Kuldeep Yadav went wicketless in India's World Cup warm-up game, against New Zealand, and in his first spell of their second warm-up, against Bangladesh. These were his first matches since April 19, when he was unexpectedly dropped by Kolkata Knight Riders during the IPL.
In his second spell against Bangladesh, Kuldeep finally found flight, dip, turn, and wickets. At one point he was on a hat-trick. His body language changed. The big smile returned. There was more energy in his deliveries, and he suddenly became the match-winner that India captain Virat Kohli said he would be banking on in the World Cup.
In this interview, conducted shortly after the IPL, Kuldeep talks about what went wrong for him in that tournament, understanding what he needs to work on, and how he cannot wait to bowl in his debut World Cup.
You are heading to England. You must be excited, considering you got your career-best ODI figures there?
Last year [in England] I just played in three ODIs. This time I will have more time to showcase my skills. Of course, it will be a challenge and there will be pressure, considering it's the World Cup. I have a nervous excitement to play in such a big event for the first time.
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You are 13 wickets away from becoming the second fastest to 100 ODI wickets. Is that enough of a challenge?
Yes, yes (laughs), that's on my mind. I will become the first Indian if I manage that feat. I will try to get them as soon as possible. That is my goal. And if you set yourself a goal and work towards it, put in the effort, motivate yourself, then you can achieve it possibly.
What did you do after the IPL?
I went back to Kanpur and spent ten days with my personal coach [Kapil Pandey]. I strengthened my basics and focused on my skills.
Was this IPL the most difficult phase of your career so far?
You can say that. In the two years I have been playing, everything was working nicely. But I now want to look forward to the World Cup.
How much time did it take you to forget the disappointment of being dropped?
It took me a couple of days. [But] it's the T20 format. The Eden [Gardens] wicket was very good for batting. It's not like I was bowling badly, or bowling half-volleys or full tosses. I was bowling well, sticking to my strengths. If I flighted the ball, it was just coming nicely onto the bat. People are saying I was bowling badly, but I actually did not give away many runs other than that over where I went for 25 runs [against Royal Challengers Bangalore in Kolkata]. Before that, I think my economy was about 7.3, which is acceptable in T20. And that, too, bowling on the Eden wicket. [Before the game against Royal Challengers he had taken three wickets at an economy rate of 7.82 in the IPL. After that spell of 59 runs in four overs, his ER rose to 8.66.]
It's just that when you are not taking wickets, these things get highlighted. When you are taking wickets regularly, no one talks at all. If your team doesn't pick you, everyone says the season did not go well. That actually did not make a difference to me.
Yes, it made a difference when I was not playing. I felt I deserved to play. It's another thing that I did not get another opportunity because of the combination the management and captain wanted. I felt a bit bad at that point. But in T20s you can't perform all the time - at times you do well, at times you don't.
You did get a wicket off the last ball in that game against Royal Challengers, but you threw your cap to the ground in disgust. Were you angry at yourself?
I felt so bad because I did not bowl according to my plan. In my mind I had thought I should bowl round the wicket [to Moeen Ali], but then I felt I could possibly bowl better from over the wicket because the leg-stump boundary was too short, about 55 yards. If it landed in the slot, he might hit it for a six. Eventually when I tried [to bowl from round the stumps], he got out. That is why I was disappointed. Why didn't I come round the wicket earlier? I knew I could get him out anytime. It's not that he hit any extraordinary shots. He did hit me nicely off the penultimate delivery, but otherwise his strokes were landing well inside the boundary of a small ground on a flat wicket. DK bhai [Dinesh Karthik, Knight Riders' captain] came to me before the final delivery of the over and asked me to pitch from the round the wicket. I was just sad that I did not stick to the plan I'd had originally in my mind.
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You did not join the team huddle after that over. You buried your face in your towel. Were there tears?
No, no, I was not crying. Boss, I was just a bit emotional. I was feeling totally hopeless. I felt like, "What have I done? Because of this over, the game changed." They were like 120 after 15 overs and suddenly they were 150 an over later and everything had changed.
Did it surprise you that as a proven match-winner you were benched for the rest of the season?
It was a more of a disappointment, because if you know you are good enough and still you do not get the opportunity then you feel bad. Yes, if there are better players than you playing, then that's fine. But if you feel you are the best and you should be playing, then you feel bad. The team management told me it was purely because of the combinations that I was not being played.
How did you deal with the disappointment?
I enjoyed the free time. I was focusing on the skills and the little things that were not working for me. I worked with my coach as well as Karl Rowe, who is a consultant at KKR.
