. That conversation with him motivated me a lot. I knew that even if I were to fail in a few games, the team would always back me, and I can one day strike form,” he said in the Delhi Capitals Podcast.
You’ll have a (foot)ball of a time as he speaks about his love for the game, cricket’s mental side, the Kul-Cha relationship, and his bond with wicket-keepers Dhoni and #RP17 💙
— Delhi Capitals (@DelhiCapitals) April 22, 2022
Wrist-spinners, more than any breed of bowlers, need long spells, time to cope with disappointment as well as success. They also need understanding and indulgence.
Around the same time last year, his mind was staggering through a dark alley of self doubts. Sometimes I felt, ‘what is going on?’. “Sometimes, the mind says, ‘ab shayad woh Kuldeep nahi rahe’ (Perhaps, I am not the same Kuldeep). Sometimes I feel, ‘no, I am still the same’ and I wait for the opportunity,” he told this paper during his days in the wilderness.
“There are days when you feel serving drinks and being on the bench is for the best – yaar yeh toh best seat hai apne line – and then there are days you don’t want to be in that place. I would think I should have been there playing. I tried to motivate myself every time. I try to be happy and feel that I am bowling well. There was self-doubt somewhere. I started questioning myself,” he poured his mind out.
There were others in the Delhi set-up who had waddled through the same dark spaces that he had. Like Shane Watson, who had to consult a mental-skills specialist to revive his flailing career. “I have spent a lot of sessions with him, where we just keep talking for hours, especially about the mental aspect of the game. I have shared a lot of things with him about what I have been through before joining this team,” he said in that podcast.
He also remembered a conversation with his idol Shane Warne—whose death left him shattered—before the Sydney Test in 2019. “Before the match started, we met in the tunnel. He put his hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘I’ll be in the commentary box. I want to see you smiling out there, I don’t care how you bowl. I just want to see a smile on your face,” Warne had told Yadav.
It’s difficult to accept that you are gone, Warnie. Just shocked and numb right now. It feels like a personal loss.
You’ve been my idol and inspiration to take up spin bowling. You were an artist at work with a ball in hand. pic.twitter.com/eYdjS6EUFI
— Kuldeep yadav (@imkuldeep18) March 4, 2022
This season, he rediscovered the joy of smiling as well as the thrill of flying the ball. And invariably, he rediscovered himself.