India vs Australia: Time for Virat Kohli to show confidence in Kuldeep Yadav as visitors chase history

India vs Australia: Time for Virat Kohli to show confidence in Kuldeep Yadav as visitors chase history

Kuldeep Yadav should be able to exploit the bounce off Australian wickets and it is well-known that the home batsmen usually struggle against quality spinners.

March 25, 2017: Kuldeep Yadav is an unlikely choice to replace the injured skipper Virat Kohli. As we learn months later, his selection was one of the flashpoints between Kohli and then coach Anil Kumble – one of many arguments which led to the resignation of Kumble only a few months later.

Eventually, on the day, the coach wins out as India goes with five bowlers for the series decider in Dharamsala. It’s a masterstroke. Kuldeep’s left-arm wrist spin bamboozles the Australians on the very first day. The defining dismissal of his performance is the wrong ‘un which leaves Glenn Maxwell in shock. And bowled. Or was it the dismissal of Peter Handscomb? The ball finding its way through the batsman as he looked to play an expansive drive.

August 10, 2018: Although the first day was rained out, India displays remarkable inflexibility in sticking with its pre-match choice of two spinners for the Lord’s Test. The conditions are obviously not conducive to turn. But already trailing 0-1 in the series, Kohli seeks a sudden turnaround. In comes Kuldeep for only his third Test. The highs of his debut, though, seem distant as India bats first and is shot out for 107 with the ball swinging wildly.

If it was not clear at the start of play, it is very evident now that India has erred in picking two spinners. The team management’s intransigence proves disastrous. Kuldeep, not surprisingly, struggles. His bowling figures of 9-1-44-0 are a striking reminder of the tactical error. India recovers to win the next Test in Nottingham but there is bad news for the wrist-spinner. He does not make the squad for the last two matches, even though it’s later evident that he could have been useful in the fourth Test at Southampton.

Within the first three Tests of his career, Kuldeep had already been the subject of serious debate. Everyone seemed to agree that he could be a threat in most conditions but the question of his selection led to much hand-wringing. The debates emanating from the Dharamsala and Lord’s Tests have still not fully gone away.

In fact, some of the questions asked back then will now resurface as Kuldeep readies himself for the Tests in Australia. For some obvious reasons. It’s the same opposition against whom he made his Test debut. Will India play five bowlers or four? Will he able to adapt to the conditions? And where does he exactly feature in India’s plans for Test cricket?

These questions are yet to be answered but they could be over the next month or so. There is, after all, something to be said for Kuldeep’s inclusion. He should be able to exploit the bounce off Australian wickets and it is well-known that the home batsmen usually struggle against quality spinners. However, we cannot even be sure whether Kuldeep will get the chance to test them.

Even if India were to choose five bowlers, it’s possible that the wrist-spinner misses out. R Ashwin still enjoys the position of the team’s first-choice spinner in Test cricket while Ravindra Jadeja is likely to get the nod over Kuldeep due to the former’s ability with the bat. This is a familiar scenario.

Since his debut, Kuldeep has featured in only four of the 17 Tests played by India. Home or away, he cannot seem to cement a spot even though his 19 wickets in five matches have come at a pleasing average of 25.26 runs. The ongoing situation cannot help Kuldeep’s development as a Test cricketer.

But he is still keen to put himself in the best position possible, should he earn another Test cap. In the lead up to the tour of Australia, the 23-year-old spent time with Shane Warne as part of his preparations.

“I have always followed Shane Warne. I had a chat with Warne a few days ago. He asked me to meet him and advised me to bowl normally, changing the angle (over the wicket to round the wicket). There will be a bounce on Australian wickets and I can use that in my favour,” said Kuldeep afterwards.

Warne, of course, is a big fan of the Indian youngster too, in keeping with his resolve to support wrist-spinners all over the world. In fact, the former Australian leggie has backed Kuldeep to become the best in the game. It could be argued that the Uttar Pradesh spinner already enjoys that status in limited-overs cricket. However, his potential will remain untapped if he continues to warm the bench in the longest format.

So, how can he break in? Ashwin’s reputation is redoubtable but he can go missing in crucial moments outside the Indian subcontinent. This issue was yet again apparent at Southampton earlier this year when Moeen Ali struck decisive blows for England even as the Indian offie toiled miserably. Ashwin’s hip injury was a mitigating factor but it was not the first time he had failed to produce his best in such conditions.

The off-spinner is likely to play the first Test in Adelaide but if he cannot make the difference for India then the clamour for Kuldeep will grow. Perhaps, in due course, it will become clear that Ashwin is the better choice. But India cannot know that for sure until Kuldeep is allowed to show his wares frequently. Such is the wrist-spinner’s talent that his possibilities are yet to be defined.

As India hope to achieve unprecedented success in Australia, now might be the time to push some boundaries.