Unadkat, Umesh and Ashwin rally to make up for Kuldeep's "unbelievable" absence

A fast bowler returning after 12 years, another with an astonishing strike rate, and a first-day superstar combine to give India the advantage

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
The unique Kuldeep Yadav
A rare occurrence in Test cricket. Shiva Jayaraman and Sampath Bandarupalli worked hard to find out just how uncommon it is - a Player of the Match being dropped for the next Test in the same series. Kuldeep Yadav's omission from India's XI in Mirpur was only the fourth time it had happened in men's Test cricket.
Of the three, Kevin Pietersen was dropped for disciplinary reasons. Pat Symcox was dropped despite being Player of the Match against Pakistan in 1997-98, but his award-winning performance came with the bat and not with the ball. So in the next Test, South Africa chose the seam-bowling allrounder Lance Klusener over a spinner.
Ijaz Faqih, the journeyman allrounder from Pakistan, was Player of the Match for his century at No. 8 in Ahmedabad in 1986-87, but he was dropped for a specialist spinner for the legendary Bangalore Test.
So apart from Pietersen, the other two were arguably dropped for not doing enough with their primary skill. Kuldeep hardly put a foot wrong in his role as a bowler in Chattogram, taking eight wickets in his first Test in two years. He takes a wicket every six overs in Tests, but still couldn't add to the one series out of seven in which he has played two Tests.
Sunil Gavaskar called the dropping of Kuldeep "unbelievable", and he said that was a gentle way of putting it. Gavaskar said even if the pitch called for just two spinners, one of the other two - R Ashwin or Axar Patel - could have been dropped.
The first thing to notice here is that bowlers tend to get dropped more often because they rely on conditions more and they have the extra load to carry in Tests. Generally in Test cricket, batters are afforded more stability because they control much less of their fate than bowlers do.
In particular, you would hope that Kuldeep has the right people telling him the right things because he has just made a successful comeback from a dispiriting phase in his career. He is likely to continue being a part of the squad for the home Test series against Australia as the point of difference to the fingerspinners in R Ashwin, Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja (if fit).
Twelve years between Tests
Almost to the day, 12 years ago, Jaydev Unadkat ended a Test he was thrown into because Zaheer Khan turned up unfit for the start of the tour of South Africa. Put in on a damp pitch, India were bowled out for 136, which left an inexperienced attack nothing to work with. On debut, the 19-year-old Unadkat conceded 101 runs in 26 overs against rampaging South Africa batters, and had to wait 118 Tests for a second chance.
The Unadkat of 2022 is a stronger and vastly more experienced bowler, as we have seen through years of Ranji Trophy cricket, though a lot of public memory of him might be from the IPL. He was also part of a much better Indian attack in his second Test. Even though Unadkat did not hit speeds in the late 130s in Mirpur, he did hurry batters, which can happen if you find movement after pitching the ball. There was moisture in the pitch early in the morning, and Unadkat exploited it. He kept hitting the spot from where he was getting uneven bounce, and brought India the first breakthrough through extra bounce. He went off on a run to the catcher: finally a Test wicket-taker, relieved, elated, still in love with the red ball.
Post lunch, Unadkat showed his other skill: going round the wicket to right-hand batters and drawing some movement against the angle. It is never big movement when bowling from there, but it was enough to get him his second wicket.
Unadkat and Kuldeep - two men who have gone through their lowest in the IPL have had their fates collide during their Test comebacks. Unadkat's comeback straight into the side confirms India's policy of not having veterans play 'A' cricket because if a need arises they will be picked straightaway. 'A' cricket is for youngsters you want to prepare for the future; first-class veterans should be ready for the call all the time.
Also, it suggests India don't consider Kuldeep as one of the four frontline bowlers who can be trusted to bowl long spells. When he plays it is as the fifth bowler, and Kuldeep bowls aggressively, feeding off the control exerted by the other more traditional bowlers. And on this pitch, India wanted that fifth bowler to be a fast bowler.