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Daniel Vettori was analysing that match for us on ESPNcricinfo and he said that the pitch looked like it had settled even more and got flatter than it was in 2018. Do you agree the pitch was not favourable to spinners?
Definitely. The wicket was very flat and in favour of batsmen. If you have three spinners, you cannot play them all. If you see, visiting teams have usually played just one spinner [at Eden Gardens]. If the Eden pitch had been like it was one or two seasons ago, then things would have been different. We were playing at home, but it did not feel like we were bowling in home conditions.
Virat Kohli hit you for fours as soon as you were brought on in the Royal Challengers' match. What goes through your mind when a batsmen hits you for a six or a boundary?
If you try something and you get hit, you can't do anything. He [Kohli] did hit me for a couple of good fours. In T20 cricket I don't attack too much because you can get hit on a flat wicket. You need to bowl tight. But in ODIs, when you get hit, the plan is to figure out how to force the batsman to rotate the strike so you can bowl at the second batsman to create pressure.
Former India wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta said you are a different bowler when you have a captain who sets attacking fields. He said: "Just haven't seen that enough from Dinesh Karthik. Whenever Kuldeep has come on, there's hardly ever been a slip or a close-in fielder. [Gautam] Gambhir at times even gave him a short leg. It just made Kuldeep a different bowler when he knew his captain wanted wickets from him." What do you feel?
Bilkul, bilkul. [Certainly] It is not that DK is not attacking. He was a very attacking captain. The situation to attack when I was bowling did not come because we had not bowled well with the new ball and did not create any early pressure. Whenever I was bowling, there were not many wickets on the scoreboard. Earlier in the Powerplay, we used to bowl spinners previously, but that was not the case this time [due to the flat pitch]. But, yes, if you have an attacking field, it does help.
What did you learn from your experience this IPL?
I could have been a bit more strong mentally. I could have increased my focus a bit. I lacked the focus and the planning - that was my big learning.
Your strength is beating the batsman in the air. Did you speak to anybody about it? What did you focus on in your training after the IPL?
I was working on stuff like flight, making the ball dip - those are my strengths. The only way to regain form is to work in the nets, bowling two to three hours. I bowled a lot to get my basics right.
Is it fair to say you were spinning the ball more in the past, that there were more revs on it in the series in England last year compared to this year's IPL?
Yes, you can say that. In the IPL I was a bit slow. The more rotations and revs the ball has, the more drift I can get. That is another thing I worked on during the break after the IPL.
Former India left-arm spinner Murali Kartik said you are lagging because you don't have a lot of strength in your legs and that has an impact on you not being able to spin the ball.
Yes, that is a fact. When I am tired, the effort does not come through and that makes a difference to the way the ball comes out of the hand and whether it is effective.
What is your stock ball - the googly or the left-arm legspinner? Do you plan what you bowl based on the batsman facing or during your run-up?
Legspin. It comes during the match. It is not planned. Take the wickets of Joe Root and [Jonny] Bairstow in the Manchester T20I where I had them stumped. In the Nottingham ODI, I dismissed them again, this time lbw. I did have a plan for both, but they had not played against me before, so it worked. Now they know me, so I am prepared with another plan.
At the pre-departure media briefing before the World Cup, Kohli categorically said he was not worried about your IPL form. For him, you are one of the "pillars" of the Indian bowling attack. You must feel proud when you hear your captain say that.
It is a very big thing when your captain believes in you. Virat has always had belief in [Yuzvendra] Chahal and me. He believes both of us can take wickets at any time in a match, that we can change the game at any time. Even if we have a bad match or if we go for runs, he does not say anything. He trusts us, gives us the freedom to bowl the way we want to. He just says: I want wickets. He tells us that even if we go for five or ten runs extra, it's not an issue as long as we are getting wickets. When he believes that you are one of his main players, it is a good sign that your captain is supporting you.
There are nine league games in the World Cup. Will that be a challenge, considering the batsmen will have more time to figure you out?
Firstly, I need to keep working and focusing on my drills. Then it will become easier for me to bowl in the matches. I cannot compromise on the drills. When I forget my drills, it starts affecting my bowling, like using my shoulder [in a delivery].
You have been used at various stages in ODIs, but mainly in the middle overs. Do you reckon you can be handy at the death as well?
Definitely. After 40 overs, the field is a bit more open. It's a bit easier to bowl and the batsmen are taking more chances. I have bowled at the death in the IPL and that is an option.
What is your World Cup aim?
Just to win the World Cup (laughs). Of course, we have to take one game at a time, but that is the team goal.