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India should play ‘the Kuldeep Yadav card’ in England tests

On a pleasant March morning in Dharamsala, the then Australia captain Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner were running away with the series-deciding fourth Test against India. At Lunch on the opening day, the visitors were 131/1, before a Test debutant with a unique craft came into his own.

Left-arm wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav, who was unleashed by the hosts as the final throw of the dice on the Aussies, sent back their three batsmen in the span of a single session to turn the game on its head. From thereon, it was India who ran away with the game and the series.

Cut to India’s ongoing tour of England, and Kuldeep is writing similar scripts, only against different actors.

If there’s one common thread between the recently-concluded T20I and ODI series, it’s that the English top-order has given its team solid, brisk starts in almost every game, before Kuldeep has come on to put the brakes with constant strikes and tidy spells.

Five wickets in two T20Is and nine in the three-match ODI series are brilliant numbers for a 23-year-old youngster on his first English sojourn as a Man in Blue.

So much so that India captain Virat Kohli is tempted to turn that blue into white.

“Anything is possible with the selections for Tests and there might be a few surprises. Kuldeep is making a strong case for himself and so is (Yuzvendra) Chahal. And looking at the way the English batsmen have struggled against them, we might be tempted to do it,” Kohli said after India’s win in the opening ODI, a series they eventually lost.

While Chahal isn’t in the Test squad, Kuldeep is. And, he is making a strong case for his inclusion in the playing XI despite the presence of Test specialists Ravindra Jadeja, ranked No. 3 Test bowler in the ICC world rankings, and Ravichandran Ashwin, ranked fifth.

Fresh Test batsmen
What makes Kuldeep’s case stronger — apart from his current form, that is — is a couple of factors.

Firstly, England are bound to have quite a few fresh faces in the Test set-up who wouldn’t have faced too much left-arm wrist-spin before.

The likes of Alastair Cook, David Malan and Keaton Jennings are among their Test batsman who will find it a lot tougher to solve the Kuldeep puzzle than, say, a Joe Root or a Jonny Bairstow or a Ben Stokes, who’ve got a taste of the Indian in the limited-overs leg of the tour.

Judging by the ODI series, they’ve visibly started getting used to the new dish served to them, a luxury Cook and his Test-only colleagues will not have.

“I will go with Kuldeep,” Anshuman Gaekwad, former India player and national coach, said.

“Kuldeep has been a big asset to the team in limited-overs cricket. He has troubled most of the batsmen.

“And, the new English batsmen in the Test team will take some time to pick him. So, India might well cash in on it,” he added.

Dry wickets
The second factor is the pitch and weather conditions, which were very un-English in the limited-overs series. The summer there has been hotter than usual, forcing the wickets to be drier than usual, thus aiding spin.

“This time, English wickets are not the same as they used to be earlier,” Gaekwad said. “Considering the weather in England right now and the dryness of the surfaces, Kuldeep can be very useful in the latter stages of a five-day game.”

Danger of overuse
If one is to be a devil’s advocate, a reason why India might want to resist the urge of playing Kuldeep straightaway is if the team management decides to have one trick up its sleeve during a marathon five-match Test series, like they did against Australia at home.

Play Kuldeep only in the final two or three Tests, thereby denying the English batsmen the luxury of getting used to him over a long period of time.

It also gives Ashwin and Jadeja a chance to reiterate their status as the two best Test spinners in India.

Gaekwad, though, believes that Kuldeep is smart enough to adjust to batsmen starting to pick him.

“Take Anil Kumble’s example. What he was when he started and what he was when he finished. Everybody started reading him and he suddenly stopped getting those five-fors. But he then changed his action a little, his run-up a little, his style of bowling a little, and he still picked up wickets. The same goes with Kuldeep,” he said.

There are few things more crucial in sport than a first strike, and India would need to do that come August 1 at Birmingham.

And what better weapon that Kuldeep to do that.

“I would go with Kuldeep from the first Test. I will choose between Ashwin and Jadeja, if I have to play two spinners. But if the wicket is absolutely dry, there’s no harm in going with all three. Unleash him from the first Test and be on top,” Gaekwad said.

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