Uttar Pradesh were playing Maharashtra at Mysore in the semifinals of the under-19 limited overs tournament organized by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Batting second, Maharashtra appeared to be cruising to a comfortable win when a bowling change took place at the end where I was standing as umpire. “Left-arm round the stumps”, the bowler informed me after making some adjustments to the field. I nodded, informed the batsmen about the bowling change and waited for the bowler to start the over. “Another left-arm spinner”, I thought to myself.
As the first ball delivered by him pitched, I saw it turn into the batsman, something that took me by surprise. Normally a left-arm spinner bowls the ball that turns from the leg stump of the right-handed batsman towards the off, or in other words, away from him. But this ball turned from off stump to leg, that is the opposite way. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. I had only read and heard about 'chinaman' till then but had not seen it being bowled. Now after about 30 years of umpiring at various levels, I was seeing such a delivery bowled from my end! A surge of excitement coursed through me as I realized that this bowler was different from the rest. At the end of the over, during which he dismissed a batsman by clean bowling him, I asked the bowler his name. “Kuldeep Yadav”, was his reply.
A superb spell followed. I watched in amazement as the youngster revealed all the weapons in his repertoire. In addition to the chinaman, which was his stock ball, he bowled the wrong 'un (googly) which turned away from the right-hander as well as the ball that went through straight without turning. There were hardly any loose deliveries which meant that batsmen were not given the liberty of easy runs. His ran through the Maharashtra batting line-up picking up five wickets, with the dismissed batsmen being either clean bowled or wrapped on their pads plumb in front of the wicket, indicating that they could not read his bowling and understand which way the ball was going to turn. It was heady stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed watching this exhibition of rare art from close quarters.
Difficult art to master
Chinaman or the leg break bowled by a left-arm bowler is one of the most difficult deliveries to master in cricket. As stated earlier, the ball turns towards the right-handed batsman from his off stump towards the leg and the spin is imparted by the wrist from behind the head. Hence it is extremely difficult to control the line and length of the delivery as well as the turn imparted. This delivery was first bowled by a West Indies bowler of Chinese origin named Ellis Achong in the Old Trafford Test against England in 1933. The Chinese roots of the bowler is also the reason behind this form of deliveries being called as chinaman.
Cricket history records the presence of very few practitioners of this art, with the prominent ones being Gary Sobers, Paul Adams and Brad Hogg. However, Sobers and Hogg were not purely chinaman bowlers as they had conventional deliveries of left-arm spinners in their armory, while the former could bowl medium-pace as well! Adams had a brief career in international cricket where he was more in the news for his unique bowling action, than for the threat he posed to the batsmen. Though India is considered to be the Mecca of spin bowling, given the number of eminent bowlers of this nature who have emerged from the country, we have not had a chinaman bowler in the national side so far. In fact, one hardly comes across such bowlers even in domestic cricket.
Fast bowler to begin with
It would surprise many that Kuldeep had started out as a left-arm fast bowler but changed over to bowling chinaman and googly under the influence of his coach Kapil Pandey at a cricket academy in Kanpur. Success came his way soon and he made his way into the national under-19 team in 2012 itself. He made headlines during the ICC under-19 World Cup in 2014 when he picked up a hat-rick against Scotland. Consistent performances in the domestic circuit led to him being chosen to the national squad for the first time in 2014. However, he got a chance to make his international debut only in 2017, in the fourth Test against Australia at Dharamsala in March, which was followed by his debut in One-Day Internationals and T20 format as well, in June and July respectively.
Kuldeep fared well on his Test debut bagging four Aussie wickets conceding 68 runs in the first innings. He repeated this in the next Test that he played, which was against Sri Lanka at Kandy, where he picked up four wickets in the first innings giving away only 40 runs. Thus in the two Tests that he has played so far he has picked four wickets in an innings on two occasions, which shows that he has settled down well at this level without demonstrating any of the jitters that one would associate with a new entrant. In the nine ODIs (till the Kolkata ODI against Australia) where he has donned the national colors he has picked up 16 wickets at an economy rate of 4.4 per over. This shows that he has been successful in not only containing the flow of runs in limited overs matches, but also in picking up wickets. His performance in T20 Internationals also has been creditable both from point of economy rate (6.75 runs per over) as well as from wickets taken (3 in two matches).
On September 21, Kuldeep became the third Indian player, after Chetan Sharma and Kapil Dev, to bag a hat-rick in ODIs. In the second match of the ongoing series against Australia he dismissed Matthew Wade, Ashton Agar and Pat Cummins off successive deliveries to achieve this distinction. Wade chopped one on to the stumps while trying a cut shot while Agar failed to read a straighter one and was trapped in front. Kuldeep then snared Cummins with a googly to be caught behind by Dhoni. What was more remarkable than the dismissals was the manner in which the youngster kept a cool head despite taking some amount of stick from Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis and stuck to a well devised plan to attack the batsmen and pick wickets.
It is too early to predict whether Kuldeep would be able to retain his levels of success in international cricket in the long term. However, one can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that if well begun is half done, Kuldeep is on the right track for an exciting and rewarding career. His forte is his control over line and length, the most difficult aspect so far as a bowler who delivers chinaman and googly is concerned. He has shown that he is capable of adding variations into his deliveries which would keep the batsmen guessing. Most importantly, he has shown his heart for bowling like a millionaire, not afraid to be stuck for some sixes, while retaining his poise and confidence in his art.
If groomed properly Kuldeep could develop into the trailblazing sensation and contribute to popularizing the art of bowling chinaman in a manner similar to what Shane Warne did for leg spin. A bowler like him requires special handling and it would be the responsibility of the team management and administration to ensure that he does not meet the same fate as L. Sivaramakrishnan and Irfan Pathan, who could not live up to the expectations aroused by their initial performances. Let us hope that the early promise that Kuldeep has demonstrated translates into consistent performances and that he is blessed with a long and successful career in the international arena.
(The author is a former intentional umpire and a senior bureaucrat)