It is close to 760 days since Kuldeep Yadav bagged a five-for at the SCG on the 2018-19 Australia tour. That was also the last time Yadav bowled in a Test for India. Since then India have played 13 Tests, including a return trip to Australia recently, during which Yadav watched them win the series 2-1 from the sidelines. With Ravindra Jadeja ruled out of the forthcoming England Tests series due to a finger injury, Yadav is a frontrunner to share spin bowling duties for India with R Ashwin. In this interview, conducted during India’s six-day quarantine in Chennai, Yadav says he is now ready to make a comeback – one that will feel like a second Test debut.
“Kuldeep, it was tough for you. I know you didn’t play a game here, but I think your attitude was really good.” Ajinkya Rahane said that during his speech to the dressing room after India’s win in Brisbane recently. It must have been good to hear that?
It is very important when your captain sees you work hard. It was very difficult for [Rahane] as well as the team management [to leave me out of the side during the Australia Test series]. But there was no difference in my process and my work. I believed in both. I felt really good about the words he [Rahane] said because if your captain is backing you and appreciating you [when you are not in the side], it counts a lot and motivates you very much.
Both Ajju bhai and the team management completely backed me and I never felt I was sitting out. From the support staff to Ravi bhai [Shastri] to the captain, all kept a close watch on me. When you are not playing it is not easy for the team management to focus on the player who is sitting out [but they did it].
It has been a while since you took your first Test wicket, David Warner, in 2017 against Australia in Dharamsala. It was Rahane you happened to hug first after that wicket.
I remember. When you make your Test debut and you get your first wicket on the first day itself, it is a different feeling, a lot of emotions pour out. My journey started that day and since then I have had a good understanding with my captains and coaches and that is a good thing for me.
You have played six Tests in nearly four years. Your last Test was in January 2019. Does it now feel like you are going to make a second debut now if you get to play against England?
I would be playing a Test match after nearly after two years, so it would be similar to making your debut. I want to perform for the team and give 100%, like always. You will naturally feel the same nervousness [as on debut]. There will also be pressure to do well. Everyone is watching you, expectations are big, and when the team is playing well, you want to contribute – big or small, put in the effort, and when you do that, your role is praised. When you don’t play you feel like, yes, you should be playing. But then for the sake of team you have to understand that you need to sit out.
Though you’ve been out of teams for a while, you always seem to wear a smile, whether in the IPL dugout or the Indian dressing room. How do you manage that?
I learned one thing from my dad – that you should not think about the thing that is not in your control. He said, 100% you feel bad that you are not playing, but when you get the opportunity, to perform and bowl well are things that are under your control, so focus on that. It is tough, no doubt. But if your team is winning 2-1 in Australia, I have no problem sitting out. The big achievement for me is that I have been part of teams that have been successful in Australia in back-to-back series.
How much do you miss playing Test cricket?
A lot. Missed it very much. Because there were times I felt I could play, but the team combinations sometimes, and the conditions at other times, did not allow that.
What was the lowest point over these two years?
Personally I felt the 2020 IPL did not got well for me. I should have played more matches [for the Kolkata Knight Riders]. I felt I was in pretty good rhythm, I was bowling well, but just that I did not get many overs. So, perhaps, if I got more opportunities then it would have been good. I am not saying that was the lowest, to be honest. Even in 2019 I did not have a good IPL. Until you fail, you can’t handle the pressure. Now I feel I understand things better – I have seen failure in my life now, so even if I don’t perform, it will not be new. In cricket you can’t perform at all times, but if you carry on doing the hard work, you create better chances to become successful.
It is possible now that you might play all four Tests against England. Something like that has not happened for you yet in your short Test career. How do you prepare mentally?
When you play regular cricket, the confidence comes automatically. If I play the first match, I will be in a better position to play the next game. Mentally I have kept myself very relaxed. Accordingly, my confidence level will be peaking.
England recently won 2-0 in Sri Lanka. Some of their batsmen are in good rhythm. But you must have plans against them?
England have definitely played pretty good cricket in Sri Lanka. The way they countered spin bowling in Sri Lanka, they are in pretty good rhythm and touch. It will be a little challenging for me to execute my plans because I am playing after such a long time. But having seen these batsmen play in one-day cricket and having seen them play against Sri Lanka, I do have good plans. I hope I can execute them.
Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes will be England’s key batsmen. How do you assess them?
