World Cup 2019, meet Team India: Kuldeep Yadav - the accidental chinaman

Originally wanting to become a medium pacer, Kuldeep Yadav’s first coach convinced him to switch to spin and found that the youngster was a natural.

In ODIs, Kuldeep Yadav has been prolific — he needs 13 more wickets in seven matches to be the second-fastest in the world to 100 wickets.   -  AP

On a hot afternoon, Kuldeep Yadav was playing cricket on a dusty ground that was barren except for a few small patches of grass, watched by a handful of budding cricketers and a coach sitting in one corner. It was a world away from the smooth, manicured grounds he has played much of his cricket on in the last few years, with thousands of fans cheering him on alongside the rest of the Indian team.

This was a friendly match, but he seemed to be taking it all too seriously. At the end of the friendly contest played among members of the Rovers Club – his second home – he positioned himself in the middle of a huddle and addressed a player, praising him for his performance and motivating him for the future. At the end of his speech, he said, “If there’s anything you need in the future, just let me know.” The encouragement, coming from the club’s legend, meant a world to the player. One could see it in his eyes.

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The sombreness disappeared once Kuldeep was with his mates. The previous evening, he had chatted merrily with them, indulged in banter, signed autographs on bats, and sang songs with them, too. He may be an international star, but to them he is just one of their own. According to Shivam Dixit, a 21-year-old budding cricketer who has spent numerous years with Kuldeep at the club, he is like their “elder brother.”

An elder brother or perhaps even a hero or a role model that exhorts them to give it their all on the field and enjoys with them off it.

This uncompromising mindset is an asset that has helped him achieve much success in the sport. As he revealed to Sportstar, “Sir (his coach Kapil Pandey) never taught me tenderly. He taught me by scolding – [saying] ‘this won’t work,’ and ‘that won’t work.’ I would think – ‘why wouldn’t it work? I will do it.’ So, that probably motivates me.”

Kuldeep bowls at Rovers Club as his first coach Kapil Pandey looks on.   -  Sandeep Saxena

 

Kuldeep’s cricket career has blossomed since he excelled at the Under-19 World Cup in 2014. He was India’s highest wicket-taker in the tourney, with 14 wickets, including a hat-trick against Scotland. By 2019, he has not only featured in the Indian team in all three formats, but had tasted success, too. In One-Day Internationals he has been prolific – he needs 13 more wickets in seven matches to be the second-fastest in the world to 100 wickets. Besides at home, he has bowled well in England, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean, too; his bowling average hasn’t crossed 19.75 in any of those regions.

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Kuldeep bowls left-arm chinaman, a style that is rare in world cricket. It was discovered by accident, as Kuldeep wanted to be a left-arm fast bowler. Revealed Pandey, “Kuldeep came to us in 2004-05. He was a nine- or 10-year-old kid. He was a medium-pacer and wished to become Wasim Akram. I focused on him and worked with him for [a few] months. His build wasn’t too strong at the time; he was thin. I decided, ‘Why not make him a left-arm spinner?’ I asked him, ‘What do you want to become?’ He said, ‘Sir, Wasim Akram.’ I told him, ‘That can’t happen.’ He was quite hurt. I said to him, ‘Bowl spin.’ He wasn’t ready to do it. I told him, ‘If you want to bowl, bowl, otherwise you can leave.’ I said this to him near that tree that you see (on one end of the ground). He came with tears in his eyes. I was also not liking hurting the little kid.”

He continued: “Four or five months had passed. I looked at his physique, his strength, his weight. Finally, I decided to make him a spinner. When I told him to bowl spin, he came and sat outside. He said he won’t bowl. After a while, he thought, ‘Let me bowl, then I’ll see what sir has to say.’ He came and said, ‘Sir, give me the ball.’ The first ball he bowled was a chinaman. He thought, ‘Sir will remove me’. I said, ‘Bowl one more ball.’ He bowled again, and again he thought, ‘Sir will remove me.’ His third delivery was also a chinaman. In 2004-05, not just in UP…I was in [Mumbai] and Delhi as well…I had never seen a chinaman bowler. I thought, I can work on him. No coach had worked on a chinaman, as nothing was written in books about its skills. I thought, ‘Let me prepare him,’ so I started to train him. I told him, ‘From now on, you will bowl only chinaman.’ When I used to come to the ground in the afternoon, at 3.30 p.m., he would be bowling medium-pacers. Around me, he would bowl spin. Within 15 days, when he got a senior stumped off a chinaman delivery, then he felt we were on the right path. Then he felt motivated. Kuldeep was a natural chinaman bowler, so the model I picked was Shane Warne. That’s because chinaman bowling is left-arm leg-break.”