48.5 balls per wicket
That's Umesh Yadav's strike-rate in Asia. Among those who have taken 100 wickets in the continent, that's the fourth best, behind Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and R Ashwin. Umesh takes fewer balls to get a wicket in Asia than greats such as Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Muthiah Muralidaran and Jadeja.
Just like Waqar and Shoaib, Umesh is a fast bowler with a direct and aggressive approach. He bowls full and at the stumps. With the low bounce on Asian pitches, he is difficult to score against, and his speed through the air makes him lethal whenever reverse-swing is on offer.
Like Unadkat, a lot of Umesh's early Test cricket came as a part of weak Indian attacks so it was easier to take him for runs. When you don't have a strong attack to back you up, you tend to go searching for wickets. Now Umesh can start by bowling to contain, knowing his team-mates can benefit from the pressure he creates. On the first day in Mirpur, Umesh kept pitching fuller. He bowled just short of a good length early on because that was the spot where the ball was kicking from. And once it began to reverse post-tea, his full ball percentage went up from 18% in the first two sessions to 45% in the last.
Now Umesh was in his element: direct, at the stumps, toggling the shiny side once in a while. His trapping Nurul Hasan in front was textbook Umesh: swinging in, deceptively quick, so much so that the umpire ruled bat first. Replays showed it was pad first. Even if he hadn't got those three wickets, Umesh had done a job by being the most economical bowler in India's attack.
Umesh can relate to both Kuldeep and Unadkat. There have been times when he has a great series at home, but is not played at all in an away series, where in theory he should get more assistance from the pitches. "It is part of your journey," was Umesh's message to Kuldeep. "Sometimes you perform but you sit out of the team because of the management call. Then you look after the playing XI. Good for him, he came back and performed well."
Umesh was part of the squad when Unadkat made his debut. Unadkat beat him to the India cap, being a like-for-like replacement for the missing Zaheer. Umesh knows the hard work Unadkat has put in since then. "I am very happy for him," Umesh said of Unadkat. "I was with him in South Africa when he debuted. He earned this chance with his performance in domestic cricket. When he started, the ball was kicking. The plan was to bowl that length, then the wicket settled. He is used to bowling on such wickets. He has bowled all his life on these pitches."
We started recording the day of a Test match as a filter in December 2015. Since then Ashwin has taken 49 wickets in 22 innings when bowling first on Day 1 of Test matches. With his four-wicket haul in Mirpur, he went past Kagiso Rabada's 48 such wickets. Only Nathan Lyon has taken more, but he has had nine more innings than Ashwin.
Overall, in the first innings of Test matches, Ashwin now has 106 wickets, going past Anil Kumble's 102 in the first innings and breaking into the top 10. Muralidaran, Lyon and Harbhajan Singh are the spinners who have taken more first-innings wickets than Ashwin, but among those bowlers who have taken at least 100 wickets in first innings of Tests, Ashwin is one of five to average in the 20s, behind Muralidaran, Dale Steyn, James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
A majority of Test matches are won or lost in the first innings. Ashwin has been a big part of India's success even when they lose the toss and are asked to bowl first. He and Jadeja have done enough even when India have lost the toss at home, except in the only two defeats in the Ashwin-Jadeja era at home: against Australia in Pune in 2016-17 and against England in Chennai in 2020-21, when Jadeja was out injured.
Even when playing away, India have relied on Ashwin on the first day, most memorably in Melbourne immediately after 36 all out, and also in Birmingham in 2018 before that. Whenever there is early dampness, Ashwin can become an attacking weapon. There was moisture in the Mirpur pitch, and he immediately drew turn and bounce, and also bowled his straighter variation.
Litton Das' might have looked like a soft wicket to a full delivery, but the away drift took the ball outside the line of his head, drawing the loose response. Against Mominul Haque, the best batter on display, Ashwin tried his carrom ball on at least three occasions, and got him eventually with that variation.
All of India's bowlers combined to negate the disadvantage of losing the toss in Mirpur, giving the visitors a great chance of batting the hosts out of the Test. These stories tell you why India have been a force to reckon with: their attack is almost always superb in any conditions with hardly any weak links.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo