Bada Jigra Poonam Yadav’s rise to the top

Poonam Yadav in action. ©ICC

6-3 offside fields are usually the purview of fast bowlers looking for wickets with the new ball in Tests and ODIs. If you see those fields in T20s, maybe the fast bowler is looking for wide yorkers. You certainly don’t see them for spinners, against whom the batters have enough time to change position and work the ball onto the leg side. Certainly not for slow leg-spinners bowling to right-handers.

But that’s the field Poonam Yadav was bowling with in the first T20I against Sri Lanka.

“I was trying to make them play the cut,” she explained after the game. That’s not something you hear everyday, most bowlers talk about trying to get the batters to drive, not cut. But then Poonam isn’t most bowlers. She’s certainly not as tall as most, standing just a shade under five feet. Which means that her release point is low, despite being a leg spinner, a breed that usually identifies itself by their high-arm actions.

The infield in front of square on the on side stood vacant. Besides square leg, there were only deep midwicket and long-on. And yet the batters weren’t confident about getting outside the line of off stump and hoiking Poonam over the leg side, partly because they weren’t sure which way she was turning it. Two had already lost their wickets to Poonam’s variations.

First was Sri Lanka captain Chamari Athapaththu, bat still smoking from an incandescent hundred in the last ODI. She was given no room though, as Poonam and the other spinners used a leg stump line of attack. “The plan was to bowl a googly from outside leg stump and beat her,” shared Poonam. Athapaththu read the googly correctly, used her feet, and connected sweetly to send the ball over mid-wicket. But Poonam’s choice of end meant that Athapaththu was hitting against the wind, and the ball landed in the hands of the fielder on the boundary. Next over, Shashikala Siriwardene was fooled when she shaped to cut but the straighter ball slid onto her stumps.

Poonam’s googly has a special fond memories of Sri Lanka; it was born against them. “I had been trying to develop the googly for a long time. I used it for the first time in the 2017 World Cup, against Sri Lanka, and with the first one I got Athapaththu out,” she recalls. “First it used to be slow, but now I get it to go because I’ve increased my arm speed. Even the leg spin, with the quick arm rotation, it kicks a bit.” From turning the ball both ways, Poonam is now starting to control how much she wants the ball to turn.

Turn is quite the buzzword among the Indian spinners right now. “Any spinner should be able to turn the ball, no matter what the wicket is like, that’s what we have been working on with Ramesh (Powar) sir.” The wicket at Katunayake, where India will return for the fifth and final T20I, is unyielding. India’s score of  168 almost wasn’t enough, and Poonam’s four wickets helped restrict the hosts to 155. They also took her past Jhulan Goswami to become India’s highest wicket-taker in T20Is, with 57 in 39 matches.

She is one of those spinners whose default setting is getting the ball above the batter’s eye. It is a quality not seen very much as limited overs cricket becomes more high scoring, and it has survived because of her dip. More than one batter has made the mistake of thinking that she can reach the pitch of the ball; Poonam’s deliveries have a habit of dropping shorter than expected. “T20 is a batsman’s game, so the bowler has to take up the challenge. You have to have a big heart, bada jigra hona chahiye, especially for a leg spinner.” She counts the string of matches she played in last year’s World Cup, where she finished with an economy rate of just 3.86, as one of those moments she found she had that jigar. Before that, she was preferred for T20Is but has since cemented her spot in the ODIs.

Compare her numbers to her contemporaries and you are reminded that she is world-class. In T20Is, she has more wickets in less matches than Dane van Neikerk. She takes a wicket every 14.4 balls. That’s faster than wunderkid Amelia Kerr; in fact, that’s faster than all the competition (Amanda Wellington does marginally better, but has played only eight T20Is, and has now lost her place in the Australia T20 team). And yet she has never been offered a WBBL or KSL contract. While everyone has chased after India’s batters, no team has looked to pick up India’s  – and maybe the world’s – best spinner.

While the WBBL has some local leg spin talent, there is no leg spinner of note in the English set up. If you had to bet on which Indian would play the KSL next, take a punt on Poonam.