Fast bowler in the slow lane
When Umesh Yadav arrived on the Indian Test scene eight years ago, there was high expectation the expression pace spearhead would henceforth have a nice ring to it, such was the promise he held. Seven wickets on debut, in the two home Tests against West Indies, seemed but a prelude. The pace has remained through the years, though Yadav, seen as a future mainstay of India’s new-ball bowling department, has lost steam.
In an ideal world, India would look to hit South Africa with Yadav’s pace and ability to get late swing, and reverse swing, when they square up for the Test series, starting in Visakhapatnam on Wednesday. That though is the lot of a fast bowler in full flight and rich form.
Yadav, brought in as injury replacement after Bumrah suffered a mild back stress fracture, is not even certain of playing in the first Test. Slipping down the pace pecking order, he is still regarded a great asset in home conditions. But the team management is likely to pick only two pacers with two spinners, and may feel his teammates are in better rhythm.
READ | Asia Cup In Pakistan: PCB to wait for BCCI’s confirmation till June 2020
Ishant Sharma, despite ups and downs, has stayed the course, an important member for successive skippers. Mohammed Shami has overcome knee problems and is metronomic when fit. That leaves Yadav the uncertain member of a support cast to the newest member, Bumrah, who has revolutionised the Indian pace attack.
Yadav’s Test opportunities have become sporadic, and though called up after Bumrah was ruled out, the bowler who will turn 32 in a month will have to start all over again. A haul of 119 wickets from just 41 Tests, and only 17 of them away from home for one of India’s quickest ever—tells a tale of poorer returns for a bowler with his gifts.
Capable of hitting 150 kph in every spell, and swing the ball at high speeds, allied to his great fitness, he should have ideally been a regular.
In his first overseas series, in Australia in 2011-12, he took 14 wickets, in a 0-4 series drubbing for India. He came back from a shin injury suffered on that tour, and then a back injury in the first Test of the home series against England in 2012-13 forced a break for a year. Though fitness has never been an issue since, he has figured few series in full.
He played all three Tests in the 2016-17 home series against Australia, taking 17 wickets as India rallied to win 2-1. He played a solid hand, though it was taken as fortifying the image Yadav was ideal for home conditions, as he was rendered peripheral for pacy overseas pitches.
He had also played in all five Tests in the previous major home series, versus England. A sparse yield of nine wickets though owed to pacers playing second fiddle to the spinners—R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in this case—on Indian wickets.
Being pushed to the fringes playing away from the sub-continent hasn’t helped the cause of India’s genuine quick. Since the start of 2018, he has figured only in two of the 14 Tests India have played, in South Africa, England, Australia and the West Indies.
Former India pacer Subroto Banerjee, who has mentored Yadav since early in his career, is confident the fast bowler will deliver if given a long run and allowed to find his rhythm and confidence. “He is effective in India because he reverses very well, and he has that extra bit of pace. Being basically a skiddy bowler, he is different,” he told HT.
READ | Why spin-friendly surfaces can be double-edged sword for Team India - Meet Proteas effective tweakers
The Vidarbha bowler has worked with Banerjee ahead of the season as well to iron out flaws. Banerjee said bowling the right length is the key. “Once he starts hitting the length with his pace, he will definitely be effective.”
However, he felt the start-stop India career won’t help. “What he needs is more momentum, which will come by playing match after match. As he plays more, he will definitely give results. He is a quality bowler.”
Yadav has acknowledged in past interviews that being benched while in good rhythm doesn’t help when a rare opportunity then comes along for a bowler whose instinct is to pick wickets than keep things tight. In South Africa early last year, as Bumrah made a splash on debut, Yadav didn’t get a chance.
A finger injury to Bumrah ahead of the England Tests after that saw Yadav picked to play the first Test in Birmingham, which India lost narrowly. But he was surprisingly omitted for the second Test at Lord’s. The team management had initially decided to play Kuldeep Yadav instead, but it defied logic as heavy rain for two days before the Test—the first day was washed out and toss happened on Day 2—had freshened up the pitch. It seemed a cruel decision as India batsmen were rolled over in both innings, 19 wickets fell to pace barring Cheteshwar Pujara’s run out, and Kuldeep Yadav bowled nine wicketless overs and bagged a pair.
With Bumrah back for the third Test, Yadav’s chances had gone. In Australia too late last year, Yadav got to play one Test, in the Perth defeat, and was dropped after a subdued showing.
Yadav though looked at the positives as he sat out the West Indies Tests this summer. “The competition (among pacers) is good, and it’s good for us. That’s the way we think… We keep trying to get better, and that helps the team too. If there is healthy competition, it’s exciting. One needs to take on the challenge and focus on the bowling,” he told ESPNcricinfo in August.
“It’s really all about the mindset. Sometimes negative thoughts creep in, and the idea is to take that out. That’s what I did, clear my thoughts.”
Critics though assess Yadav from what they see, and without rhythm he is half the bowler he can be. He will hope the South Africa series is more than a waiting game for him.
(Inputs from Sanjjeev K Samyal)