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Kuldeep Yadav’s Dharamsala deja vu: A story of seven years and 12 Tests

These last seven years have been ‘interesting’, the 29-year-old observed, with a wry smile. Talk about understatements.

These words trickled easily out of Kuldeep Yadav’s mouth, hours after he spun a wicked web of deceit around England on Thursday. In excellent batting conditions on the opening day of the final Test, the pixie left-arm wrist-spinner was in his elements, braving the cold and using a stiff wind to his advantage with practiced ease.

Kuldeep Yadav shows the match ball as he completes a five-wicket haul on Day 1 of the 5th Test match against England (ANI )

Watching Kuldeep in action, the uninitiated would have imagined him to be a seasoned campaigner in Test cricket, such was the felicity and calmness with which he went about his business. They would have been shocked to learn that he was only playing his 12th Test, despite having debuted seven years back at the same venue, the wonderfully picturesque HPCA Stadium in Dharamsala.

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These last seven years have been ‘interesting’, the 29-year-old observed, with a wry smile. Talk about understatements.

Kuldeep’s debut against Australia, in the fourth and final Test with the series locked 1-1 and regular skipper Virat Kohli ruled out with a shoulder injury, was one of the braver calls in Indian cricket. At head coach Anil Kumble’s urgings, stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane resisted the temptation to bring in another batter, choosing to blood the Chinaman bowler. It was a move that paid handsome dividends; Kuldeep picked up four for 68 in Australia’s first-innings 300, the scalp of David Warner delighting him particularly because he dismissed him with a flipper recently learnt from the great, late Shane Warne.

Then 22, the world seemed Kuldeep’s oyster. Within months, he formed a heady wrist-spinning limited-overs combine with Yuzvendra Chahal, but after two years of sustained success, the wheels came off spectacularly following the 2019 World Cup. In Test cricket, Kuldeep was more often surplus to requirement, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja such a potent force that a third cog in the wheel almost an afterthought.

Kuldeep’s confidence dipped, his bowling suffered; worse, he lost the trust of the team management, was dropped by his IPL franchise and then sustained a knee injury. Suddenly, the world was a dark place.

Delving deep into his reservoir of determination and emerging a changed bowler – changed action, changed outlook – Kuldeep slowly worked his way back into contention, assisted by a change in the leadership group. He soon re-established his white-ball credentials but in the longer format, he seldom got an extended run. Indeed, before this series, he hadn’t played more than two Tests on the trot. Perhaps now, given that he has held his own despite the presence of Ashwin and Jadeja, he will no longer make sporadic appearances.

Dharamsala 2017 to Dharamsala 2024 has been a journey of sweat and blood, delight, despair and delight all over again. One of the more noticeable facets is Kuldeep’s equanimity in the face of failure and success. There is a poise about him that stands out even when the batters are coming hard at him; his faith in his skills ensures that his head doesn’t drop, his shoulders don’t droop these days.

A wrist-spinner is still the trickiest bowler to encounter. A left-arm wrist-spinner is even more of a novelty, but Kuldeep isn’t only about novelty. He is the real deal, a special talent that he has honed through hours of diligent labour, adding to his repertoire, working on becoming more versatile and rounded. Throughout this series, he has threatened a standout performance. Perhaps, the stars aligned in such a fashion to facilitate that at the venue of his maiden foray into the big league. On a very good batting surface which England seemed primed to exploit at 64 without loss and 100 for one, Kuldeep unfurled his bag of tricks. A last-minute change-up to a wrong ‘un when Ollie Pope left his crease early. A terrific leg-break which drifted away, drew the well-entrenched Zak Crawley forward and then suddenly spat back at him on pitching to surge through the gate. A befuddling sequence of wrong ‘un-leg-break-wrong ‘un that hoodwinked Ben Stokes. Gems, really. Kuldeep five for 72, England 218 all out, thank you.

Along the way, Kuldeep reached 50 Test wickets. In all of Test history, only Johnny Briggs, the England left-arm spinner of the 1800s, had gotten there in fewer deliveries. Kuldeep’s 50th came off his 1,871st ball in Test cricket. “I don’t play for records, I am sure someone will break that too,” he smiled. But it must have been very satisfying, given his trials and travails of the last seven years.

Dharamsala 2017 was to have been the stepping-stone. Instead, that tag will likely now shift to Dharamsala 2024. The winds of change will soon blow across the Indian spin firmament. Kuldeep will ensure that change will be neither turbulent nor traumatic.


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