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Kuldeep Yadav, drifting and dipping his way into the reckoning

His success in Chattogram was not so much because of the change in pace as it was the vigour in his action

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Kuldeep Yadav has bowled in 13 Test innings. Staggeringly, he has taken four or more wickets in five of those. He takes a wicket nearly every six overs. He has taken more wickets than he has bowled maidens in his brief Test career spread over eight Tests played in seven series across five-and-a-half years.
It is quite a small sample size, and he tends to play only when an extra spinner is required, which explains these numbers a little. But just eight Tests in five years? If Kuldeep feels hard done by, he would be justified, but there is a combination of factors at play. For a regular slot, he is competing with two all-time great spinners, who by the virtue of being fingerspinners, are less of a gamble. As India play just the five batters, the spinners' batting is more than just a bonus. When playing away, the lone spinner's batting ability becomes a big factor as R Ashwin will attest.
Still, perhaps more than the team combinations, Kuldeep's intervening downfall in limited-overs cricket in between those rare Test matches has been steep. At times, there has been a complete loss in trust in him, not just from India but also from Kolkata Knight Riders. It became a vicious cycle. Coaches and captains spoke about his lack of pace. The quicker he tried to bowl, the less effective he became. The less effective he became, the less they played him.
Kuldeep's four-for - which could become a five on the third morning - on comeback will be that much sweeter as it has come on a slow and low pitch. So slow and low that Kuldeep himself survived 114 balls for his career-best 40 when he batted.
It wasn't all about the pace really. Behind the scenes, what coaches really wanted was more vigour in his action, as former bowling coach Bharat Arun used to say. To a non-expert eye, a few changes are visible. He is running in straighter, the back foot is landing parallel to the crease, the bowling arm is slightly closer to the ear, and the leading arm is putting much more work in.
Kuldeep's coach Kapil Pandey told Hindustan Times earlier this year that a key part of their work was to increase the speed of the front arm and then get back the accuracy.
A cursory glance at the speed gun in Chattogram will tell you that the change wasn't as much about the pace as it was about the work on the ball. There was, in the words of Arun, vigour in how Kuldeep bowled for his four wickets. The drift or the drop on the ball helps it land a little short of where the batter expects it to, thereby creating an illusion of things happening quickly because of the batter's hurried reaction.
In two of his wickets, Kuldeep did the work in the air even before any action off the pitch came into play. Shakib Al Hasan was dragged out of his crease first ball from Kuldeep, and the ball drifted in dramatically to make him close the face when he defended in front of the body. The ball was outside off when Shakib started moving, and ended up pitching on or outside leg stump.
Mushfiqur Rahim saw a really full ball for which he felt he didn't need to stretch forward. But again the drift and dip created the gap between his bat and the pitch of the ball. The bat went wider than it should have, and the ball also had enough time to turn past it and catch him on the crease.
Nurul Hasan was done in by a sensational catch at short leg, but the ball turned in sharply, making him play when he could have let it hit the pad. That wicket should have satisfied Kuldeep because apart from the drift that dragged Nurul across, the turn was so quick he ended up throwing his hands at it in panic.
The fourth one was a wrong'un to a lower-order batter, which should underline Kuldeep's importance when bowling to the tail. Kuldeep told the host broadcasters he was getting proper turn, and he was loving it. He said his work on getting "a bit" quicker was helping him.
Just to point to the depth of Indian cricket, Kuldeep probably wouldn't have been playing had Ravindra Jadeja been playing. In Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar Patel, India have a dream combination of three excellent spinners who can also bat with varying degrees of effectiveness.
However, if Kuldeep's impressive comeback continues - he should get a second Test in a series for just the second time in his career when India go to Mirpur - Kuldeep presents himself as a point of difference in the series against Australia in the crucial Border-Gavaskar Trophy where a mis-step could cost India a spot in the World Test Championship final. The only thing is, he will be up against Axar, who takes a wicket every 34.5 balls and has a small matter of five five-fors in 13 innings.
It will probably come down to how much assistance there is in a pitch - the more the turn, the likelier Axar is to play - but even if Jadeja is not back to full fitness, India know they still have three spinners to trouble Australia.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo