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In this episode of Knights Unplugged, we try to decode our favourite chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav’s mindset. Over the years, since joining us as a teenager, the UP-lad has not only made a place in our hearts as a Knight, but also sealed a firm place in the Indian National Team. We caught up with him for a quick chat, and he was happy to take us down the memory lane, talking about his early days, from his first Test cap to his hat-tricks and KKR’s chances in the IPL this year.

Do you imagine a third title for KKR this year?

Kuldeep: I had a strong feeling last year that we would win. Even in 2018, we were playing great cricket and I was sure we would win the title. I remember the match we lost against Sunrisers Hyderabad (in qualifier 2). I was out of the ground because my spell was over. They were on 125 and I thought they would not go beyond 145. But Rashid Khan came into the middle and changed the game. We were just one step away from entering the final. It was a heart-breaking moment when we lost the match. If we can strike a good combination, we can certainly win it this year. After all, it’s cricket, we will win sooner or later.

When did you first understand the art behind being a chinaman?

Kuldeep: When I went for a few trials in my childhood in Kanpur. I often used to wonder why chinaman bowling is so different that no one even tries! There were over 250 aspirants and only 40-50 players would be picked for the camp. Someone at the trials told me to bowl left-arm finger spin instead of chinaman and I followed that. My coach was noticing everything and when I went up to him, he asked, “Why didn’t you bowl?”. I was baffled. He told me that I didn’t bowl the way I was supposed to. He could see the writing on the wall that I would not be selected. That came out true! I was upset but he started showing me Shane Warne videos and asked me to follow his bowling style. I have troubled my coach a lot but even now I correct my bowling looking at Warne’s videos. It was only this time when I realised how difficult and unique chinaman bowling was. Brad Hogg (former KKR player) was one of the players back then whom I used to watch. But I always felt, if I could spin like Warne, that would create the difference.

A lot of players dream to play Test cricket. Let’s talk about your debut.

Kuldeep: It was an honour! I was on the bench for three matches but kept preparing myself with Anil sir (Kumble), our the then coach. He backed me a lot. He exactly knew the kind of mindset young spinners have. I remember, a day before the debut, we were having lunch together. He told me, you are playing tomorrow and I want 5 wickets from you. I was a little intimidated but I confidently said that I would definitely take. I slept early at 9PM and got up at 3AM, confused and nervous. I wanted to wake up Virat bhai who was next doors. But I was sure he would get mad at me. So, I went back to sleep and got up at 6AM. Somehow, I managed to spend one hour, ate breakfast and reached the ground. I was quite nervous but felt comfortable the moment all team members joined in. I got my cap and was feeling blank. It is a dream for all young cricketers to play Test cricket and my dream was coming true. I was pretty emotional. I remember I was fielding at deep square leg, and I was still nervous. But then I decided to just react normally like any other Ranji game.

When I came to bowl, Steve Smith hit a boundary off a googly in my second over and I realised the difference between international and state level cricket. Following lunch, I just tried to be relaxed and give my best. I started strategizing my game and bowled a few slower ones to David Warner and then mixed it up with a flipper, feeling it might clean him up or trap him LBW. He played the cut straight to the slip. That was my first wicket. It was one of the most happiest moments of my life and I got really emotional. My confidence rose and I got (Peter) Handscomb and (Glenn) Maxwell too. Once the day got over, I spoke to Sachin sir and he told me a lot of things about how to approach the game. I was flooded with messages and calls. When I was lying on my bed at night and I started reflecting to realise how much I had to struggle to reach that point. I had tears of joy at that moment.

Talking about ODIs, you got a hat-trick at Eden Gardens. Did you ever think of such a feat?

Kuldeep: I don’t think you can ever take a hat-trick in a planned way. Honestly, I didn’t dream of taking a hat-trick. Eden had become my home ground by this time. I remember I bowled the first few overs and I wasn’t comfortable bowling in half t-shirts. So, I went back to the dressing room and changed into my full-sleeve jersey. I spoke to Virat bhai and asked him if I could bowl from the other end. He said once Chahal’s spell was over, I could bowl from that end. I struck a very good rhythm and started bowling in the spot.

I got my first wicket of Matthew Wade and then in the next ball I plucked Ashton Agar. For the third ball, I asked Mahi bhai (MS Dhoni) what to bowl. When you have so many variations, you get confused. He just let me do whatever I felt was right but suggested that I kept it to the stumps. I kept a slip and gully in place. Luckily I bowled a good ball and got the edge. Getting a hat-trick at Eden Garden, that too in the first year of international cricket, is a big thing and this was one of the biggest moments of my life. For the second hat-trick, you might not believe me, but I had told my mom that day that I would take a hat-trick. A lot of times, what I said turned out true. I guess it was just a random moment when we were batting against the Windies that I just realised I would take a hat-trick. Things panned out just the way I had planned.

Can you share with us the difference between leg spin and chinaman bowling?

Kuldeep: If you have noticed, I mostly practice against right-handed batsmen. Because for me it is easy to bowl to a left-hand batsman. When a right-handed batsman bats, my variations are mostly wrong’un, top spin, flipper or googly. If you are playing T20, slogging leg spin gets really easy. If it’s a left-handed batsman, a leg-spinner mostly uses googly and not regular leg spin. I guess the variations I spoke about work wonderfully well in T20 cricket, but if you consider international or domestic cricket, leg spin is still very effective.