Return of Umesh Yadav, the fourth horseman
In the last three months, India’s fast bowlers have forced as many as four batsmen to be replaced through concussion-substitutions in Test cricket; Bangladesh’s Liton Das and Nayeem Hasan in the recently concluded game in Kolkata, and before that South Africa’s Dean Elgar in Ranchi and West Indies’s Darren Bravo in Jamaica.
While this lends undeniable evidence that the new replacement-rule is the need of the hour in Test cricket, it is also further proof of why India’s fast bowling quartet of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav is the fiercest pace battery in the history of Indian cricket.
The fourth name on that list, Yadav, wasn’t even supposed to feature in India’s home series against South Africa in October; he only entered the Test squad at the last minute, once Bumrah was injured. Yadav went on to account for 11 South Africans in the two Tests (apart from felling Elgar with a sharp bouncer), and followed it up with 12 more wickets against Bangladesh.
A strapping and powerfully built fast bowler, Yadav always had the aggressive streak—he once dropped Sachin Tendulkar with a bouncer at a nets session before he made his Test debut—but it’s only with experience that Yadav has been able to mesh it with a knack to take wickets at regular intervals.
So what does someone like Yadav, who likes to soften up his targets, think about the concussion-rule?
“It’s good in a way, because someone’s life should not be in danger,” he says in an interview with Hindustan Times. “If someone has to bat forcibly when he is not in a position to bat, he can always retire from the game. Also, if a good batsman is hit and can’t bat, the team can make up for that loss.”
But Yadav is also wary of batsmen around the world using the rule to escape difficult situations. “In the past there have been instances when batsmen have been hit in worse ways, but that time there was no rule,” he says. “Now you have got a cushion. When the rule was not there, people used to get hit and they would stay on. Now when the batsmen get hit, they go away.”
Yadav is a fast bowler and fast bowlers are an unapologetic lot. “Look, the bouncer is a weapon. We use it to push the batsman on the back foot or to create a doubt in his mind,” he says. “There is a part of you who wants to make sure that the batsman has not been hit hard or hurt. And after the Phil Hughes incident, bowlers did take some time to deal with it because bowlers don’t bowl bouncers to hit the batsman.
“But, yes, there are occasions when the game gets heated and that’s when you sometimes see more bouncers than usual but I think that’s part of the game.”
In recent years, there have been major changes in not only Yadav’s outlook towards the art of bowling, but also his performances. Since 2017, Yadav has picked up 74 wickets in 19 Tests at an average of 22. Between 2011 and the end of 2016, his figures read 68 wickets in 28 matches at an average of 38.
“The earlier Umesh was young and raw. This Umesh is more experienced, understands his bowling better. He knows his strengths better,” he says of his turnaround. “The learning never stops. With the bowling attack we have, one has to be prepared to sit out matches. So, it’s important to identify and learn from your mistakes in order to comeback.”
One of his key learnings led to a change in his grip.
“Based on the conditions, whether it’s skidding or it’s swinging, your grip of the ball changes. Sometimes you hold the entire ball in the palm in conditions where the ball is skidding, sometimes you hold it slightly up,” he says.
“So, it’s important to be able to identify these changes. Sometimes you hold the ball firmly, when it does not work, you try a lighter grip. This is all part of the learning.”
Yadav also applied these learnings to the pink ball, with which he picked up eight wickets in the day-night Test at Eden.
“I learnt the art of bowling with the pink ball quite quickly and what changes I needed to make with my grip,” he says. “The pink ball did not swing much in the last session of the day, but it would skid because of the dew. So, it was important to identify the importance of the short ball and that the batsmen were struggling against the back-of-a-length delivery. We felt that they were struggling. So we were plotting that way.”
What role has captain Virat Kohli played in his turnaround? Yadav illustrates with an example.
“Virat always asks you, the bowler, if you agree with the field he has in mind. If you disagree, he will go with your field first. He is an open-minded captain,” says Yadav.
Despite all his recent glory, the disparity between his performances at home and overseas Tests is stark. Yadav’s bowling average in India is 24. That number shoots up to 42 while playing abroad.
“If you get an odd match in an away series, you can’t plan. Only if I play more will I get better,” he says. “If you are playing a match after ten games, your selection is also somewhere in your mind. It makes you think that if you don’t do well, you can be out.”
Not enough overseas games, not enough white ball opportunities—these are some of Yadav’s unfulfilled dreams. But his recent tryst with success and being a part of the best pace attack in the world has given the 32-year-old a new purpose.
“The joy and confidence of being a part of the No.1 Test team in the world is something else,” he says. “A lot of hard work has gone behind getting there. And it gives you a different level of satisfaction.”