Kuldeep Yadav ran through the England batting in Dharamshala today, reaching 50 Test wickets in the process. He is a much different, much evolved version of the one who took a four-for on debut at this venue seven years back, writes Naman Agarwal.

When Kuldeep Yadav got David Warner to edge one past slip off his second delivery in Test cricket, it made people move ever so slightly to the edge of their seats. A mystery left-arm wrist-spinner from India who could turn the ball both ways sounded – and looked – like an exciting prospect.

Over the course of the next couple of hours, the 22-year-old rookie would get people to stand up and bow in appreciation as he ran through the Australian batting line up on a sunny afternoon in Dharamshala. India had a trump card on their hands.

Seven years later, he would inflict a similar fate on another touring batting line up, on another sunny afternoon at the same venue.

If you witnessed Kuldeep’s first act of demolition in Dharamshala in 2017, you would assume his second one today must have been business as usual, just another glittering milestone in the journey which started at the same place all those years back. Only that it wasn’t.

The five-for Kuldeep took today was just his fourth and the ongoing Test is just his 12th in seven years. Significantly lower than what should have been the case.

Like the picturesque mountain ranges amidst which the venue of the latest exhibition of his witchcraft lies, since his debut, Kuldeep has had to overcome challenging peaks of adversity to reach this stage, the kind which often derail careers for good, especially those of mystery spinners. And that makes his performance today all the more special – a completion of the circle in the truest sense of the phrase.

Peaks and troughs

After his 4-68 on debut against Australia here in 2017, Kuldeep enjoyed a period of immense success in international cricket, across formats. With a five-for in a Test match in Sydney, he famously became “India’s No.1 overseas spinner ahead” of R Ashwin, according to Ravi Shastri, then India’s head coach. Hat-tricks in ODIs, success in the IPL – Kuldeep had it all. Until he had nothing.

2019 was the turning point for him. That Moeen Ali over happened in the IPL. He was dropped from the XI mid-way during the 2019 World Cup after which he was in and out of every side he played for. Mostly out.

Kuldeep, seemingly, had been ‘found out’, like a lot of mystery spinners are after a year or two. And to make matters worse, he was struck by a serious knee injury in 2021 which required him to undergo surgery. The trump card that India had found at Dharamshala in 2017 was at the risk of fading away. Along with rehab, Kuldeep needed to make technical corrections in his bowling to stay relevant.

A straighter run up and increased energy through the crease allowed him to ramp up his average speed without sacrificing his natural flight, drift, and dip. “My run-up has become straighter. My rhythm has become aggressive. My hand (non-bowling arm) perhaps used to fall a bit earlier. Now it is pointing more towards the batter. At the same time, I’ve not lost my spin or drift. My pace has increased a bit, which is helping me,” Kuldeep said last year, having made the required changes.

A fitter, sharper version of the slightly chubby bowler that burst onto the scene in 2017, Kuldeep 2.0 triumphantly reclaimed his spot in the ODI side in 2022, playing as India’s lead spinner in the 2023 World Cup. But Test regularity was still evading him. Even in this series, India started with Axar Patel, another spinner who had a brilliant start to his Test career, valuing batting depth over bowling variety.

Kuldeep’s Test debut had come on the back of an injury to Virat Kohli. His comeback to the Test XI came on the back of an injury to Kohli’s batchmate from the 2008 U19 World Cup – Ravindra Jadeja. Kuldeep replaced the injured left-arm spinner for the second Test of the series in Vizag and immediately proved his worth as a red-ball spinner once again.

Since then, his performances have only gone from strength to strength, reaching a crescendo with his 5-72 in the first innings in Dharamshala today.

Wizardry in Dharamshala

On a wicket which looked flat enough, England got the early advantage of winning the toss and batting first. Their openers, like they have throughout this series, got them off to another fifty-plus start, braving the new-ball spell by Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj.

Kuldeep was introduced in the 18th over. With nine runs already coming off the first five balls of his over, Ben Duckett did not need to do anything fancy on the last ball. But the pressure of a rare slower start, and the temptation of a loopy delivery outside off meant he couldn’t resist. A false shot meant India and Kuldeep had their first.

Delivering from close to the stumps, Kuldeep kept his lines very straight to the right-handers, attacking both the inside and the outside edges of their bat. A shrewd googly bowled at a shortish length left Ollie Pope looking sheepish as he had advanced aimlessly down the track on the stroke of lunch, giving Kuldeep his second wicket of the day.

Mid-way through the first hour of the second session, Zak Crawley was looking increasingly comfortable, batting on 79, when a ripping off-break turned from outside off to clip his leg stump and end his resistance.

When Jonny Bairstow, playing his 100th Test, took the attack to Kuldeep, smashing him for two sixes in the space of five balls, the wrist-spinner kept his nerves and changed the line of attack to slightly wider outside off. An overpitched googly got his outside edge which sparked a collapse and a half.

The first four wickets of the innings had belonged to Kuldeep, and they had followed a neat pattern – stock ball, googly, stock ball, googly.

Kuldeep continued his stranglehold on the England captain in the next over, trapping him plumb in front with the most obvious of set-ups:  out, out, out, in. Ben Stokes might be good enough to have seen the googly coming, but he wasn’t good enough to keep it out as Kuldeep had his fifth. The neat pattern was broken, but it didn’t matter.

Fittingly enough, R Ashwin, also playing his 100th Test, polished off the tail with four wickets as England were bowled out for 218. Kuldeep tried to get him to lead the team off the field. Supposed to be a mark of tribute for the off-spinner, his gesture also showed just how secure and confident he is with his game at the moment, contrary to where he was three years back. Eventually, Kuldeep was forced by Ashwin to lead the team off, and deservingly so.

Sport has the habit of throwing up poetic stories every now and again. Kuldeep leading the Indian Test team off the field with the ball in his hand, with the spectacular Himalayas in the background, seven rollercoaster years after making his debut at the same venue, is as poetic as they come.