In February 2019, India head coach Ravi Shastri had gone on record confirming that, for all intents and purposes, young Kuldeep Yadav, will be the team’s go-to guy in overseas Tests going forward.

“He plays overseas Test cricket and he gets five wickets, so he becomes our primary overseas spinner. Going ahead, if we have to play one spinner, he is the one we will pick,” Shastri told Cricbuzz in an interview. “There is a time for everyone. But now Kuldeep is our frontline number one overseas spinner.”

But as India warms up for the 2020-21 tour of Australia, even Shastri won’t be sure of giving Yadav a game.

In the just-concluded Indian Premier League season, the left-arm wrist-spinner got just five games, with the Kolkata Knight Riders often choosing to bench the mentally fragile 25-year-old. He picked just one wicket in those matches and for a spinner who was once feared by most international teams, that is a very poor outcome.

Each time KKR tried to play him, he disappointed. By now, the opposition knows that if you attack Kuldeep, his shoulders will drop as quickly as the ball will disappear out of the ground. Pile on the agony further and the spinner becomes a complete non-entity.

In fact, there might be many who would have been surprised to see him in the Indian squad at all. The fall has been swift – perhaps only rivalled by that of Rishabh Pant, who too finds himself out of the Indian team. Maybe, the selectors believe he will rediscover his form in international cricket; maybe Virat Kohli vouched for him. Either way, he is running out of time.

How the fall happened

Not that the ICC rankings matter much but they still give us an idea of how a bowler is doing.

  • On September 28, 2018, Yadav attained his highest position in the ODI rankings – 3. Now, he is ranked 20.
  • On February 10, 2019, Yadav attained his highest position in the T20 rankings – 2. Now, he is ranked 40.

He never played enough Tests but his variations and the inability of the opposition to read them lead to Shastri, perhaps prematurely, calling him India’s ‘primary overseas spinner’.

From a bowler who could do almost no wrong to one who was struggling to get games, Kuldeep’s major drop came in the second half of 2019. It started just before the World Cup and then, there was no coming back. Teams figured out his variations and even in the World Cup, he only took six wickets at 56.16.

Kuldeep Yadav's career numbers

Mat Inns Balls Runs Wkts BBI BBM Ave Econ SR 4w 5w 10
Tests 6 10 989 579 24 5/57 6/119 24.12 3.51 41.2 2 2 0
ODIs 60 58 3192 2721 104 6/25 6/25 26.16 5.11 30.6 4 1 0
T20Is 21 20 453 537 39 5/24 5/24 13.76 7.11 11.6 1 1 0

Kuldeep's ODI numbers

Year Matches Wickets Best bowling Average Economy rate Strike rate
2017 14 22 3/41 24.77 4.88 30.4
2018 19 45 6/25 17.77 4.64 22.9
2019 23 32 4/39 34.68 5.33 39.0
2020 4 5 2/65 53.20 6.65 48.0

Kuldeep's T20 numbers

Year Matches Wickets BB Avg ER SR
2017 8 12 3/52 18.50 7.65 14.5
2018 9 21 5/24 9.80 5.97 9.8
2019 2 4 2/26 17.75 8.87 12.0
2020 2 2 2/38 19.00 9.50 12.0

Along with Yuzvendra Chahal, Yadav was an integral part of Kohli’s middle overs wicket-taking #KulCha strategy. But while Chahal picked up 12 wickets, Yadav’s career and mind were slowly descending into chaos.

Just before the 2019 World Cup, I had the opportunity to interview Sourav Ganguly, whose new book was coming out. By then, it was apparent that Yadav’s variations were being picked by the opposition and I asked him how he would have dealt with the situation.

Would he perhaps ‘hide’ Kuldeep and use him as a surprise weapon? Would he drop him? Would he comfort him? What would he do? Ganguly, who had backed a lot of youngsters during his years as the skipper of the Indian team, had a simple answer to the problem.

“Can we hide him? Should we hide him? Will that do him or India any good? At the end of the day, it is up to the player to prove himself,” Ganguly had said.

Ganguly had further added: “Even when I was skipper, we picked a lot of youngsters but we also threw them in the deep side of the pool. It was up to them to sink or swim. That is how Yuvraj (Singh) did it. That is how Harbhajan (Singh) did it. That is how Zaheer (Khan) did it. You have to do the hard yards and you have to do them on your own. The captain can’t help you and neither can the coach. You have to help yourself. You cannot babysit players in international cricket.”

And each time I watch Yadav grimace after being hit for a four or a six, my mind goes back to Ganguly’s words. The meteoric rise might have painted a very different picture of international cricket in the spinner’s mind but then as the others adapted, he failed to find his feet again. Now, he looks lost. Some might even say he looks afraid.

For now, Kuldeep knows that the opposition has a set plan to face him and that is clearly frustrating him. But luckily for him, the solution is in his hands too.

Cricket, at the highest level, is all about reinvention. The opposition will scout you, they’ll break down your game and they’ll try to attack your weaknesses. But then the player goes back to the drawing board and adds something else to the mix. As Ganguly said, you either swim or sink. You can’t afford to become stagnant.