Updated: September 22, 2017 8:40:22 am
Kuldeep Yadav, around the same time last year, was on the margins of Indian cricket, bowling chinaman deliveries to Team India batsmen at the nets in Kanpur as they prepared for the country’s 500th Test match. Within 12 months, his stock has skyrocketed as he has made his Test, ODI and T20I debuts, and now seems very much in India’s scheme of things for the 2019 World Cup. Before the start of the ODI series against Australia, The Indian Express caught up with him in Kanpur. In a freewheeling chat, he reflected on his journey, the mystery spinner tag, and the thrill of meeting another chinaman bowler. Excerpts:
Back in 2013, you were yet to play for India under-19, now you are a regular with the senior side. Does it feel surreal how fast things have changed for you?
Honestly, I expected to play for India earlier than I did. I always knew that the kind of performances I was giving, I was always confident about my prospects. I got a call in 2014 for the West Indies series, then I felt as if I have achieved everything. But unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to play in the first three ODIs, and then the series was abandoned.
Then I had to make a comeback from there. Had to do the hard yards in domestic cricket. It’s only now, three years later, that I have got back into the team. I feel I have lost out on a couple of years. Expectations thi ke main jaldi khel jaaun. But, as they say, time se pehle, aur kismat se zyada kuchh nahi milta.
How have you changed as a cricketer and an individual since 2013?
I have matured a lot now. I was a very confident bowler at the Under-19 level as well, but I have grown up mentally as well now. At the Under-19 level, the difference is that even if you want, you can’t be playing against guys older than 19. So it’s easy. But at this level, you are up against guys who are much older and far more experienced — 10-12 years older than you. So how you handle such players is the key. I think that challenge has made me a better player.
WATCH VIDEO: Kuldeep Yadav hat-trick
You have this trademark confidence on the ground that we see in UP players who have made it big. They take centrestage as if they own the place. Be it Praveen Kumar, Suresh Raina, Mohammad Kaif… Tell us about it.
In our state, right from the junior level, you have to play with bigger guys, you are sledged and pushed around. To survive, you need to be confident, you need to be street- smart. It comes from there, that intensely competitive junior cricket circuit in UP. Because the state is so big, the pool of players is so large – ek se ek talent aata hai – if you are not up to scratch, you will fall through the cracks. Aap pehle hi kat jaayenge. This gets ingrained right from childhood.
I had this mentality right from junior cricket that mujhe hi karna hai, mujhe hi apni team ko jitaana hai. So that mindset is helping me now. Imagine, when I was 13, my coach put me in the senior team. I would play against cricketers who were 20-22. And I was physically even smaller. So they would step ahead and hit me for sixes. That initiation, that training, prepared me for the future.
But that method can be counterproductive for a player. You shone through, but someone else might not …
It wasn’t as if I was not scared initially. I used to be scared of their hitting, and I was even more fearful of the fact what if he hit the ball hard back at me and I get hurt. But it helped me immensely when I went to under-15 level, I was feeling very normal. In fact I felt, yaar ye to bacche hi hai mere saamne (laughs). And they were all older than I was.
My first match at the senior level was for Kanpur Gymkhana club. I was 13. I had to sit out 7 matches as most players were 20-23. I got a chance in the eighth match. The captain was reluctant, but my coach put my name on the teamsheet. I took four wickets in that game.
As the story goes, you wanted to be a left-arm medium pacer like Wasim Akram, but your coach Kapil Pandey insisted that your bowl chinaman. There was no precedence. How difficult was it to be a chinaman in Kanpur back then?
There were many problems. To begin with, it’s not easy for a chinaman to bowl. For a small kid, it’s not easy to even send the ball to the other end. It’s very difficult for a wrist spinner to master the line and length and to hit one spot regularly. I used to practise six-to-seven hours a day. Ungliyan ghis gayi bowling kar kar ke. You can’t feel the bone in this finger (ring finger of the left hand) haddi hi gayab ho gayi hai. The fingers are deformed. Then there was rejection as well, people initially were slightly reluctant to play a chinaman. But then they saw my performances.
You have spoken in the past how Shane Warne has influenced you. Tell us about it.
When I started, Shane Warne was the biggest name in spin bowling. My coach used to show me his videos and tell me that bowl like him. Copy him. He wanted me to release the ball as Warne would, drift and turn the ball as he would. Mera maksad abhi bhi ye hi hai ke 20, 30 per cent bhi Warne ki tarah ban gaya to samjho meri life safal ho gayi.
Your India debut, at the Dharamsala Test against Australia, was unexpected. And then you came and single-handedly turned the game and the series on its head. Did you know what was in store for you? When did you come to know that you were playing?
