Until IPL 2019, he averaged 19.43 with a save rate of 7.32. Now he couldn’t even have a match. Its shares had fallen alarmingly. When you thought it couldn’t get any worse, IPL 2021 has arrived. In the first half, he didn’t fit into the scheme of things. In the second, he aggravated a knee injury that required surgery. It was pushed back another five months.
Sunday’s return somewhat completed his reintroduction to top-flight cricket. Last month, he was part of India’s white ball teams for the home series against the West Indies. He did well in the limited opportunities he got but was nowhere near the threat he became in partnership with Yuzvendra Chahal over a two-year span between 2017 and 2019.
Now he’s back with a new team on a court with short, straight boundaries. Kuldeep knew a full bowling alley would cause problems. On a surface where the ball was skidding and batters were crossing the line fearlessly, the left arm shuffler had to quickly settle in and find his lengths. Ishan Kishan had already turbocharged his way to 22, Rohit Sharma was just shifting gears. It was not a sweet introduction.
Kishan is eager to start, but Kuldeep quickly pulls his length back and forces him to the longest leg side limit with two men back. By playing much faster and still managing to give him turns, Kuldeep was also able to get the ball out, something that seemed to have disappeared from his repertoire when he went through a prolonged difficult period.
“We were excited about what we saw leading up to the tournament,” Capitals assistant coach Shane Watson said. Featured Sports during a flash interview. “He was thirsty to prove a point. We know he is very good in all conditions. He doesn’t need to turn the ball, he has his variations, changes in lengths, he plays the wrong shots. He played a little faster.”
By keeping Rohit quiet, Kuldeep forces the Mumbai captain to rethink. Rohit’s release shot turns out to be a reverse sweep attempt, something he doesn’t play very often. But because Kuldeep’s intermediate length has been difficult to achieve, Rohit is trying to use the drift to his advantage. He can’t hit it cleanly. Rohit lets out a cry of anguish. He knows the Capitals are trying to get him hitting toward the longest boundary, and he’s doing just that to pick a deep midwicket.
Kuldeep’s confidence is on the rise, clearly in his game of Anmolpreet Singh. After beating him in flight on one ball, he induces a leading edge on the next. It just escapes his fingertips. Then he pulls out his magic ball – the wrong one – the kind of ball the wrists can sometimes spin over the bowl. Anmolpreet is defeated. The ball rotates from one leg to the other. Kuldeep’s wry smile tells you he appreciated that. And in his next lesson, he tricks Anmolpreet into flight and gets him caught in the distance.
“Since joining the Delhi Capitals side, I’ve been working on a good length area,” Kuldeep said after his spell. “I talked a lot with Ricky [Ponting] about that. I also had many discussions with Rohit [during the West Indies series] over varying lengths in T20 cricket. I worked hard and the results show.”
“When you’re in a good beat, the beat [through the air] come. When I wanted to push him further, he would go up. I could control it. Maybe that’s why the hitters didn’t get much time [to line him up]. The wicket was very good, there wasn’t much help for the bowlers. You had to vary your length. It was important not to give time to the batters. If you did, they would have had enough time to come out and score. Varying your length and pace was key.”
If the first two wickets were the result of planning, the third was due to a lot of luck. And someone who bowled as well as Kuldeep deserved it. On the penultimate ball of his spell, he managed to get Pollard to fire, only to be intercepted superbly by square-legged Tim Seifert. Pollard recovered the bones from what was only a long jump. Another night he reportedly landed in the streets outside. Instead, Kuldeep, who finished his spell, with a slip and a leg slide encouraging him to spin it past Tim David, finished with 3 for 18. Seventeen of his twenty-four balls were from about a length or a little shorter, only twice. sin by excess.
On a night where batter after batter showed they were never out of the game, the scoring rate hovered around nine and even the prospect of needing 75 of 42 didn’t deter the Capitals, Kuldeep’s numbers stood out. Enough for him to be named Player of the Match. It also capped off a happy return to the IPL.
Shashank Kishore is Senior Deputy Editor at ESPNcricinfo