Kuldeep Yadav's left-arm wrist spin is a rare skill – but it will not be for much longer

Kuldeep Yadav of India bowls during day four of the 3rd Test Match between India and England at Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium on February 18, 2024 in Rajkot, India
Few in the history of cricket have bowled left-arm wrist spin like Kuldeep Yadav - Getty Images/Gareth Copley

Kuldeep Yadav’s mesmerising bowling in Rajkot highlighted the thrilling possibilities of a skill whose very geometry is disorientating. With his left arm, he drifts the ball away from right-handers, and then spins the ball back in after it has pitched. From an over-the-wicket line it resembles a scissor cut, as Jonny Bairstow learned when he was sliced open in the first innings.

The angle of the dismissal resembled those of Wasim Akram, who Kuldeep sought to imitate before being told he was too small to bowl quick. But what Kuldeep lacks in pace, he makes up for with his flight, guile and googly, all made even more venomous by the sheer novelty of facing left-arm wrist spin. It is the game’s least spotted skill, as rare as a Faberge egg.

Unfamiliarity helps this breed. When Kuldeep first faced England, in a Twenty20 international in 2018, he took five wickets. England swiftly enlisted three club cricketers who bowl left-arm wrist spin to help them prepare for Kuldeep. Eight days later, Kuldeep took 6-25 in a one-day international versus England.

All wrist spinners have to cope with the vicissitudes of form and the fickleness of the art; for left-arm wrist spinners, lacking either a support network of fellow practitioners or captains familiar with their style, the journey can be especially rickety. So it was for Kuldeep: across the three Indian Premier League seasons from 2019-21, he mustered just five wickets.

Yet now, aged 29 and with greater accuracy and a better disguised googly, Kuldeep is in his prime. His 12 overs on the third morning in Rajkot, which removed Bairstow and Ben Duckett while conceding only 35 runs, helped to change the match.

They were also reward for Kuldeep’s unconventional pursuit. For a right-armer, choosing between bowling finger and wrist spin is, essentially, a choice between control and direction of turn. Bowling off spin brings greater control; bowling leg spin brings the greater threat of turning the ball away from the bat. For a left-armer, bowling finger spin brings both these benefits: control and naturally turning the ball away from. It takes a certain renegade streak, then, to embrace a double difficulty: accepting both the risk of less control and the handicap of no longer being able to turn their stock ball into right-handers.

The tale of Jake Lintott is a microcosm of how left-arm wrist spin is distrusted. Lintott was released from Somerset’s academy before he had played a professional game. He spent years on the periphery of the professional circuit, making his county debut for Hampshire aged 24, and playing for Gloucestershire the following year. Most of Lintott’s time was spent at school, where he became director of cricket at Queen’s College in Taunton.

In 2019, Lintott approached Warwickshire, who allowed him to attend a training session each week over the winter. Finally, in 2020, aged 27, Lintott enjoyed his first extended run in the county game, thriving for Birmingham Bears in their T20 Blast. He has since enjoyed success in the Hundred, played in franchise leagues in Bangladesh, the Caribbean and the UAE and for England Lions. Though Lintott’s progress has stalled in the past 18 months, his career has defied those judges who long thought there was no place for his skills in the county game.

South Africa’s Paul Adams, with 134, is the lone left-arm wrist spinner to take 100 Test wickets. So far, Kuldeep’s 42 Test wickets have cost just 22.9 apiece. Together with these he has also taken 168 ODI wickets at 26, and was a central figure in India’s near-perfect World Cup campaign, and averages 14.1 in T20 internationals.

Kuldeep is not thriving just because he is different; he is simply an outstanding wrist spinner, with his rarity elevating his venom further. There was a brief flurry of such bowlers in the early 1900s: in the years after the googly was invented, left-arm wrist spinners like South Africa’s Charlie Llewellyn used the delivery. But many since, including Johnny Wardle and Garry Sobers, the cricketing polyglot, only bowled the style in helpful conditions. Increasingly, Kuldeep’s stock ball can trouble left and right-handers alike anywhere, no matter how much they have faced him before.

Wrist spin, even the conventional type, is so difficult that even Shane Warne’s brilliance was not the catalyst for future generations of leg spinners. Yet there are reasons to believe that those who bowl like Kuldeep might become less unusual.

The left-arm wrist spinner’s best friend is the fellow southpaw. Since 1990, the number of left-handed batsmen in Test cricket has almost doubled and now approaches 40%; Hitting Against the Spin, by Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones, attributes this to left-handers faring better against right-arm pace, in part because of the lbw law. More left-handers means more players for bowlers like Kuldeep to turn the ball away from; his eight wickets this series include Duckett, twice, and Ben Stokes.

Calculations about what type of bowler is best to bowl to a particular batsman have been sharpened by Twenty20. Leg spinners, initially predicted to flounder in T20, have been reinvigorated by the format, benefiting from their capacity to turn the ball both ways and how the game makes their unpredictability into an advantage. The top nine bowlers in the T20I rankings are all spinners; these include four leg spinners and, in South Africa’s Tabraiz Shamsi, one left-arm wrist spinner.

Afghanistan’s 19-year-old Noor Ahmed, who starred in last year’s IPL final, might soon be in this company too; the country have also fielded Zahir Khan and Waqar Salamkheil, two other left-arm wrist spinners. New Zealand and Sri Lanka, two other Full Member nations, have also fielded left-arm wrist spinners in the past three years. Even Lintott, long the lone left-arm wrist spinner out of around 400 English professional cricketers, now has company: Northamptonshire’s 22-year-old Freddie Heldreich, who has so far been used as a white-ball specialist.

Left-arm wrist spin will remain the game’s most beguiling art. But Kuldeep’s success is both cause and effect of a sport that is more receptive to his skill than for any time in the previous century.