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India vs England: The Rapid Decline of Kuldeep Yadav & Tough Road of Redemption Ahead

Clearly, having gone through the rigorous and repeated grind of international and IPL cricket, Kuldeep isn’t the same bowler.

India vs England: The Rapid Decline of Kuldeep Yadav & Tough Road of Redemption Ahead

“He is at the top of his game. He is a confidence player, and he is bowling a nice rhythm, with lots of revolutions on the ball,” said David Hussey, Kolkata Knight Riders’ mentor, ahead of the 2020 Indian Premier League season. He was talking about Kuldeep Yadav, and his importance to the Knight Riders’ fortunes in the UAE-based tournament.

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It is not uncommon to hear such statements ahead of any high-profile tournament, and IPL is top of that particular ladder. Words, though, are easy. It is the follow-up action that matters. In this particular case, the two didn’t really align. Yadav only played five matches in the 2020 IPL, and he picked up only one wicket. Worse, he lost his spot to another wrist spinner – Varun Chakravarthy, who finished IPL 2020 with 17 wickets.

It was in keeping with Yadav’s downturn in fortunes. It began in Australia, ever since he finished with 5-for-99 in the fourth Test at Sydney (2018-19). Immediately afterwards, coach Ravi Shastri proclaimed him to be India’s “first-choice spinner whenever playing overseas”.

That was a press conference full of bluster from Shastri. He had come out all guns blazing against his critics and the team’s detractors. And why not, India had just won their first-ever Test series on Australian soil. Somewhere in that hullabaloo, the context of Yadav’s performance – in R Ashwin’s absence – was lost.

The struggle began immediately at home, smacked to all parts of the ground against Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 ODI World Cup. Yadav hoped to recover his form in the 2019 IPL. Instead, it turned out to be a nightmare, his worst return at that time – just four wickets in nine games at economy 8.66. KKR dropped him for the business end of that tournament.

Then, in England, Yadav didn’t finish the World Cup either. He was smacked in Birmingham by English batsmen (1-72 in 10 overs), and never recovered his confidence as Ravindra Jadeja replaced him, again for the business end.

Being termed a ‘confidence player’ can be a dual-edged sword, and clearly it has only riled Yadav. Since April 2019, he has played 17 ODIs, averaging 49.22 as opposed to his career average of 26.45. He has only featured in three T20Is – an astonishing fact – for India, returning average 20.75 and economy 10.37. It is a poor reflection on his career T20 returns of average 13.76 and economy 7.11.

The worst bit? Yadav has only played the one Test since his five-wicket haul in Sydney. He was not even part of the Test squad when India next played an overseas Test series (New Zealand, 2020) and recently he was benched for the entire Australia series (2020-21). So much so, the likes of Washington Sundar, Shahbaz Nadeem and Axar Patel suddenly jumped ahead of Yadav in the queue.

Where does that leave Yadav, both individually and in the scheme of things for Indian cricket?

Wrist-spinners are associated with audacity. It is a different breed of bowler altogether, in that a wrist-spinner always invites the batsmen to punish him. Then comes the guile bit – drift and loop, top spin or slider, pace and dip. Most of these elements are available to off-spinners as well (or orthodox left-arm spinners). It is that ‘inviting batsmen to hit’ bit that stands out.

For the longest of times, Yadav talked up a sassy attitude to bowling. ‘If the batsman wants to hit me, it gives me a better chance of picking wickets’, he has often professed. It is all good but only when it works. When it doesn’t, when you are not able to pull it off, it dents you mentally. And repeated failure means your confidence is shot to bits.

“I am going to pick five wickets today,” Yadav had quipped when heading to the SCG field from the nets, back in 2019. The gathered group of journalists could only marvel in appreciation at this young kid who delivered exactly what he spoke about. Four months later, after suffering Moeen Ali’s 27-run onslaught in an over, Yadav cried during the drinks’ break – on international television.

Clearly, having gone through the rigorous and repeated grind of international and IPL cricket, he isn’t the same bowler.

From Yadav’s point of view, that lost confidence can only be recovered from bowling, and bowling more. When he only played five matches in the 2020 IPL, one of his complaints was not bowling enough overs. 12 overs in four innings (didn’t even bowl in the fifth game) is an oddity, yes.

However, IPL is a results’ oriented business. The captain and team management will only give you so many chances, depending on the job you do and how well you do it. Surely, the cutthroat ultra-competitive nature of IPL cricket isn’t the best place to find your form and regain confidence again.

Then again, if you cry on live television, even the Indian think tank is going to wonder if you are mentally tough enough, say, to take on the Aussies in their own den. And so, while 2019 severely dented his confidence, the real step-back came in 2020. The big gap in playing days, thanks to the worldwide lockdown, accentuated by loss of domestic cricket has affected most cricketers, and Yadav is no different. Like any cricketer, there is only so much you can do in net sessions.

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The real answers are found in the hard grind on the field, in the thick of action. Loss of domestic cricket and the chance to play for India in Australia has cost Yadav dearly. Bowling unchanged from one end for Uttar Pradesh in Ranji Trophy ought to have brought some semblance of self-belief back in his bowling. Sitting as an unused substitute Down Under, or waiting for his chance against England, certainly didn’t help either.

He wasn’t trusted to take the field in T20Is or ODIs (solitary match) against Australia, and only played one red-ball practice game. He has played just the one Test in three against England, and will probably miss out on the fourth as well (at the time of writing).

From “first-choice overseas” to out of contention, it was a span of just under two years. A lot of cricketers have gone through this hard grind, and how many have recovered? Only a select few do, those blessed with a fighting spirit matching their chutzpah.

Can Kuldeep Yadav do so – climb out of this chasm of darkness engulfing his cricketing career? Time will tell.