Before India's second T20I against Sri Lanka, the last time Kuldeep Yadav had bowled in a T20 game was in IPL 2020, a competition in which he played only five games out of a possible 14 for the Kolkata Knight Riders. He bowled 12 overs in those five games, for one wicket only. The last time he bowled for India in a T20I was back in January 2020 against Sri Lanka. He conceded at 9.50 runs per over when Sri Lanka's overall scoring rate was 7.10 in a total of 142 for 9.
To find the last time Yadav picked up more than one wicket in a T20 game while conceding runs at less than nine an over, you have to go back to February 2019. There is a neat before and after division for Yadav, very marked in T20s, in 2019. Until IPL 2019, he could do no wrong, as an average of 19.43 and an economy rate of 7.32 showed. Since IPL 2019, those numbers ballooned to 42.33 and 8.61 before Wednesday's T20I.
He had a full Murphy's hand of bad luck, bad performance, and bad timing in the last two years. It took a pandemic to get a regular spot in the XI back on India's tour of Sri Lanka, beginning with the ODIs, where he began well. He might not have played the T20Is, but was fortunate enough to be one of 11 men left in the original squad who didn't have to isolate after Krunal Pandya tested positive.
Ironically enough, while luck played a part in him getting a look-in again, Yadav wasn't quite lucky when actually bowling in the game. He should have had Dasun Shanaka lbw with his second ball, struck plumb in front. Not given on the field, India erred by not opting for the review. He could have had Dhananjaya de Silva caught behind in his second over, but Sanju Samson couldn't latch on to a sharp chance off a bottom edge. He then should have had Minod Bhanuka on the first ball of his third over, only for Bhuvneshwar Kumar to spill a fairly straightforward chance running back from point.
Yadav also had a boundary conceded in his fourth over when it should have been a single, due to a fumbled stop at long-off. Every over he bowled, he was on the wrong end of the luck divide. On another day, Yadav will bowl in exactly similar fashion and end up with something like 4 for 20, instead of the still creditable 2 for 30 he had on his T20 return.
What Yadav did was impress India's bowling coach Paras Mhambrey enough to declare that the spinner was on track to strengthen his chances for selection to the T20 World Cup.
"He is an extremely talented bowler. And he's a thinking bowler," Mhambrey said after the match. "There were a lot of discussions we had during the period before the games that we spent together. We were seeing videos, discussing plans. It all boils down to execution, so the credit should be given to him and the way he has taken it up. Yes, there's challenges, and yes he's been on and off, in and out of the team for a while now - which he knows. He also knows that he needs to work hard to maintain his position, which he's doing. I'm so happy to see that, and very happy as well with the results that he's getting. I'm sure he'll take a lot of positives from this. Thinking ahead, the World Cup is also round the corner, he'll really increase his chances to be part of that squad."
After the first ODI, Yadav had admitted to feeling the pressure and nerves that accompanied a long absence from international cricket. "Pressure… nervousness is always there when you play, and I was playing after a long time," he had said.
Yadav had also spoken of how sitting on the sidelines breeds self-doubt, even from the most well-intentioned help. "There are many people who want to help you, talk to you. But if you talk to too many people, then you create doubts within yourself also," he had said.
Pressure, nerves, doubt, they were all by-products of an extended time on the bench. Yadav is bowling in an era of unprecedented depth in Indian cricket, which means time on the bench comes with the territory. There was no greater showcase of depth than the fact that an Indian team already missing several first-choice picks who are in England, had to make do with a lopsided XI where Bhuvneshwar Kumar batted at No. 6 for the first time in his international career - and still managed to squeeze Sri Lanka to a last-over win.
Yadav's bowling was particularly impressive given the low total that India were defending, and how they needed all their spinners to do the twin jobs of tying down runs and getting wickets.
The T20 World Cup is still some way off, and whether Yadav ultimately makes it might have more to do with how he, and the other spinners in contention, perform in the second half of the IPL. Before that, there is still one more T20I against Sri Lanka, which gives Yadav more time to get into his groove. He grabbed his opportunity with a good performance when he got to bowl in a match, and has a second one in the last T20I. After months of bowling in the nets, getting game-time and doing well might feel like several steps forward in itself, World Cup or no World Cup.