On a hot afternoon, Kuldeep Yadav plays on a dusty ground, barren except for a few small patches of grass, watched by a handful of budding cricketers and a coach.
A world away from the smooth, manicured grounds he has played much of his cricket on in the last few years, with thousands of fans cheering him on alongside the rest of the India team.
This was a friendly match, but he seemed to be taking it very seriously. At the end of the contest — played among members of the Rovers Club — he was in the middle of a huddle addressing a player, praising him for his performance.
“If there’s anything you need, just let me know,” he added. The encouragement, coming from the club’s legend, meant the world to the youngster.
The previous evening he had been chatting merrily and singing along with his mates, indulging in banter and signing autographs. He may be an international star, but to them he is just one of their own.
According to Shivam Dixit, a 21-year-old budding cricketer who has spent several years with Kuldeep at the club, he is their “elder brother”.
Or, perhaps, a hero or role model who exhorts them to give it their all on the field and has fun with them off it.
“Sir (coach Kapil Pandey) never taught me tenderly… ‘this won’t work’, ‘that won’t work’ was his refrain, making me think ‘why won’t it work? I will make it work’.”
Kuldeep’s career has blossomed once he excelled at the Under-19 World Cup in 2014. He was India’s highest wicket-taker in the tournament — 14 wickets, including a hat-trick against Scotland.
By now, he has featured in the Indian team in all three formats, with much success, too.
Says Pandey, “Kuldeep came to us in 2004-05. He was a nine or 10-year-old. He was a medium-pacer and wanted to ‘become Wasim Akram’.
“He wasn’t too strong; quite thin. I decided to make him a left-arm spinner. I told him to forget becoming Akram, he was quite hurt. There were tears in his eyes. I was not enjoying it, either!
“After moping around a bit, he decided to give it a try. The first ball he bowled was a chinaman. I told him, ‘From now on, you will bowl only the chinaman’.”
Kuldeep says his father was the reason he took up cricket. “I wasn’t interested in cricket. I joined the academy because my father wanted me to. He motivated me a lot. I still remember his pep talks.”
Kuldeep’s rise was rapid.
“At the time, there were no mobile phones. I got videos on Shane Warne on cassettes and started preparing him. Within one or two years, he became a splendid bowler,” says Pandey.
Once he was selected at the u-17 level, he never looked back. Every season he used to pick up around 50 wickets.
The Under-19 World Cup selection was followed by inclusion in the India squad for the 2014-15 ODI series against the West Indies.
There was the occasional hiccup, however. In a bid to get selected to the Uttar Pradesh u-15 team, Kuldeep, acting on the suggestion of a selector, bowled left-arm orthodox. He wasn’t selected.
Coach Pandey was livid, says Kuldeep. After that fiasco he attended the u-17 trials and was selected. “I was only 13,” he says.
His cricketing prowess apart, Kuldeep was a normal, fun-loving kid. Academics didn’t bother him; he liked science. “I would have surely got a job pursuing science,” he says.
“Earlier, I would tell him ‘Bowl like this, bowl like that’. Now he tells me ‘Sir, don’t worry, I will bowl well’. His confidence is remarkable,” says Pandey.
On Kuldeep’s preparations for his first World Cup, Pandey says, “We are leaving no stone unturned. No compromise on fitness and hard work.
“Also, he is familiar with the UK, having toured there in 2018 with some success. His six for 25 against England in Nottingham is the best performance of his career so far.
“He may have struggled a bit in this season’s Indian Premier League, but the World Cup is a different format and a different setting.”
Regardless of how he performs, Kuldeep is sure to keep his basics firm.
“You come back and try to ensure your basics are good. You go to your coach for the basics. I stay connected with sir, this is something I will never change,” Kuldeep signs off.