A dozen playing days in this India-Australia series have produced more fairytales than the combined imaginations of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm managed in their lifetime. The latest in the string of unlikely stories to punctuate this see-saw series came in the unlikely shape of debutant left-arm chinaman/googly bowler Kuldeep Yadav.
Everything about his story flirts with the boundaries of probability, beginning with the very fact of his making it to the playing XI. The most foolhardy punter would have hesitated to put spare change on the possibility that with talismanic captain and number four batsman Virat Kohli pulling out with an injured shoulder, the team management would choose as replacement a tyro spinner — more so in a side that already boasts two spinners who have captured the top two ICC rankings.
That he made the side was surprising enough; that he then produced a series of brilliant deliveries to slice through the Australian batting lineup, after the visitors had taken control of the game in a free-flowing first session that produced 131 runs for one wicket in 31 overs stretched credulity to the limit and beyond.
Having watched from the outfield while his higher-rated peers had bowled ineffective spells, he got to bowl his first over of international cricket just before the lunch break. That he was given the ball on resumption was a tribute to the savvy of India’s 33rd captain Ajinkya Rahane; the more usual call would have been for India to resume the second session with one of its top two spinners.
In the first ball of his second over after the break, Kuldeep provided a foretaste of what was to come. His looping flight and sharp dip defeated David Warner’s reading of length; the batsman went back to a ball that was on the fuller side and compounded the error by trying to cut. The legbreak bounced, turned, took the outer edge of the bat and flew to first slip for Rahane to hold with soft hands as the ball was flying past him and to his right.well at slip.
Umesh Yadav at the other end had choked Australia’s Ranchi hero Shaun Marsh with a bouncer down the line of middle to find the glove. Kuldeep then produced possibly the ball of the match — a legbreak bowled with the scrambled seam, floated across the right hander from over the wicket, landing on length outside off and inviting the drive.
Handscomb went for the shot — he would have been inhuman not to have been lured by one so obviously in the arc for the stroke through the covers. The shot pulled him open, creating a gap between bat and pad and turning sharply through it to hit the top of off.
Glenn Maxwell was his next victim, this time to the googly. The batsman went back, anticipating the ball turning into him; the wrong ‘un coming out of the back of the hand squared him up and flicked the pad en route to the middle stump.
There are few sights better — and few satisfactions greater — than a spinner pulling a batsman’s technique apart and knocking out the stumps, and Kuldeep with two such dismissals back to back provided a surfeit of riches.
Australia was 143/1 when Kuldeep sorted out his lines and lengths and got down to work. Before you could look up the origins of ‘chinaman’, they had slumped to 178/5 in the face of brilliant bowling by a young man who, in his first international, operated with the panache and control of a veteran.
Surprisingly for a left arm bowler who flights a lot, his length was relentless on the good length spot, and his variations almost too numerous to keep track of: the leg break bowled with the side seam; the one bowled with the scrambled seam; the one that looks to turn but goes through with the arm; the googly… each perfect in its own way and in combination, a masterclass delivered, what is more, by a reluctant spinner.
A Times of India profile by Gaurav Gupta tells of how he was more interested in studies than in cricket, even in the face of his father’s blandishments to take to the sport. The sight of Wasim Akram bowling in the 2003 World Cup fired his teenage imagination, however, and he conceived of the ambition to become a left arm quick.
His coach, taking in the youngster’s lack of inches and corresponding lack of musculature, advised him to try spin. As the story goes, the very first ball he bowled in the new style was a chinaman. When he bowled it, he had no idea what he had done, he had no inkling of what a chinaman was and even when his coach named the ball, Kuldeep wasn’t particularly happy with whatever the hell it was that had come out of his hand seemingly of its own volition. But under the prodding of his coach he kept bowling those whatsits, and at some point perfecting it became an obsession. Junoon.
First picked by Mumbai Indians as a 16-year-old, he ended up at Kolkata Knight Riders where — this is one of those fairy stories that, in an excess of zeal, adds layers of improbability at each plot point — the bowling coach was his boyhood inspiration, Akram. Between the talismanic Pakistani quick, the Australian chinaman bowler Brad Hogg, and Kuldeep’s declared idol Shane Warne whom he studied on video, the elements of his craft began coming together. And — some fairytales just go on and on — he ended up taking the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar, another of his idols. “I didn’t sleep that night,” he says in a video interview.
He will sleep well tonight, knowing that he was singularly responsible for his team wrenching control of a game that appeared, in the morning session, to have gone completely out of hand.
INDIA could have had a dream start when Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, in the side for Ishant Sharma, found Warner’s outer edge with the very first ball of the match, only to watch in dismay as Karun Nair at third slip shelled what should have been a regulation catch.
The Warner of uncertain footwork and unstable mind slowly made way for a more assured batsman who, as he spent time at the crease, gained in confidence and rediscovered the ability to bat to his strengths. He was 54 not out off 79 balls at lunch, with eight fours and a lovely straight six off Ravichandran Ashwin when the bowler’s excess flight landed one in the left-handed opener’s hitting arc. But his story is best told not in how many runs he scored in that first session but in where he scored them — 24 of his 54 came in the point-cover arc, showcasing his chief strength square on the off, a further 16 came in the third man region off the extra-thick edges of his barndoor-sized bat, the edges sometimes deliberate, more often inadvertent.
