Back home after Lord's disappointment, Kuldeep Yadav searches for red-ball rhythm
It is the third day of India A's first unofficial Test against Australia A, and Kuldeep Yadav goes round the wicket to Marnus Labuschagne. He pushes cover a few yards back, to where the 30-yard circle would be in limited-overs cricket, and pushes long-off back onto the boundary. Labuschagne, Australia A's No. 6, has been driving freely all through his innings of 37.
Now, Kuldeep's loopy trajectory brings Labuschagne forward, looking to pick up a single into the open straight field on the off side. The ball dips and lands half a yard short of the batsman's stride, and spins through the gate to knock back his stumps.
In that moment is contained all the skill and nous Sachin Tendulkar might have been referring to around a month ago when he said Kuldeep was ready for Test cricket.
But how often does Kuldeep get the chance to engineer a wicket like that? The answer? Not much at all.
When Kuldeep played the Lord's Test a couple of weeks ago, it wasn't just his first Test since August 2017, but also his his first red-ball match in that period. India got through an entire domestic season between those two Test matches. Kuldeep's previous first-class match before that August 2017 Test in Pallekele, meanwhile, was his Test debut against Australia in Dharamsala, in March 2017.
To put it simply, before this unofficial Test in Bengaluru, Kuldeep's last three first-class games were all Tests, spread over nearly a year-and-a-half. It was the period in which he became a regular in the India limited-overs teams, when he was involved in series against Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa and England. With that packed schedule, he might well not have had the chance to join his state side in the Ranji Trophy. It shouldn't be a surprise at all, then, that Kuldeep with the red ball isn't yet as threatening as Kuldeep with the white ball.
By his own admission, Kuldeep thinks he needs more game time in this format.
"You have to change your mindset when you come to play with the red ball," he said at the end of the day's play. "You need to be very patient. You're not going to take wickets every time you come up to bowl. For me it's very important to be patient and not to try too much."
And that was the brief given to him when he was released from the Test squad before the fourth Test in England.
"I spoke to MSK [Prasad, chief selector] sir and Ravi [Shastri] sir. They wanted me to play a lot of cricket. I went there [England] and played one Test match. It was likely that only one spinner would be able to play over there so there wasn't much of an opportunity there. Here I had the opportunity to play. There was no advantage to sitting on the sidlelines.
"I was itching to go out and play because you only improve when you have match time. The growth is much slower when you're sitting on the sidelines. So this game and the next one are really important to me. This is all adding to my experience. The more I bowl with the red ball, the quicker I get used to it. And West Indies is going to come over to play as well. So if I find my rhythm here, it'll be easier for me to perform in that series. This is a good step for me. Personally, I'm very happy with the move of playing here. "
The return to India hadn't begun too well. On the first day of the match, when Mohammed Siraj picked up an eight-wicket haul, Kuldeep had struggled to hit consistent lengths and trouble the visitors' top three, which consisted entirely of left-handers. He had come on first change that day, and was largely ineffective even with the older ball, often dropping the ball too short or pushing it through too quickly. Though he was the only other bowler apart from Siraj to pick up wickets, he was the most expensive of India A's five frontline bowlers.
"For me it's very challenging to transform to red-ball cricket," Kuldeep said after the third day's play. He had taken two late wickets, including the one of Labuschagne, as Australia A pushed to set a fourth-innings target.
"Mentally you've to adjust a little - the conditions were very different in England. It was a Duke's ball. The wickets are quicker," Kuldeep said. "Back here in India, the SG ball gets much softer and tougher to bowl with. So those are the challenges. But after practising for a couple of days, I got used to it. I wasn't that comfortable in the first innings, but with every over, it got better.
"If you're playing white-ball regularly and suddenly you're selected for Test team and start bowling with the red ball, then it's challenging. In this match, I bowled around 30-plus overs, and now I'm feeling much better. I'm getting in the rhythm and really enjoying bowling right now."
Kuldeep career is somewhat peculiar in that he has, in a short span of time, oscillated between being the big hope for the future and a work in progress. Before Tendulkar's comments, Ravi Shastri had proclaimed that Kuldeep, the "tough little nut", had arrived as a player. After a string of impressive limited-overs performances, so much was expected from India's left-arm wristspinner that Virat Kohli, long before the start of the Test series in England, had said Kuldeep was making a case for red-ball selection.
It might have put Kuldeep in a bit of a spot, then, all these expectations, when he did make it into the XI for the Lord's Test. Not only had he pipped Ravindra Jadeja to the role of second spinner, but he'd also replaced a seamer in the most seam-friendly conditions of the series. Having not played any red-ball cricket in nearly a year, Kuldeep stood little chance of shining in gloomy London. He ended up with three significant zeroes in that match, two with the bat, and one in the wickets column.
There's no doubt Kuldeep has the ability to bowl well in the longest format, as he showed on his debut in Dharamsala. But he needs regular exposure to red-ball cricket, and bowl a lot of overs, to find his rhythm and maintain it.
In the second innings against Australia A, Kuldeep started off tight, then grew a little wayward, and then regained his control. In contrast to the first innings, he appeared to have a plan at all times on the third day. Early on, he eased nicely into a containing role, which his older team-mate K Gowtham had been trusted with in the first innings. Kuldeep hit a good length more often than in the first innings and appeared, overall, to be bowling a lot slower as well. As he grew more confident through the day, he even began going round the wicket to the right-handers. From that angle came the beautifully set up wicket of Labuschagne.
The 36.5 overs he has sent down in the first unofficial Test should hold Kuldeep in good stead when he bowls in the second game against Australia A. By the time that match is done, he should be fairly well prepared for West Indies' arrival. This is how India should nurture their most promising wristspinner. He cannot be learning the craft sporadically and directly at Test level. Few have survived trying to do that.