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India vs England: Rising Kuldeep Yadav returns to the scene of his Test debut

Though the left-arm wrist spinner had a good debut in 2017 at Dharamsala, his Test career seemed to wane – until England came visiting.

As Dharamsala gets ready for the fifth and final Test of a series that has featured six debutants across the two teams, Kuldeep Yadav — one of India’s leading performers over the past few weeks — may use this longish break to reminisce about his own debut seven years ago.

India’s Kuldeep Yadav prepares to bowl (AP)

Unlike this series, which has been won by India with a game left, Kuldeep’s initiation into international cricket came at the quaint hill town in a tense decider against Australia in the spring of 2017. The left-arm wrist spinner made an immediate impression too, match figures of 4/91 (first innings 4/68) signifying a fabulous start. Only 10 more appearances in seven years, however, have meant Kuldeep hasn’t had much else to reminisce about at Test level.

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But that seems to be changing. Kuldeep, 29, has gone about his business in this series with confidence and awareness which suggests he is finally at ease with all the layers of his complicated craft. Numbers bear testimony to his telling contribution in India’s 3-1 series lead — he has taken 12 wickets in just three Tests at a strike rate of 42.5, second only to the peerless Jasprit Bumrah.

Assuming nothing untoward transpires between now and the start of the fifth Test on Thursday, another measure of Kuldeep’s progress will be his playing four consecutive Tests for the first time in his stop-start career. The overhead conditions in cold Dharamsala may warrant the presence of an extra pacer, but India shouldn’t mess with Kuldeep’s position at any cost. As he has already shown while putting in some match-altering performances against England and indeed on debut, it’s not beyond Kuldeep to make a mark even in batting or seam-friendly conditions.

Stirring evidence of his progress lies in his spell in the morning session of Day 3 in Rajkot. Late on the second day, Kuldeep bore the brunt of centurion Ben Duckett’s assault, leaking 42 runs in six wicketless overs as England cruised to 207/2. It seemed to lay bare a perceived fragility when targetted, which had led to Kuldeep’s white-ball decline a few years ago. The benefit of a night’s rest and a revision in plans though allowed Kuldeep to launch a spirited comeback the following day, taking out Duckett and Jonny Bairstow in an enchanting spell of classical wrist spin.

An equally magnetic display was conjured in the second innings at Ranchi. Kuldeep had been inexplicably under bowled in the first innings as Joe Root’s century took the visitors to 353. By the time his turn came to bowl in the second innings, seemingly an afterthought for skipper Rohit Sharma, England had moved to 97/3 in 24 overs for an overall lead of 143 runs. This is when Kuldeep again came into his own, plotting the downfall of Zak Crawley and Ben Stokes with a masterful exhibition of flight, drift and turn.

For Crawley, he left the cover region open, encouraging the lanky opener to play through that gap. Crawley had driven Ashwin against the turn for boundaries on way to a half-century and didn’t sense the danger in doing that against Kuldeep, not taking into account his ability to get the ball to do a bit more mischief by virtue of his being a wrist spinner. Kuldeep gleefully landed the ball outside off and spun it through the bat-pad gap to disturb Crawley’s stumps.

Such displays are a consequence of the technical changes Kuldeep has incorporated since his knee injury in late 2021. Away from the glare, which surgery and rehab allowed, integral to his evolution has been an increase in pace that has taken away those extra milliseconds for batters to adjust to the turn. The results were already apparent in white-ball cricket. Since his return from that injury, he has taken 61 wickets in 38 ODIs at 21.91.

“My run-up has become straighter. My rhythm has become aggressive. My hand (non-bowling arm) perhaps used to fall a bit earlier. Now it is pointing more towards the batter. At the same time, I’ve not lost my spin or drift. My pace has increased a bit, which is helping me,” Kuldeep said last year.

If he can get a long enough run with the red ball, the positive impact of these changes should be felt in the five-day game too. Which brings us to a crucial question: how often should Kuldeep feature in India’s Test team going forward?

That query was posed after Kuldeep took a five-wicket haul against Australia in Sydney in 2019, prompting then coach Ravi Shastri to claim that he will be India’s No.1 spinner in overseas Tests. That Kuldeep had to wait more than two years to play another Test shows that things didn’t turn out as he would have wanted. By 2019 end, in fact, Kuldeep had lost his way to such an extent that his place in the one-day side was also under scrutiny. At the same time, Ashwin and Jadeja were at the peak of their powers and hard to displace.

If there’s genuine reason to be optimistic about the 29-year-old’s future this time around, it’s because it is Kuldeep who is at the peak of his powers right now.


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