Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
BAN v NZ (1)
Legends League (1)
Abu Dhabi T10 (3)
SA v WI (A tour) (1)
Sheffield Shield (3)
On October 22 in Dharamsala, Kuldeep briefly lived his first cricketing dream, sending down a cross-seam thunderbolt - at 113.7kph, it was roughly 33kph quicker than his previous ball - that smacked into Daryl Mitchell's right bicep as he attempted an ill-advised reverse-sweep. It seemed at first that the batter had given Kuldeep an early sighter of his intentions, but watch it again, freeze the video at the point of Kuldeep's release, and it isn't obvious at all that Mitchell was shaping to reverse. Kuldeep, it would seem, had been looking to bowl this quick'un all along.
This was Kuldeep's sixth over in this India-New Zealand game, and it was a pivotal time in the contest. This was the first match of this World Cup where India were without Hardik Pandya, which meant they had no sixth bowler to step in if one of their five frontline options was enduring a bad day. Kuldeep, at that point, seemed to be enduring a decidedly bad day. His first five overs, all wicketless, had cost him 48 runs, and Mitchell and Rachin Ravindra had already combined to hit him for four sixes.
At the start of Kuldeep's sixth over, the 33rd of the innings, New Zealand were 167 for 2 and looking at a total of 292 according to ESPNcricinfo's Forecaster.
They ended up all out for 273, and Kuldeep played a key part in restricting them to this extent, picking up two wickets and conceding just 25 in his last five overs.
It was a performance that showcased Kuldeep's resilience and his ability to think on his feet while under extreme pressure. Speaking at a mixed-zone interaction three weeks later, after India's last league game, Kuldeep went back to this contest against New Zealand and spoke of how he'd bounced back through his last five overs.
"Sometimes the batsman can get [on top of] you, and you have to change your tactics very quickly, and that's what I did in Dharamsala," he said. "I thought the wicket was very flat there, no spin there, small ground, so always better for the batsman to go straight, so sometimes you have to change the line and length to make them guess where you're going to bowl, and that's what I did in Dharamsala."
Ball-by-ball data from the Dharamsala game reflects how well Kuldeep's change of plan worked: in his first five overs, New Zealand's batters hit him down the ground (through or over the mid-on and mid-off regions) 14 times and took 30 runs off those balls. Mitchell, who used his feet to Kuldeep whenever he got half a chance, hit him for three straight sixes.
In the back half of his 10-over quota, Kuldeep made every possible effort to deny New Zealand's batters the opportunity to hit him straight. The cross-seamer to Mitchell was a sure sign of this, a sign in flashing neon.
In his last five overs, Kuldeep only allowed New Zealand's batters to hit him down the ground on seven occasions, for the cost of nine runs. Four of those runs came via a spilled catch from Jasprit Bumrah on the long-off boundary, when Mitchell miscued him in that direction. This was off a wrong'un dangled wide outside off stump, another ball designed to be difficult to hit down the ground.
In a World Cup where he hasn't gone at more than five an over in any of his other eight games, this performance against New Zealand, where he went at 7.3, has somehow come to exemplify Kuldeep's best qualities. New Zealand, who at that stage had four wins from four games, had come out with what looked like a method to get on top of an India attack that had until then looked irresistible, and targeting Kuldeep seemed to be central to this method. They got right on top of him too, but he didn't let them stay there for long.
Kuldeep has always been a resilient character, supremely confident in his own ability, but it's perhaps over the last two years or so, coinciding with his comeback to India's ODI squad following a spell out of the side, that he's fully developed the defensive tools that have allowed him to stay in games like the one in Dharamsala.
The Kuldeep of the 2019 World Cup, who lost his status as guaranteed starter after England took him apart at Edgbaston, may not have had all these tools at his disposal. Rohit Sharma, Kuldeep's captain, has seen how much he's evolved as a cricketer in the interim.
"Kuldeep obviously missed out on a few games in between, but since he's made a comeback, you see a different sort of Kuldeep in terms of his attitude, wants to front the situation, front the challenge, take the responsibility upon him[self]," he said on the eve of India's semi-final against New Zealand. "All those kind of things I can clearly see with him.
"He is not afraid to get hit. [The Dharamsala] game was a perfect example where the batters were trying to put him under pressure. But he eventually got those couple of wickets for us. With him, it doesn't matter that he goes for runs, but his job, he knows that he has to go out there and get the team into good situations, try for breakthroughs, if there's a partnership. And yeah, he's not afraid of getting hit. And that's the beauty of spin bowling.
"If you are afraid, things do not fall in place in terms of the strategy of the team as well. You don't mind getting hit in a few overs, but the will to come back and finish off really strong is what matters. And that is what he did in Dharamsala. They were in good position at one point and they probably ended up getting 270-280. So that was a good comeback [from India] in the last 10 overs.
"I mean like we always say, the game is not over till the last ball is bowled. So even though you get hit for a few boundaries, few sixes here and there, in a few overs, there are 10 overs, 60 balls that you have to bowl and you have to come back. And that is the attitude that Kuldeep has, even if he is put under pressure at the beginning, he knows he has to come back and he will come back."
On Wednesday India will play New Zealand again, at the Wankhede Stadium, the least hospitable venue to spinners in the competition so far. At no ground at this World Cup have spinners had a worse average (70.09) or economy rate (5.99). The boundaries are short, particularly down the ground, the bounce is true, and batters can often hit through the line with impunity. New Zealand will have their plans as always, including various ways of going after India's spinners.
After missing out on playing the World Cup semi-final four years ago, Kuldeep will be ready for whatever they'll throw at him, relishing the chance of another high-intensity scrap.