It was on the eve of the Test that Anil Kumble sir told me that taiyyar rehna, you might play tomorrow. Paanch wicket layni hain, he said. At that time I said, very confidently, zaroor lunga sir. But when he left, I became very nervous. Practice kar ke, thak ke aaya tha, to kuchh samajh mein nahi aa raha tha. I slept at nine, but woke up at three am. I kept tossing and turning in the bed, waiting for dawn to break. But the time wouldn’t pass. I started pacing up and down in my room. When I went to the ground and got the Test cap, it was like a blur. Kapil sir (Kapil Dev, who gave him the Test cap) kya bol rahe the, kuchh samajh nahi aa raha tha. Haan ji, haan ji kar raha tha. Then we fielded. Two-three overs went like that. Then I became normal. I felt as if it was another Ranji Trophy match. When I came to bowl, I knew this was the moment. There was pressure, but I wasn’t scared or anything.
I knew I had to take wickets. They were running away with the game. And I knew I was replacing Virat Kohli, India’s biggest match-winner. Like they say, meri kya aukat hai, but I wanted to do better than my aukaat. I wanted to make sure that the guy I was replacing is not missed, even though he is a specialist batsman and I a bowler.
I knew if I perform, I will go on to play top- flight cricket. If not, I will have gone all the way back in the queue. So I wanted to give my team quick wickets. I had visualised each of those dismissals. It turned out to be like that.
A key aspect of a wrist-spinner is to play with the batsman’s mind and not give away anything from his demeanor. Warne used to do it. He was poker-faced, so are you, to an extent.
(Laughs) I also play poker, like Warne though I am not as good. Started doing it in the IPL. Achhca khel hai, patte jitney der se khulte hain, utna maza hai. The thing is, you need to be street-smart. Agar aap seedhe-saade bane rahenge to batsman aapko dakaar jaayega. You need to be one step ahead of the batsmen, even when you are getting hit.
How have you changed as a human being after making it big in cricket?
I am very simple, humble. I was like that always. Bahut chhoti jagah se aaya hun. So I am grounded. I have seen that phase that a regular guy faces. I didn’t have much freedom growing up. What has changed is that people know me now, when I step out of the house, they see me and they recognise me and respect me. Money-wise, all the money that comes, my father handles it. All I have is an ATM card that I use for my shopping. He has just left cricket in my hands.
When I am home, I stay indoors with the family. If I have to venture out, it’s mostly after dusk. But mostly I stay home and watch football. I love football, don’t play, but watch a lot, more than cricket. Barcelona is my favourite club – used to be actually – but now it’s PSG, because of Neymar Jr. I am a huge fan of his. His skill and his confidence at that age is really unbelievable. Jahan Neymar, wahan main.
On your Twitter banner, there is this picture of you and the adventurer and motivator Mike Horn with the IPL Trophy. Tell us about it.
I first met him in 2014 when he joined Kolkata Knight Riders, and I was instantly in awe of him. I mean he walked the entire length of the Amazon river, climbed (attempted) Mt K2, walked for months on North Pole and South Pole. Now when he says, ‘what is fear, nothing’, you better believe him. Because of his speeches and talks, we were all charged up. It was a life-changing experience. It made you feel, ‘What are you doing, you are just playing cricket and making a big deal out of its pressures. Look at him, he is walking on poles at minus 80 degree for two months – you just have to bowl the ball. Where’s the pressure in that?’ It gave me goosebumps. I used to pick his brains. His picture is still there because it motivates me.
People call you a mystery spinner, but the word ‘mystery’ also has a connotation that it may be sorted out one day. How do you feel about it?
I don’t believe in mystery. Quality bowling is not mystery. Mystery to ye hoti ke ajeeb-o-gareeb action se ball phenk di. Mera action ekdum smooth hai, ball bohot achchhi nikalti hai. I don’t like this tag. If you are bowling quality balls, that’s the biggest mystery. Even Sunil Narine — you can’t say that he is mystery, he mixes up well, it’s his kalakaari. Shane Warne was not mystery, it was his skill, his quality. I prefer the word quality over mystery.
When you played in Sri Lanka recently, they also had a chinaman, Lakshan Sandakan. You also batted against him, how was the experience? Do two chinaman spinners acknowledge each other when they meet? Is there a secret cult of sorts?
(Laughs) When I played him, it wasn’t easy. His release was peculiar, unlike mine which is more traditional. He came to me and spoke with me, I felt very happy to see him. I mean how often do you come across a chinaman, very rarely. And how often do two chinaman bowlers actually play in the same match?! Hopefully, there will be more like me and Sandakan now. It will give me immense satisfaction.
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