Steve Smith, meanwhile, walked out in sublime touch, seemingly intent on smashing the Indian attack into the ground while renewing his assault on Donald Bradman’s totemic average. Throughout this series Smith has shown the concentration of a monk and the discipline of a Marine; here he changed up the gears, batting with a fluidity that was as visually appealing as it was ruthlessly effective.
He signaled intent as early as the eighth over, when he greeted Umesh with a flowing drive through point and followed it up with a shot he would never have dreamed of playing during his various rearguard acts earlier in the series — standing tall, hitting on the up off the line of his off stump, with almost casual contempt, over the head of the cover fielder.
Smith’s various knocks have been characterized by his deft use of the crease and his ability to use its depth to alter the lengths of the bowlers. Even by those standards, his batting in the first session was a masterclass in footwork. Again, it is not the runs he scored — 72 in the first session at a strike rate of 71.2 and studded with 10 fours — but where he scored them that tell the story of a knock of imperious authority: 28 of those runs came through the covers and 21 in the arc between square leg and midwicket, testimony to the skill with which he drives off either foot, on either side of the wicket.his ability to drive off either foot, on either side of the wicket, with immaculate control.
Against the twin assault, India wilted. The catching was ordinary, the ground fielding appallingly inept, and the bowlers with the exception of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar uniformly flat, pedestrian.
AND then Kuldeep began to script his personal dream. He bowled with control and penetration; his fresh young enthusiasm proved infectious and got his mates buzzing around; his every ball seemed fashioned out of impeccable craft and impish delight. After each over, as he went to his fielding position on the boundary line to the cheers of the crowd, he had coach Anil Kumble and captain Virat Kohli fetching him drinks, talking to him, keeping him ‘up’ and focussed — it was just brilliant to see the vitality he brought to the team, the difference he made.
Key though they were to the Indian fightback, it was not the wickets that mattered so much as the way Kuldeep, almost single-handedly, shackled Smith, turning him from the free-stroking player of the morning session to a grimly defensive version after lunch. Again, consider numbers: Smith scored 72 off 101 balls before lunch with 10 fours; after lunch, he faced a further 72 balls but added a mere 39 runs, with four fours.
It was Kuldeep who troubled him the most, and Ravi Ashwin who took him out in the most important strike of the innings. The off-spinner, barring a few deliveries, wasn’t getting any turn off the pitch. Ironically, the two balls that turned the most fetched him the wicket.Those few deliveries that did turn, however, were what fetched him the wicket.
In the 60th over Mathew Wade, who by then had realized that Ashwin was getting no turn, decided to play him as a slow seam bowler. Wade went back for an almighty pull to a ball somewhat shorter in length, and to his surprise was beaten when it turned and kept on the low side to flash under his swishing bat. The offie then tossed one right up; the ball turned dramatically past the edge, found vicious bounce to go with the turn, hit the fingertips of a startled Wriddhiman Saha and on the ricochet almost rearranged sole slip Rahane’s face. off at slip.
The resulting bye brought Smith on strike;. Ashwin bowled one straight and on a line just outside off. Smith played inside the line looking for the huge turn he had just seen two examples of, and the resulting outer edge off the push down the wrong line saw Rahane taking a very sharp chance low to his left at slip.
That magical second session, which produced five wickets for just 77 runs off 29 overs, turned the game on its axis. “We need three or four wickets,” Rahane had said at the start, pointing out that India had lost the toss and were one batsman short; thus, he said, India needed to keep Australia from breaking free in the first innings. His bowlers did him proud and got him all ten inside the day — and Rahane the captain deserves a lot of personal credit for that outcome.
In the second session, with the ball quite hard and the debutant spinner getting bounce and turn, Rahane savvily gave the youngster an extended spell from one end, while rotating Umesh, Ashwin and Jadeja to block up the other end. In the third session, with a ball gone soft after 70-plus overs and not gripping and turning as much, he began rotating his bowlers more rapidly, not letting batsmen settle against any one type of attack, and using proactive, sometimes unusual, field settings to push each batsman out of his comfort zone.
Five bowlers are almost always seen as a bit of a luxury, but here every single bowler played a role: Umesh getting Renshaw early and then returning to take out Marsh; Ashwin getting the Australian captain after Smith had scored his 20th Test century and his seventh against India (the value of the knock is best judged against the fact that his 100 came in a team total, at the time, of 185/5); Jadeja producing one of his magical deliveries to defeat a Wade sweep and hit top of off with bounce and turn off better than good length; and Bhuvneshwar nicely rounding things off with the first over of the second new ball, setting Nathan Lyon up with a series of outswingers and then producing the inswinger to have Lyon driving uppishly to midwicket, where Cheteshwar Pujara dived and held as the ball was fading in front of him.
It was yet another day of captivating Test cricket, of the kind this series has showcased so regularly — brilliant batting, superb bowling, game control swinging from one side to the other, a great rearguard innings by Wade… pretty much everything that has now become the norm in a contest between these two sides.
But the image that lingers, long past close of play, is of a smiling debutant in his early twenties, boyishly clean-shaven in a team that has made facial hair a collective fashion statement.
With the cloud-capped peaks of the Himalayas in the background framing him, he is poised at the top of his bowling run, calmly arranging his field, casually overruling his captain and waving his seniors around to just where he wants them, confident in his accidentally acquired craft and sure of his outcomes.
He gets everything the way he wants it, nods to himself, ambles in, rolls his arm over and, now out of the front of the hand and now out of the back, a little bit of magic floats through the air.
PS: Courtesy Aakash Chopra, a lovely, detailed breakdown of Kuldeep’s craft.