Why Kuldeep Yadav's struggles have come at just the right time
In an international career spanning two years now, Kuldeep Yadav has emerged as a game changer for India. With the assistance of spin twin Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep has managed to get heaps of wickets in the middle overs - the phase where India were struggling to strike for a long time.
His extraordinary average and strike rate, at a time when international batsmen don't spare bowlers, has helped India stay afloat despite this period being among the team's worst in terms of batting.
Needless to say, with 146 wickets in 68 internationals, Kuldeep is one of India's bowling trump cards. In fact, in some of the more recent ODI tournaments, Kuldeep was regularly picked as India's first choice spinner whenever the team decided to field only one.
Kuldeep delivered, and is among the highest wicket takers in the current calendar year as well - with 20 wickets in 11 ODIs.
With every subsequent opportunity, Kuldeep is seemingly getting more confident. He is evolving as well, but so are the batsmen. On any normal day, Kuldeep can end up getting two to three opposition wickets in a single spell. But just like any bowler, even he can get hit.
Yes, he has heart - he loves inviting the batsmen to hit shots by flighting the ball more and more. But this has led to a number of dry and expensive spells for India's lead spinner recently.
In his two years as an India international, Kuldeep has played against all the top oppositions in almost all the Test cricketing nations. Most batting lineups that have faced him have struggled to pick his bowling at first. But by the end of every series, many of the batsmen have been able to pick his variations.
Kuldeep has been successful for a number of reasons - his ability to spin the ball square both ways, his accuracy and his persistence. And there's also the mystery factor. His googly is very hard to differentiate from his stock ball from 22 yards away, and batsmen need to spend a lot of time before finding a way to pick him.
But by now, that mystery factor is not something Kuldeep should be relying on.
The ongoing IPL 2019 is testament to this. Kuldeep, who also has some of the best numbers when it comes to India's T20I bowlers, is truly an all-format cricketer, like his captain Virat Kohli. Why then, has he managed only three wickets from eight matches this IPL - at an average of over 75?
A long season can be cited as one of the reasons, but one thing is for sure: batsmen are now picking him, and scoring aggressively against him.
This is where his cricketing sensibility needs to step in. Kuldeep should remember that Anil Kumble - India's most successful bowler with 956 wickets - managed most of those scalps while hardly spinning the ball.
Kuldeep has all the ingredients of becoming an international great, but so did Ajantha Mendis and Sunil Narine. Narine and Mendis and many others relied on the mystery factor to fox the opposition batsmen. Once the mystery was thrown out of the window, both struggled to be as penetrative as they were initially.
Kuldeep still has time on his hands before that happens. But the current IPL is a timely reminder of how bad things could be, if he doesn't shape up.
Kuldeep needs to add more variation to his bowling as quickly as possible. One big aspect missing from his skill set is subtle variations in pace - something that has fetched many international greats hundreds of wickets.
While Kuldeep's stock ball is usually bowled around and less than 80 kmph, his quicker one - a front-of-the-hand seamup delivery - comes at over 100 kmph. That difference is a little too large to be consistently effective.
He also doesn't have a deceptive flipper like Brad Hogg, or the latter's countryman Shane Warne. Another thing Kuldeep needs to learn from his idol Warne is finding ways to penetrate once the batsmen are on top.
Warne often emphasized on the kind of shots he wanted the batsmen to end up playing, and setting fields accordingly. Kuldeep is hardly ever seen doing something like that.
It is not that Kuldeep has not already worked on these things. But his current IPL outing is a timely reminder to get his thinking cap on.
Of course, with World Cup 2019 just over a month away and the IPL about to finish soon, Kuldeep might not be able to develop a major skill in such a short span of time. But he needs to realize that the World Cup will be a big and testing tournament, and a bad day might be just around the corner. He can only hope for that bad day to come sooner than later, and at least not in a knockout match.
The support of his teammates would also be crucial, as one player alone cannot win you matches.
Kuldeep needs to be told that there are batsmen and batting lineups who are slowly beginning to target him. Some batting lineups might even be planning to score 80 or more off his quota of 10 overs.
Kuldeep's plan of action now should include that possibility. In big tournaments like the World Cup, batsmen won't be looking to respect his bowling.
Most teams know by now that Kuldeep's attacking bowling also comes as an opportunity to score big runs, and that is what he needs to have a backup plan for. And if the batsmen are being defensive against him, he and his captain have to be all the more attacking.
Kuldeep, who was first picked for India's ODI squad in November 2014, is certain to play his first World Cup this year. This will also be his first ICC tournament, as he actually made his limited-overs debut after the last completed ICC tournament - the 2017 Champions Trophy.
With India's squad for the World Cup to be finalized today, selection is the last thing Kuldeep should be concerned about. Instead, he needs to be focusing on how to prepare for the inevitable attacks by the batsmen that have the potential to derail his and India's plans.