Can selectors rest easy as KulCha spin their way back to deadly best?

For the better half of the 2010s, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin had a monopoly on the spin department when it came to the Indian side across all the formats. Their ability to bat and shore up the relatively long tail India had during then helped their cause, and even during brief stretches of a dip in bowling form, batting numbers helped them hang onto their positions.  

2016 and 2017, however, witnessed a paradigm shift in Indian cricket. New leadership brought about stark changes in white-ball cricket and Test cricket ideologies. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the man behind the unearthing of the brilliance of Jadeja and Ashwin, was phasing himself out of captaincy across formats for India, even as the Kohli era was setting in. 

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Yuzvendra Chahal burst onto the international stage in 2016, immediately grabbing eyeballs and wickets across surfaces. A docile debut year gave way to rich returns in white-ball cricket in 2017 and 2018, success which the team management believed he wouldn’t replicate in Tests. Yuzi had made a strong case for himself, keeping a tight economy at under 5, strike rates in the early 30s, and an impressive average consistently below 30 in one-day cricket. 

Come 2017, and enter Kuldeep Yadav. Displaying a brand of slow chinaman bowling, Kuldeep’s variations were touted to be even better than Chahal’s. Both spinners had a way of bowling into the rough, enticing batsmen to come after them and get them to play false shots almost always. Kuldeep’s numbers soared to astronomical heights in ODIs in 2017-2018, with him picking up a wicket every 25 balls or so, on average, while giving away barely 20 runs for each dismissal.   

In the T20s, Kuldeep and Chahal performed just as well throughout 2017 and 2018, winning their respective teams in the IPL matches on the back of spectacular spells. Bowling in tandem, KulCha was born, a pair of unorthodox spinners who ruled the middle overs, choked opposition lineups dry from both ends and picked up wickets with uncanny ease. With speed guns Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami hitting their stride, too, India could boast of an all-around bowling attack in limited-overs cricket after decades, relying on and feeding off each other instead of depending on individual brilliance.

Perhaps this codependency is what undid the spin twins as well. A dip in form for Yadav led to the same for Chahal, and almost suddenly, the control India had in the middle overs started slipping. 2019 saw Kuldeep remain economical at around 5 runs an over. Still, his average rose dramatically to 44.33, almost twice what it was last year, while his strike rate had a similar catastrophic rise to 52.5. Chahal’s fall in returns was more gradual, but the ineffectiveness of KulCha was one of the factors which cost India a shot at the 2019 ODI World Cup. 2020 saw Kuldeep getting benched, while Chahal’s RCB skipper Kohli backed his dwindling returns and kept him in the side, even as he leaked runs at almost seven runs an over, with an average and a strike rate both around 35. KulCha’s returns for their IPL sides fell too, and while Chahal still had RCB’s backing, Kuldeep was eventually benched by KKR in 2020 and got to play but a few matches in 2021, breaking up a potent spin trio he once formed with Sunil Narine and Shakib al Hasan for KKR.

New faces coming through the ranks threatened to end the careers of the two, careers that had reached mercurial heights in quick time and seemed to be on the verge of careening off the edge too. Washington Sundar’s orthodox finger spin and handy batting skills won him a place in the national T20 side, while Jadeja scripted a stellar comeback of his own to the white-ball setup. Varun Chakravarthy created waves with repeated success for KKR in 2019, 2020, and 2021, edging out Kuldeep as the first-choice Indian spinner on the side. With the World T20 in 2021 ending in abysmal fashion for India, and the next one in 2022 slated in a year’s time, India selectors found themselves worryingly short of reliable replacements for the fabled KulCha, with Sundar’s perennial injury issues and Jadeja’s evolution into a batting all-rounder from a bowling all-rounder.

But along came November 2021 with the BCCI’s announcement of a mega auction for IPL 2022, where teams would be forced to let go of key members. Kuldeep was bought by the Delhi Capitals, as Chahal was pried away from RCB and into Rajasthan Royals. For the first time in over three years, both spinners turned back the clock as they reached their mercurial best again, running through all batting lineups they came up against. Kuldeep exacted vengeance against his former team as he picked two 4-fers against KKR, ambushing their campaign and leaving them reeling. Chahal has been at his destructive best too, rocketing to the top of the wicket-taking charts and holding onto the spot with 19 scalps in 10 innings. Kuldeep is hot on his heels, having had 17 victims in 9 matches himself, two wickets behind, having bowled 44 balls lesser, with a worse economy (8.23) but better strike rate (11.52) compared to his wily counterpart, who has an economy of 7.27 and a strike-rate of 12.63.

They might not have bowled together yet, but it can be said with some certainty that KulCha is well on its way back. Performances in the IPL shouldn’t be compared to those internationally, but the confidence the pair have gained from this year’s IPL is priceless, and their experience should help them convert it into overseas success. The selectors will surely wear a more assured look now when deciding the starting eleven for the World T20 later this year, and it is safe to say that the wiry leggie and stocky chinaman will combine once again in an attempt to replicate their previous devilry with the ball in hand, and give India a shot at World Cup success after over a decade, later this year.   

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