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The Kuldeep Yadav conundrum

Kuldeep Yadav Kuldeep Yadav is the only Indian man to have two one-day hat-tricks (Getty)

February 8, 2020

The bamboozled face of Glenn Maxwell told the story rather well. Ravi Shastri’s words on commentary added stardust to the tale. “No clue whatsoever, that is magnificent bowling from the young man.” Maxwell was not Kuldeep Yadav’s first wicket in international cricket, he was his third in his debut match in a test against Australia in Dharamsala in 2017. But it was this googly, which clipped the off stump of Maxwell, that announced to the world that this man from Kanpur was something very special.

For the next two years, it seemed liked Yadav could do no wrong in any match he played. A total of 67 wickets in two years of one-day international cricket, including a staggering 45 wickets in 2018, was evidence of his enormous ability. His record in T20 international cricket was even more remarkable because in 2018, he took 21 wickets for India at an average of just 9.81.

Batsmen of any capability were struggling to combat the skills and variety Yadav put against them with the ball. But after his stellar performance in Sydney during India’s historic test series victory in Australia, Yadav has experienced indifferent form and confidence. Getting dropped for games in one-day internationals and T20Is, getting unwanted records such as his 2-84 in the first ODI against New Zealand this year being the third most expensive spell ever by an Indian spinner, and a hint of a lack of self belief are all what we see in him today.

What has happened to Yadav in the past year since he was announced by Shastri as “the one we will pick” in an overseas test? Has he really become a player that deserves to stay on the sidelines in all the formats almost all of the time?

The reason cited by the Indian team management to bring in Yadav to limited-overs cricket, and Yuzvendra Chahal more consistently, was to take wickets in the middle overs. In one-day cricket, that would be between overs 11 and 40. Captain Virat Kohli was not concerned about leaking runs, but he wanted wickets in the phase that can be the most difficult to manage for a fielding captain.

The pair delivered magic for their captain from the period post the 2017 Champions Trophy until the start of 2019. India played 44 ODIs in that period, Yadav and Chahal played together in 23 of those ODIs. Eighteen of those matches were with no third spinner in the side, and they picked up 75 wickets at a collective strike rate of 26.17, which was the best for any combination India had tried. In the 23 matches played together, India won 16 matches and tied one.

Yadav v England Yadav got his career best ODI figures of 6/25 against England in 2018 (Getty)

Yadav’s record in that 18 month period with Chahal in the side was better than when Chahal was not in the side. With Chahal, he took 51 wickets in 23 matches at an average of 19.80. Without his partner in crime, he took 18 wickets in 12 matches, at still a great average of 25.27. So what was the turning point in Yadav’s form to what we see currently, where it is increasingly unlikely to see both Yadav and Chahal play together in the near future?

The point at which his confidence seemed to take a massive dive was the Indian Premier League of 2019. In particular, it was just one match. Kolkata Knight Riders versus the Royal Challengers Bangalore. Yadav recorded the second worst figures in IPL history, with 1-59 off his four overs as Moeen Ali and Kohli destroyed his bowling at Eden Gardens. The tears rolling down his face as he walked off the field that day just highlighted how difficult sport can be for people in the public spotlight.

The tournament where he gained more of a name had now become his nightmare as Yadav took just four wickets in nine games of the 2019 edition. The economy rate of 8.67 was not too far away from his career IPL economy rate of 8.33, but the bowling average of 71.50 was a mile away from his previous years. In fact, in six of the nine games he was wicketless, which meant the skill he was brought in for had faded.

This lack of confidence spilled over into the one-day format where he had the least productive year of his short career in 2019. Thirty two wickets at an average of 34.69, and an increased economy rate of 5.34 do not tell half the story. Constant questioning from pundits as to why he was unable to pick wickets like he did in the past did not help, while different messaging to Yadav from the management across the formats must have also added to the strain.

This year has started on a similarly difficult note for the 25-year-old, as he was dropped from the test match squad altogether for the New Zealand series and dropped for the second ODI against New Zealand in the ongoing series. Five wickets in four games at an economy of 6.65 and a career-high strike rate of 48.00 means he does not really have a leg to stand on in terms of selection, but he needs to be handled with care.

The team management seem to be doing this not only to Yadav, but also a certain Rishabh Pant, who will be the subject of a blog later on this month. They will of course have their own thinking because they have more knowledge about how these players are in preparation and how they deal with moments in games. But Yadav is undoubtedly, whatever you think of his current malaise, a match winner.

Match winners should not be treated like most players, there has to be an understanding that some days they will not perform. But in the days they do, they will win you games often single-handedly. This does not mean they should consistently play even if they are playing terribly, but it means they should get more chances than most.

With Ravindra Jadeja’s continuing improvement as a batsman in any form of cricket, why not give him the added responsibility of batting at number six, like he did for the test side in the home season last year? This opens up a position to play ‘KulCha’ together and along with Jadeja, there will be no dearth of bowling options at Kohli’s disposal. Kedar Jadhav has not bowled in the ongoing series against New Zealand, so it is not as if he is playing as an all rounder.

Sidelining Yadav because of bad performances will do no good for his confidence going forward, and the Indian side need him more than ever this year with the T20 World Cup in Australia. A quality performance against Australia in 2018’s T20 series shows he knows how to bowl in those conditions and on those grounds. Data from Cricviz shows Yadav is still the bowler with highest wicket taking probability in limited overs international cricket. It should be high on the priority list of Kohli and Shastri to get Yadav’s confidence back, because he will be crucial in delivering the ultimate prize in November this year.