Kuldeep Yadav made a smashing Test debut in Dharamsala in the series-deciding fourth Test in March, picking up 4 for 68 with his left-arm wrist spin to send Australia crashing from 144 for 1 to 300 all out. It was on the back of that spell that India worked its way towards an eight-wicket win that helped it clinch the four-Test series 2-1.
In the subsequent two Tests in Sri Lanka, Virat Kohli has gone with the two specialist spinners in R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, which meant that despite his impressive debut and his eight-wicket haul in the five-match One-Day International campaign in the Caribbean in June-July, the 22-year-old has had look on from the sidelines.
Now, with Jadeja suspended for the final Test starting at Pallekele International Cricket Stadium on Saturday, Kuldeep is almost certain to step in to the playing XI and try to do unto the Sri Lankans what he did to Australia. Axar Patel, the uncapped left-arm spinner, will join the team as Jadeja’s replacement, but should be with the team more as a back-up option rather than the first-choice spinning partner for Ashwin.
“Obviously, there is excitement,” said Kuldeep after India’s first practice session here on Wednesday. “I was excited to play my debut Test as well. If I get a chance to play in Sri Lanka, I will be very happy because I have been working hard and this will be a result of that. I am obviously excited, but also there is the nervousness that I should be able to perform.”
Kuldeep hasn’t yet been informed that he will figure in the final XI, he revealed. “It is still not clear because there are three days left for practice. But ever since I have come here, (Ravi) Shastri sir (the head coach) has kept on motivating me. He has been talking to me during the nets from even before the first Test. It has been a good experience.”
Reflecting on his Test debut under Ajinkya Rahane – Kohli sat out the match with a shoulder injury – Kuldeep said, “For me, the biggest thing was that I was playing the match. There cannot be a bigger moment than that. I was very nervous too, there was a lot of pressure, I couldn’t sleep (the previous night). Obviously, when you are close to achieving your dream, there is nervousness and playing Test cricket has always been my dream. When I got the chance, there was nothing in my head and I thought this was my chance. I had to perform now because everyone was watching me. That’s the best moment to prove myself. In my head, I wasn’t thinking who I was playing against, whether it was Australia or New Zealand. I was only thinking about taking as many wickets as possible. I wanted to show what skill I have. And that is what I did.
“(Anil) Kumble sir (the then head coach) and Ajju bhai both said, ‘just enjoy your bowling, do what you do in nets or what you have been doing since childhood’. And in my head, the first ball was very important. I wanted to bowl the first ball very well and that was my thinking. So when the first ball was good, and the first couple of overs went well, I grew in confidence and lost my nervousness.”
Kumble was a key influence during Kuldeep’s stint with the Indian team, even taking the young man for a chat with Shane Warne during the first Test of that series in Pune. Kuldeep has also worked closely under Bharat Arun, the Indian bowling coach, from his junior days, so in his case, the transition has been smooth. “I have been working with Bharat Arun for the past ten years, ever since I was playing in U16s and then in the U19s. I share a lot of things with him and he tells me a lot about bowling as well. He has seen me from when I was a junior cricketer and he knows what to do and what not to do. It is very easy to work with him, so I am happy to continue to work with him.”
Kuldeep understands that there is a reason why he has warmed the bench since his excellent Test debut. “You will have to wait for your chance when the No. 1 and No. 2 spinners (in the ICC Test rankings) are in the same squad as you,” he pointed out, referencing Jadeja and Ashwin respectively. “You cannot walk into the team so easily and you have to wait, that’s the rule of cricket. It is good that I have worked with them and I have been in the team with them for the last six-seven months. I have got to learn a lot from them, especially playing Test cricket with them. You gain experience like this and it helps in the future. I try to stay with them mostly and keep talking to them and they help me a lot.”
This is Kuldeep’s first overseas Test tour, but his cricketing preparations haven’t changed one bit. “You do work a little bit on your mindset because you are bowling on overseas wickets. Here, the wickets are a bit similar to Indian wickets. So you do have an idea how to bowl. Only the batsmen are a bit different in terms of their approach, foreign cricketers have a different approach to playing in the subcontinent. It won’t be too different here but obviously I have planned a little bit. If I am able to carry it to the field, it will be good.”
The Sri Lankans employed the sweep with mixed success in the previous Test at the SSC ground. “(Kusal) Mendis and (Dimuth) Karunaratne batted very well in the last Test, they played the sweep very well,” acknowledged Kuldeep. “It is difficult for spinners if the batsmen are playing the sweep so effectively. It becomes easy for the batsmen and tougher for the bowler, so my plan is to try and control things so that they do not play the sweep shot as much. But playing the sweep also means a lot of chances, so if you plan even a little about them, it becomes very helpful.”
Left-arm wrist spinners are hardly a dime a dozen but Kuldeep doesn’t believe that automatically guarantees success. “It doesn’t matter actually if you are a left-arm spinner or a right-arm spinner. It is about bowling in the right areas, that’s what matters more. If you are bowling quality stuff, then batsmen will have trouble and you will get more chances of taking wickets.
Kuldeep admits that life has changed for him since his Test debut, but adds that fundamentally, he has remained the same. “If you are playing Test cricket and playing for India, life definitely changes. There is no prouder moment than this that you can give your family. I feel really proud to represent India, I feel happy that my hard work from childhood has paid off.
“But when I play, for me the wicket doesn’t matter. I don’t see the wicket at all. During my early days, I used to bowl on cement wickets and there can be no better wickets than cement wickets to hone your craft. It is challenging because there is more bounce on grassy wickets and the ball skids a lot as well. Spinners get some advantage as well, even if there is not much turn.”