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'You can't become a good spinner if you don't get over the fear of getting hit'

Kuldeep Yadav talks about his craft, the disappointment of Lord's 2018, and taking tips from Shane Warne

"No problem, mate. Bangalore traffic is a killer. Don't worry, I'm waiting." Kuldeep Yadav puts you to ease as he cools off after a two-hour gym session and a fitness assessment. As he waits, he poses for a few pictures with fans and then joins his ODI colleagues, who are sweating it out in the nets. There's healthy banter and laughter, and the promise of "Wait till I get you out."
"I haven't held the ball for a week. My coach is waiting for me back home in Kanpur," he says. "I'm bored now, yaar. Bowling is an obsession for me."
Kuldeep has just won ESPNcricinfo Awards for the ODI and T20I bowling performances of 2018, and has agreed to record two small acceptance speeches. "Bowling in the hot sun is easier," he laughs after two retakes. Then he gets on a roll, chatting about the year that went by, how he overcame the disappointment of Lord's 2018, and his interactions with Shane Warne, among other things.
What are your takeaways from the year gone by?
That it's very difficult to switch from white-ball cricket to red-ball cricket. If you keep playing red-ball cricket, it's easy to adjust as a spinner, but I'm regularly playing with the white ball, so when I got the chance [at Lord's], I wasn't prepared enough to tackle everything. For me, red-ball cricket is the biggest challenge. Everyone loves Test cricket and I'm no different.
It's difficult when you're playing abroad. At Lord's, I can't say the conditions weren't up to the mark, but it was difficult. I wasn't used to bowling with the Dukes ball, so when I returned, I worked really hard with my coach [Kapil Pandey]. I discussed what I'd done there, and from then, I started thinking about Test cricket. That has been the one thing in my mind since then.
What have you done since then?
I had time to go back to Kanpur and work with my coach. The Rovers Club, where I have practised since childhood, gives me positive vibes. It is where I am myself, with a lot of freedom to just do my thing quietly without having so many cameras trying to pick what you are trying. It took me seven days to actually get over my Lord's performance and bounce back. I was in England for one more game after the Lord's Test. The team management sent me home as they felt I would get game time before the West Indies series by playing against Australia A. I made plans, which I executed in the unofficial Tests against Australia A. In the first game I went okay, I was bowling too full, but in the second game, I got a five-for. That settled me down.
Were you critical of yourself after Lord's?
I didn't bowl well. That's the hard truth. I didn't think of wickets or conditions. It was just that I didn't bowl well.
Did coming back home help you refocus?
It gave me time to discuss with my coach. He pointed out what I did right, and asked me to focus on accuracy rather than trying too many things.
How did you prepare for the tour of Australia?
I first started bowling with the SG red ball, because we were playing at home against Australia A. Then I realised maybe I should bowl with the Kookaburra as well, because I thought if I perform well against West Indies, I could get a chance in Australia. I bowled for two days, 16-17 overs, with it. I found it easy to handle - you get good grip.
How do you plan?
I think a lot at the ground, even when I'm not playing. Of course I watch some videos to understand a batsman's strengths and weaknesses. But I don't think, "If I bowl here, he will hit me there." I don't believe in too much video analysis because my skill sets are different. If I bowl, I see if I have executed well. I don't think I should stress about it too much at this stage. I think about how I should get better, how to pick up wickets. Yes, I don't watch videos, but it doesn't mean I don't think much about my bowling.
Tell us about your interactions with Shane Warne in Australia.
I've followed him from childhood. My coach wanted me to watch his videos. When I met him during the Pune Test [2017] for the first time, I discussed many aspects of bowling. When we were in Australia this time, Ravi Shastri got me to chat with him. From that day, he was often by my side to help me and guide me through aspects I need to focus on bowling in Australia.
Was it just a one-off meeting or did you have a series of chats?
We met every morning of the Test matches. Before the Tests, I was bowling well, so I told him I'm in good rhythm, getting turn and getting everything I wanted to get out of my bowling. He looked at my action and spoke to me about handling different situations, how to bowl when you're under pressure. The kind of body language you should have. He told me: when you're under pressure, remain calm and give a big smile.
What changes did he suggest?
He looked at one replay on commentary and suggested minor changes with my bowling arm. He pointed to my knees bending at the time of release, and body alignment. He felt if it is straight, I'd be able to use my core better and be able to flight the ball more.
He also spoke to me about the kind of fields you need to set in Australia. The lengths you need to vary for your stock ball, googly and flipper. I was like, "Wow, this man is like an encyclopaedia." He demonstrated by bowling left-handed. Even now, from time to time he sends me texts and I remain in touch with him with him on WhatsApp. It has been great to have his support.
When you finally got a chance, in Sydney, were you nervous?
It felt like I was making my debut. I didn't want to make the mistakes I made at Lord's. I planned. Like, Usman Khawaja is a good player through the off side, so I planned to bowl a few wrong'uns to him.
You come across as a much-more confident white-ball bowler. Why is that?
If you're playing with the white ball regularly, it becomes easy to adjust. I'm more settled in white-ball cricket, I never feel any pressure. For any spinner, in ODIs, there's a limited quota, so you need to attack in that way. You need to challenge yourself every time to perform for the team.
Has bowling to someone like Andre Russell in the KKR nets helped you?
I haven't bowled much to him! I don't bowl much in the nets [during the IPL] so that I don't give away too many clues. At the Indian nets, I do, but otherwise I prefer sticking to my drills and doing single-wicket bowling. I hardly bowl five overs and then move over to nets and just bowl at the stumps. Once I feel comfortable, I follow my drills.
I bowl just about enough to make me feel comfortable. When you're with the Indian team, you have to bowl a lot anyway, so when I have some time away from that environment, I focus on my game and my drills. Sometimes, when I lose my rhythm, I go back to these basics to become comfortable again. Sometimes our physio and trainers fear I bowl a lot. They know I will keep bowling a lot when on a break. They mean it in a good way, so now I listen to them.
Tell us about your bowling partnership with Yuzvendra Chahal.
When you play together regularly, you learn from your partner. So I've learnt a lot from him. Whenever we play together, we try and improve together. Also in general, since my younger days, my coach made me bowl from the centre wicket, and challenged the batsmen to hit sixes, so the fear disappeared right from early stages of my career. You can't become a good spinner if you don't overcome that fear and just think wickets. That's what Chahal and I have done. The middle overs are important in ODIs - if you don't attack, teams will get 320, so the focus is on picking up wickets in the middle overs.
Are you happy with where your game is at today?
I haven't thought about that (laughs). I'm the kind of person who underestimates himself. I feel I'm never ready. I never feel I'm 100%. The only thought process is: I should keep getting better. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn't.
My coach often asks for five wickets from each every match, but it doesn't always happen. My mindset is, "Yes, I should do well for my team." As an individual you tend to be satisfied sometimes, but the biggest satisfaction is if the team wins.
How do you switch off?
I stay at home, go to my ground, because the vibes I get there are different. Youngsters come, those who I've spent time with in the age-group days come. My coach is always around, so I hang out with them. Otherwise, I'm at home with family. I'm fond of movies, I love soccer. I follow Neymar. I can't play [football] well, but to see and watch, I'm a big fan.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo