When Kuldeep Yadav burst onto the ODI scene back in 2017, it seemed like India had struck gold. The left-arm wrist-spinner was (and still is) a one-of-a-kind bowler, and was both young and eager to learn.
Kuldeep made an immediate impact as well, picking up three-wicket hauls in each of his first two trysts with the ball in the format. He consistently provided a breakthrough or two in every game, and went wicketless in only 5 of his first 25 ODIs (two of which he did not bowl in).
More tellingly, Kuldeep Yadav seemed to be improving at a rapid rate. He entered a purple patch in the 2017-18 season, scalping 29 wickets in a 9-game stretch including a career-best 6-wicket haul against England at Trent Bridge.
The 2018-19 season was also rewarding for Kuldeep. He registered consecutive 4-fors away in New Zealand, and that tour was flanked by a number of noteworthy home performances.
But around two years down the line, Kuldeep Yadav is not only horribly low on confidence and form but also on the verge of being ousted from the Indian team in all three formats. He's taken a 3-wicket haul only once in his last 21 ODIs, and went wicketless in one-third of these games.
The 3rd and final ODI may just have been the tipping point as India went in with zero specialist spinners on a pitch which even persuaded England to use part-timer Liam Livingstone.
Just how tactical was the change India made in the 3rd ODI?
At the toss for the series decider, after falling on the wrong side of the coin for what seemed like the millionth time, Indian skipper Virat Kohli said:
“One change to our side, tactical one looking at how the wicket has panned out. T Natarajan plays instead of Kuldeep Yadav. The famous saying is the toss is not in your control - it's completely out of my control now! I would have bowled first as well. As Jos (Buttler) mentioned, it is probably the best wicket of the series so far, looks hard with a good amount of grass covering.”
Now, at first glance, what Kohli said at the toss wasn't wrong. The pitch did have a green look to it, and the pacers did get a fair amount of swing with the new ball. But upon closer inspection, the tactical decision to drop Kuldeep Yadav was a bit puzzling.
After all, England had four left-handers in their playing XI - Ben Stokes, Dawid Malan, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali. And the only spinner India fielded, left-arm spinner Krunal Pandya, had leaked a river of runs in the preceding game and is notoriously bad at bowling to southpaws.
It's not like India had too many options on the bench. Washington Sundar was the only man who could've turned the ball away from the English left-handers, and another defensive spinner would've been the last thing on Kohli's mind.
But Kuldeep Yadav, who although went for over 80 runs in the 2nd ODI, hadn't bowled too badly. He always looked threatening, and had he not been bafflingly taken out of the attack after bowling a couple of tight overs, would've quite possibly provided a breakthrough or two.
Moreover, all-rounder Hardik Pandya turned out to bowl in the 3rd ODI, which meant that India had as many as five pace options at their disposal. The end result was that only four overs of spin were bowled in the second innings on a pitch that saw Adil Rashid, Moeen Ali and Liam Livingstone take 5 wickets over the course of just 20 overs.
Yes, dew might have adversely impacted Kuldeep Yadav in the second innings. But there's no way for India to have known that they'd chase, and picking an extra pacer in place of a wicket-taking spinner was a questionable decision.
The move paid off in the end, as T Natarajan dismissed Ben Stokes - albeit in lucky fashion - and bowled a couple of tidy overs at the death. But the thinking behind the selection was a bit suspect.
Kuldeep Yadav's road to redemption is filled with obstacles
Now that he's been dropped - tactical decision or otherwise - Kuldeep Yadav has a long way to go before he can redeem himself. The road ahead is filled with obstacles, the first of which is the upcoming Indian Premier League season.
Unlike his Indian spin partners, Kuldeep Yadav isn't a fixture in the playing XI of an IPL team.
While Yuzvendra Chahal will be Royal Challengers Bangalore's lead spinner, Washington Sundar will support him. Rahul Chahar is part of the Mumbai Indians spin attack alongside Krunal Pandya, and Ravindra Jadeja is undroppable at the Chennai Super Kings. Even Rahul Tewatia, who recently earned a call-up to the national T20I team, is guaranteed to play most games for the Rajasthan Royals.
With Varun Chakravarthy, Sunil Narine and Shakib Al Hasan ahead of him in the KKR pecking order, Kuldeep Yadav is in a highly compromising position. He may not get any games to make an impression in the IPL, following which India embark on important quests - the World Test Championship final and the T20 World Cup.
Kuldeep Yadav is still a world-class bowler. His situation can be compared to the place Rishabh Pant was in less than a few months ago - out of favour in all three formats, inconsistent and low on confidence.
Kuldeep can take inspiration from Pant and put in the hard work to become an all-format regular once again. But as of now, it seems like the final nail in his coffin has been mercilessly drilled in.