Wiping the sweat dripping down from his forehead under the sweltering Antigua sun, Umesh Yadav is struggling to find an apt word to convey what has been missing from his game. He fumbles and spits out platitudinal phrases like “frame of mind” and “thought process” before, with a Eureka twitch of his fingers and a characteristic broad grin, he nails the word “clarity.” He explains: “In the last few months, my bowling has been missing clarity. It was too cluttered.”
It had been blowing in the wind since his underwhelming performance in the Perth Test, on a seemingly trampoline surface that turned out to be more subcontinental in characteristics. Picked as the fourth seamer, Umesh was erratic and indisciplined, purchasing only two wickets. His first spell was all fire and brimstone stuff, and dismissed Usman Khawaja, before he fizzled out, displaying all that’s profligate about his bowling. He steamed in with the same, brute intensity, but the balls were sprayed all around. Half volleys, short balls, full tosses, the Test turned out to be nightmarish for him.
Perhaps, he was trying too hard. After all, the competition for regular spots in the playing eleven is at its most intense. Umesh seemed wracked. Later, he admitted that the start-stop pattern of his career was affecting him. For someone who had made his debut in 2011, he has featured in only 41 Tests, owing to a variety of factors, from his scattergun ways to injuries and recurring inconsistency to an unprecedented boom in young fast bowlers. Virat Kohli, who made his debut just five months before Umesh, has 77 Tests to his name. Ajinkya Rahane, who made his debut two years later, has hoarded 56 caps.
Helping Vidarbha defend the Ranji Trophy title did resuscitate Umesh’s morale, especially the way he knifed through Kerala in the semifinals on a Wayanad green-top. But the three-month interval in between was too agonising. “I was restless and felt something was disturbing me. I was bowling well, maybe I wanted to bowl, and all that was affecting me. I realised I needed some time off the game,” he says.
It was a delicious irony — he wanted game time but, at the same time, wanted some time away. But for the next few weeks he completely stayed off the game, and then decided to drop in at the Vidarbha Academy to have a chat with its bowling director and former India pacer Subroto Banerjee.
“I opened up and told him that something was missing in my bowling. He felt it was because I was thinking too much about bowling, that my mind was too preoccupied with my bowling that I was losing my rhythm, and it affected my release. It’s when your mind is unclear that technical mistakes creep into your game,” Umesh says, a touch philosophically.
He hasn’t always been a rhythm bowler, that is one who plucks wickets in a heap when everything is in sync. Stuart Broad is perhaps the greatest example, in that just from nowhere he comes up with a destructive spell. So to a fair measure is Mohammed Shami. But Umesh has always been a bounding-in speedster, striving hard and plugging away at the batsmen. He gets his wickets incrementally, and not in a single spell. So much so that in the same spell he could look in rhythm and rhythmless. But one gets the drift of what he’s saying. He was disturbed, restless and fretful. “All I knew was I was missing Test cricket, but with the way I was bowling I was sure I wouldn’t be successful,” he admits.
So getting into rhythm was the next, and only, endeavour. And the only way he knew was to keep bowling, keep the gremlins out his mind, and just bowl with full intensity. The sessions went on for a month before the Indian Premier League interfered with the long summer days in Nagpur. His IPL, as well as his team’s, didn’t unfurl as they wanted it to, but Umesh was happy that he was gradually regaining his rhythm. “I knew I was ready for Test-match cricket.”
He demonstrated as much in the practice game here, wherein he was by far India’s most nagging as well as thrifty bowler. Often, he’s one of the two. But this time around, he was both, as he bowled with pace and hostility, barely wavered from his fourth-stump line and masterfully interchanged his lengths between fullish and short, over-reaching on neither count. When full, he ensured he wasn’t drivable and made the odd ball bend into the right-hander and away from the southpaw. When he was short, he was brutish, at the body and angling in. “Make’em sniff it. Hee’s breathin’ fire,” even the local crowd encouraged him.
The way he had the left-handers squared up had the Indian support staff excited. “When he is bowling like this, one can’t even touch him,” opined one. And most of the balls to the left-handers, pitching on middle stump and slanting away, were too good for them to nick. He beat their tentative gropes on countless occasions and found their edges a few times as well.
Perhaps a better indicator — but not a yardstick — of his bowling was that he didn’t concede a single boundary in 13 overs. He reasons: “I was looking to bowl dot balls and build pressure from my end. If I kept bowling like that, I knew I would be rewarded.”
The ultimate reward, though, will be finding a permanent spot in the playing eleven, which’s tough given the bowling riches. Shami and Jasprit Bumrah have bowled themselves into indispensability; Ishant Sharma can’t be dislodged either, and then there is Bhuvneshwar Kumar, whose batting abilities afford him a headstart. The rapidly progressing Navdeep Saini is queuing up. And it’s with the last three that Umesh will have to compete for a spot, He has to ensure he doesn’t taper off. Nudging 32, another setback would be hard to overcome, and his career could quickly unravel and end up unfulfilled.
But Umesh isn’t perturbed by the circumstances. “I will wait for my opportunity and look to make the most of it. Until then, I’ll keep supporting my fellow bowlers and look to keep my rhythm going. We have a long season, a lot of Test matches and we look to rotate the squad. The competition in the team is healthy and we really back each other,” he says. There is clarity in his words, like with his bowling.