January 2018, Sydney Cricket Ground. India had just won its first-ever Test series on Australian soil. Coach Ravi Shastri was addressing a packed media conference in those pre-Covid days. “Kuldeep Yadav is India’s No 1 spinner in overseas conditions,” he bellowed, after the left-arm wrist spinner had picked up 5/99 in the first innings of this drawn fourth Test.

As things have transpired since, it was a dual intended message for R Ashwin and perhaps Ravindra Jadeja too, to raise their game... which they did. For young Kuldeep Yadav, it was supposed inspiration, welcoming him to the big league, telling him he could be India’s differentiator in the coming years. Shastri’s words worked for Ashwin-Jadeja, for they were seasoned campaigners. They didn’t for Yadav – he simply fell apart thereafter.

Five years have passed since that Sydney afternoon, and Yadav has played only one Test match in this interim. One – yes, that too in February 2021, full three years later. It was a similar downward curve in the limited-overs as well, gradually falling out of favour in both ODIs and T20Is. By February 2020, he was out of the ODI side. Since December 2019, he has only played six T20Is for the Men in Blue.

This downward spiral was seen in the Indian Premier League as well. In the 2020 season, Yadav played only five games for Kolkata Knight Riders. He didn’t even bowl in one of those games, and in the remaining four he picked a solitary wicket. Yes, one. It reflected in the ensuing seasons – benched for the entirety of the first half of IPL 2021, injured and ruled out of the second half of IPL 2021 later in the UAE, and then released by KKR ahead of the 2022 players’ auction.

If the phrase ‘down and out’ had a face, it would be Yadav’s from back then. It made for a storyline wherein the protagonist simply broke down under the burden of expectations. It was a heady mix of his own anticipation and the collective expectancy that comes with international or IPL cricket. When the desired results didn’t come through, Yadav didn’t have the mental wherewithal to deal with failure. Not every young cricketer does.

“You learn from your mistakes when you face failure in life. I have worked on it, and now I have no fear of failure,” said Yadav on Thursday night after picking 4/14 in three overs against his former franchise. His triumph was a stark turnaround from the lasting image of a bowler in tears who had been smacked around by Moeen Ali in IPL 2019.

For, this isn’t a sorry tale anymore. Instead, it is one of redemption.

Kuldeep Yadav set an early tone for the IPL 2022 season. Even as Mumbai Indians rocked up 177/5 in the first game, he picked 3/18. Key performances early in the season are the proverbial booster in this age of shots. For him, it meant support from coach Ricky Ponting and skipper Rishabh Pant as Delhi Capitals went about redrawing their plans. Yadav was assured of a starting spot for the remainder of the tournament.

“I feel Rishabh is showing a few glimpses of MS Dhoni’s characteristics behind the stumps,” Yadav told The DC Podcast. “He guides well and stays calm on the field. Wicketkeepers play a big role in the success of spinners. The credit for my performance in this IPL goes to Rishabh as well. We have a good understanding now.”

“We are unlocking little handbrakes on certain players that might be holding them back,” said Ponting, in the DC podcast. “Being at KKR and not playing didn’t help him. And one of the reasons I was keen on bringing him to DC was because I felt if we could give him confidence going into game one, then maybe he could be one of the finds of the tournament.”

That’s the thing about Yadav. Often, he has needed someone to guide him. When playing for India, that was MS Dhoni. His figures with Dhoni standing behind the stumps and post his retirement show there is an obvious drop and a stark one at that. The likes of Virat Kohli, or Eoin Morgan and Dinesh Karthik (at KKR), could not quite get the desired results out of him.

At Delhi Capitals then, Yadav has found someone to inspire him. Ponting is that legendary ex-cricketer whom you automatically look up to and want to follow each word he says, ala Dhoni. But he also brings that Australian attitude to the table. He will pump you up enough, build your mental fortitude and allow you enough space to grow into your own self. This bit has helped revitalise Yadav.

Of course, there was a need for change in the bowling method as well. For a while playing international cricket, when the ‘KulCha’ pairing was on song, Yadav’s confidence was high enough to allow batters to take him on. “I don’t mind the batters attacking me. The more they do that, the better chances I have of dismissing them,” he often repeated. Looping the ball up, and awaiting batters’ mistakes, was his go-to plan.

Cricket today, though, is rife with analytics. There is enough material to study and break down your opponents. Not a single moment or tactic is hidden, and it has contributed to the hectic evolution of the game. Yadav, with his go-to tactic, was found out sometime during the 2019 ODI World Cup and took a long time to recover.

Now, he is back with major changes in both attitude as well as his bowling. The last bit is key herein, for this has spearheaded Yadav into the top bowlers of IPL 2022. There is a discernible difference in his bowling speed – he is still looping them up, but those same deliveries are coming faster at you. And sometimes, he disguises them even better for a flatter, more direct trajectory. Ironically this season, Kolkata was at the receiving end of this resurgence. Twice.

In the first game, he picked 4/35. The highlight was trapping Pat Cummins lbw, with one that turned in. In the second game between DC and KKR on Thursday, Yadav picked 4/14, using a similar delivery to the left-handed Sunil Narine, gone first ball. Andre Russell’s stumping off a flatter outgoing delivery was another key moment. Across the two games, he also managed to out-think Shreyas Iyer with wide deliveries, showcasing his ability to execute different plans.

“I am a better bowler than before. I am also (a lot more) mentally stronger,” he told Star Sports post the game, trying hard to conceal a sheepish smile.

Much has changed indeed, and yet Kuldeep Yadav still retains that boyish chutzpah, key to bamboozling batters again.