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Kuldeep revealed that his father was the reason he entered cricket. “I wasn’t interested in playing cricket. My father had a lot of interest in cricket. I joined the cricket academy due to him. I wasn’t interested; I used to come to play only to pass my time. Gradually, he began to realise I had talent. He motivated me a lot; sometimes, whenever I would be low, he would say, ‘The skill you have, I see it and you don’t.’ He has given a few speeches as well, at home,” he said.

Kuldeep’s rise was rapid. Pandey said, “At the time, there were no mobile phones. I got the videos on Shane Warne on cassettes and started preparing him. Within one or two years, he became a splendid bowler. He wasn’t selected at the U-14 level; then he got selected at the U-17 level. He never looked back after that. Every season, at the U-16 and the U-17 levels, he picked up [about] 50 wickets. He had a long journey. He reached the U-19 World Cup, in which he was the highest wicket-taker. And after that, in the 2014-15 season, he was included in the Indian squad for the [ODI series against] West Indies.”

Kuleep trivia

Age: 24

From: Chandar Nagar, Kanpur

Family calls him: Guddu

Friends call Him: KD

Favourite food: Rajma chawal

First school: Bal Vidya Mandir, Unnao

First coach: Kapil Pandey

Passionate about: Likes dogs

There was the occasional hiccup, however. In a bid to get selected to the Uttar Pradesh U-15 team, Kuldeep acted on the suggestion of a selector to bowl left-arm orthodox. He wasn’t selected.

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“At the U-15 level, I wasn’t selected. I was 12 then. I think this was in 2006 or 2007. I felt bad. I wondered why I wasn’t getting selected despite working hard. At some trial, I bowled left-arm orthodox, for which I wasn’t selected. Sir was very angry. I had done it at the suggestion of some selector; I was little and I thought I would get selected by this. But I wasn’t selected, as that wasn’t my skill. I was scolded a lot for that. Then, I attended the trials at the U-17 level – I was selected in the team. I was only 13,” he said.

His cricketing prowess apart, Kuldeep was a normal, fun-loving kid. He played pranks, too. Recalled Dixit, “One day, practice was on. At the time, he had been picked by Mumbai Indians (in 2012). He said to us, ‘Let’s play a game. The record made in this game is held by Sachin Tendulkar.’ Somebody had to be blindfolded and he had to hit the hand of others that they placed in front of him. He said to the person, ‘Sachin has done this 600 times – if you break that record, I’ll feed you whatever you want.’ Kuldeep bhai blindfolded the guy and told the others to keep quiet. When the person started, he signalled to the others to leave. We sat somewhere else and he kept doing it for five minutes.”

Academics didn’t bother Kuldeep; he liked science. “I would have surely got a job pursuing science,” he said.

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But as cricket took up his time and energy, the rest faded into the background. Now, he is a source of pride for Rovers Club. They are witnessing him grow as a person, too, as he makes his impact in the international arena and learns to deal with the pressure. It’s been two years since he made his debut in international cricket in March 2017.

“Sometimes, you do well and sometimes you don’t. But your efforts are more important. In these two years, I have become quite matured, and I’ve learnt how to handle different situations – [such as] when you have a successful day and when you don’t. I’m still young but I’m learning gradually,” said Kuldeep.

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At Rovers Club, Kuldeep is an elder brother or perhaps even a hero or a role model that exhorts the youngsters to give it their all on the field and enjoys with them off it.   -  Sandeep Saxena

 

Reflected his coach, “Earlier, I would always tell him, ‘Bowl like this, bowl like that.’ After these last two-three years, Kuldeep now tells me, ‘Sir, don’t be worried, I will bowl well.’ His confidence has gone up. Ahead of any match, we talk and plan our game. He has become more confident. In England as well as in Australia, he bowls really splendidly. That is due to his maturity. For a player, it’s an important thing – if you talk to your coach about your game, we can work on it. If the wicket is too hard, or the wind is strong. If the wind is strong, I would tell him bowl at that end where the wind would make your ball drift in.”

At this juncture, Kuldeep will play his first World Cup. “As Kuldeep’s coach, we are preparing well for this tournament. We don’t wish to leave any stone unturned. We are making no compromise on skill and fitness and we’re working hard incessantly so that [Kuldeep] does so well at the World Cup that one can remember it throughout life,” Pandey said.

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He is likely to bowl well. After all, he is familiar with the UK, having toured the country in 2018, and he’s tasted success there, too. His spell of six for 25 against England in Nottingham is so far the best performance of his career and the only occasion when he has taken five or more wickets. He may have struggled a bit in this season’s Indian Premier League, but the World Cup will be a different format and a different setting.

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But regardless of how he performs, he is sure to keep firm his stable base. “Whenever you play, you come back and try to ensure your basics are good. You go to your coach for the basics. I’m always connected with sir. If I come to Kanpur on a particular day, I try to make sure I’m at the ground by next morning. This is something I will never change,” Kuldeep certified.