Root has time to play his strokes. He also plays spin well off the back foot. Buttler dominates the bowlers really well. That is his strength. Stokes too is similar and keeps the bowler under pressure. Having said that, it will not be so easy for them to perform in India considering they are playing in India [in Test cricket] after a long time. That also matters. If they perform, then credit will go to them.
You have been working on the loading part of your bowling action, including using the right hand better. Can you talk about that?
During the lockdown I worked really hard with my coach [Kapil Pandey]. He told me at the time of loading in my run-up, to try and bring my right arm towards third man [for the left-hand batsman]. If it comes from there, he felt my right hand would be straighter. I did a lot of drills to get into that position. I started initially by standing still and getting the right arm in that position and then steadily practised with the run-up.
Using the right hand is very important – basically I can generate pace, I can get a lot of control, because my body is always [moving] forward, facing the batsman. When the right arm drops to the side, the pace drops and you don’t get the required bounce. That is why, by keeping the right arm straight, by bringing it [down towards] the third man region, I can generate extra bounce and pace.
In late 2019, India bowling coach Bharat Arun told us about one change he wanted you to work on which he thought would make you a more attacking spinner. “As a coach I would love him to add a yard of pace into his delivery, without compromising on the revolutions on the ball, and he is working hard on it. He’s bowling early 80s [kph]. Ideally if he’s bowling between 85 to 90, he’ll be outstanding.” Where are you with that?
I have had a lot of discussions with Arun sir and we have worked on that aspect a lot. At the time my pace was slow, around 77kph. The fastest I would get to would be 80kph at times. In the Australia tour [in the nets] I was getting a nice pace, close to 84-85kph, with good revolutions on the ball. That will help me on slower pitches.
The SG Test ball, which turns soft relatively quickly, will be used in the England series. Is that a challenge?
Actually it looks like we have a new set of SG Test balls now. These are good ones. They are similar to the SG balls I bowled with when I started playing cricket. You will see in the Test series. The leather on the ball is very good, the grip is good. When I returned home after Australia, I got the new SG Test ball. It was pretty good. I felt it will be pretty helpful for spinners.
Tail-end batting is an area India’s batting coach, Vikram Rathour, has said he has set himself a target for the team to improve in. He said that you have been batting the most in the nets, and he hoped that it will come in handy against England.
I was fulfilling my tasks and batting after that. Every day I would ask Vicky paaji [Rathour] to let me bat and he would give me the opportunity, be it only for five or ten minutes. So I worked a lot on my batting because when you bat No. 8 or 9 in Test cricket, the 25-30 runs you make has a lot of meaning. They are important runs. I feel I can contribute to the team with the bat.
You have a first-class hundred and six fifites.
Yes, that is what I am saying: if I carry on working on my batting, it can be important for me in Test cricket.
During the Australia tour, did you manage to speak to anyone there about your bowling?
I did speak quite a lot to Nathan Lyon. I asked him about his routines. He told me he maintains simple drills, what his skills are, how he runs the fingers over the ball while spinning, which is his strength. He asked me to follow my routines, find the spot where I should be pitching and enjoy my bowling with a smile.
What about R Ashwin? Do you speak to him about your bowling?
He has given me quite a few ideas. He said at times I should quicken my rhythm, try bowling straighter, make slight tactical changes. He has a lot of knowledge not just about bowling but also game plans. During the Australia tour we spoke about plans for the England series – if Joe Root is batting, which fielders should be close, what areas to bowl. When he did not play in Brisbane I had good discussions with him.
Talking with Deep Dasgupta during the lockdown for Cricketbaazi, you singled out Steve Smith as the best batsman you had bowled against because he plays you off the back foot. Is that something batsmen have started doing more, in limited-overs cricket too – play you off the pitch mostly off the back foot?
I am not sure that batsmen have picked me off the pitch. Shane Warne had 700 wickets – he [basically] bowled just one ball, the legspinner. Batsmen used to read him too, but he still got wickets. If I am bowling the wrong’un, it is not like the batsmen is unable to read me – 100% he can read me, but mistakes happen. As you play more and more, the batsman gets an idea about your bowling plans. I have worked on my variations during the lockdown. I have learned that I should not give the batsman too much time to play shots, especially in India, where the pitches are slower and such things can come in handy. “You are going to India now. Your time will come. Just keep working hard.” Those were Rahane’s parting words to you in that Brisbane speech. Do you feel your time has come?
I have worked hard a lot. I feel that perhaps it is now my time to stand up for the team, to perform for the team. I am ready completely.