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Umesh Yadav took six wickets in three Tests in Sri Lanka. Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times
Umesh Yadav took six wickets in three Tests in Sri Lanka. Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times

Cricket: Umesh Yadav’s tryst with speed

Fast bowler Umesh Yadav has evolved into a player who gives the team crucial breakthroughs without compromising on pace

On his first Australian tour in January 2012, Umesh Yadav, playing only his fourth career Test match, got a five-wicket haul in Perth. He finished the Australian tour as the most successful Indian bowler, with 14 wickets in four matches.

Almost three years later, Yadav went through a nightmarish experience in Test cricket. At Sydney in January 2015, he got one wicket after conceding 182 runs in 30 overs. Only one bowler (Imran Tahir) has had a worse outing in the history of Tests after bowling more than 30 overs.

But Yadav has been able to shatter many myths—from playing for a team (Vidarbha) in the plate division (the group of weaker teams) of Ranji Trophy to today becoming the first bowler to be included in the team, irrespective of the conditions—ahead of experienced Ishant Sharma, versatile Mohammed Shami, or even the world No.3 in the International Cricket Council rankings, R. Ashwin.

Since Sharma’s debut in 2007, Yadav is the only pacer who has managed to play over 30 Tests. In this period, India have tried eight pacers but only Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have been able to play more than a dozen matches. So what makes Yadav so special even though he is yet to get 100 wickets (he has 94)in this format after playing 34 matches ?

“In modern times, it’s challenging for a fast bowler to be relevant in all formats. It is indeed laudable that of all the formats, he is prioritizing Test cricket," says former India pacer Javagal Srinath.

It is fascinating to compare Yadav with Srinath (in Srinath’s first 34 of 67 matches). While Yadav has bowled around 5,500 deliveries for his 94 wickets, Srinath bowled 7,500 deliveries for 118 wickets. Yadav’s strike rate (59.5) is superior to Srinath’s (66.3). But his average and economy rate (35.93 and 3.62, respectively) suffer in comparison (30.49 and 2.85).

“It doesn’t matter really," says Srinath, interrupting before hearing the comparative numbers. “Teams and captains don’t judge you on that. What is significant is what kind of contribution one is making (in victory), how many top-order wickets one is getting, how often one is breaking a dangerous-looking partnership, and Umesh is doing that."

For example, in Sri Lanka’s follow-on in the third Test at Kandy on Sunday, Yadav took out opening batsman Upul Tharanga to put the hosts on the defensive straightaway.

Apart from having almost similar numbers in Test cricket so far, Yadav shares another decisive trait with Srinath—he never compromises on speed.

“Though Srinath was a different kind of bowler, both have quick arm rotation action. Besides, Umesh is a natural fast bowler and even if he bowls from a shorter run-up, his pace will not get affected," says former India pacer Subroto Banerjee, who is one of the few people Yadav takes suggestions and guidance from.

“I always wanted to bowl fast," Yadav said recently in an interview to Bcci.tv, “so I will not compromise on pace. I knew (from the beginning) there were a lot of bowlers who could bowl in the 130-135 kmph bracket. I knew you would be called different if you could bowl every ball at 140 kmph and you would eventually get a chance."

The team management is giving fast bowlers adequate rest and recovery by not picking them for insignificant One Day International or Twenty20 matches. Many seasoned observers say the “Vidarbha Express’" natural fitness and smooth bowling action have enabled him to perform well through the long home season (he played 12 out of 13 matches and got 30 wickets on surfaces which were tailor-made for home spinners).

“He has become smarter in the last one-and-a-half years. His implementation (of strategy) is superb. It is obvious that (captain Virat) Kohli backs him and it has done wonders to his self-belief," says Banerjee, currently the head coach of Vidarbha.

Between the tours of South Africa in January 2018 and New Zealand in February 2019, Yadav is also likely to tour England and Australia. Kohli will now expect him to be a match winner.

Yadav’s bowling average and economy rate in matches outside India aren’t as good as his home record. In 15 away Test matches, Yadav had got 41 wickets at an average of 42.09 and a strike rate of 59.3.

Yadav’s outstanding series against Australia (played in India) in January-February—17 wickets in four Tests—shows his vastly improved fitness, apart from his command over both conventional and reverse swing.

“Gym work and running is the key. Even when he is not playing, you won’t find him away from these activities," says Banerjee.

“I learnt a lot about maintaining fitness and how to recover after the game. If you don’t do that, you cannot survive. So now, whenever I get the time, I work on my recovery," says Yadav.

Just a few months ago, legendary West Indian fast bowler Andy Roberts had described Yadav as “the first genuine fast bowler from India" while former Australian great Glenn McGrath too had marvelled at Yadav’s fitness and consistency. Banerjee believes Yadav can get past Srinath’s numbers (236 Test wickets) if he plays another 30 matches.

Yadav could start by playing a crucial role in India winning its first-ever Test series in South Africa and Australia, a feat none of India’s great pace bowlers has accomplished.

Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide. He tweets @ vimalwa.

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