The morning after the Pune Test ended prematurely, Subroto Banerjee’s phone cracked into an endless buzz. But the former India pacer looked at the screen and bluntly pressed the cancel button. The caller was Umesh Yadav, whom he had first met as a shy 19-year-old at Vidarbha’s cricket academy. He refused to accept, or even return the call, not out of any coldness in their bond, or that he was preoccupied. But because he knew precisely the reason Umesh was pinging him. From the other end, Umesh too might have sensed exactly the reason his mentor remained elusive. The unattended-unreturned calls is an intimate understanding between the two that Umesh is bowling well. “What advice should I give him when he is in such fine rhythm? So when he’s bowling well I don’t generally take his calls. Now when I don’t respond to his calls, he knows he’s bowling well,” explains Banerjee.
Umesh, perceptibly, is bowling better than at any stage of his career, and in Pune he registered his second best figures in an innings. And Banerjee was not going just by the scorecard, but has watched every single ball he has bowled in the last couple of years and keeps querying about Umesh to his teammates. “After the England series, I had called Virat Kohli and asked him about Umesh’s progress. He was praising Umesh,” says Banerjee.
But two years ago, Banerjee didn’t even wait for Umesh’s call after the latter endured a disastrous trip to Australia, where his bowling was utterly shambolic in the Test series. “He didn’t sound depressed, but I knew how much hurt he must have felt. He had gone with high hopes and was exceptional in his first Test series there (2011-12),” he recollects.
The diagnosis was straightforward—seemingly striving for more pace, Umesh ended up bowling too full and to overcompensate he would bowl way too short. His pitch map resembled a novice archer’s scattered target board — no two arrows pierced the same spot. The expected consequence was a haul of 11 wickets at just a shade under 50, bleeding 4.62 runs an over. The more worried he got of his bowling, the more wayward he became. “I couldn’t detect any major technical shortcoming in run-up or wrist position. Of course, there are minor things even the finest bowlers keep working on, but nothing that needed a drastic makeover. Small things like run-up and head falling over at times,” he says.
It was a grumpy phase for Umesh, as an all-brawn-no-brains reputation was developing an unwanted halo around him, and he sensed his own opportunities were drying up. Umesh then posed Banerjee an existential dilemma several young tearaways have dwelled on at some point in their career. “Sir, should I reduce my pace?” Umesh asked Banerjee.
The latter drew a deep breath, and then crushed the seeds of doubt, “Are all slow bowlers getting wickets? Look at the top fast bowlers in the world. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Mitchell Johnson. You see them all, pace is their biggest gift. And you can be like them, because you have pace. Discipline will come automatically as you bowl more,” he rewinds.
The only aspect, Banerjee emphasises, he told Umesh was not to over-experiment. He repeated an oft-repeated war-game analogy. “I’m sure Umesh and several others might be tired of hearing this but it always had a motivational effect on him. I told him he should see every match as a war, as a matter of life and death. You should go there and fight it out till you drop dead,” he says.
A studious bowler
Not that he was, or is, any less fired up when he dons the India stripes. Former India bowling coach Bharat Arun remembers him as a studious bowler who wanted to grasp even the minutest aspect of his bowling. But then he realised that Umesh was a little concerned about the lack of wickets. After all, numbers are what quantify a bowler’s effectiveness. “I told him to just keep on bowling well and you are bound to get wickets. I never told him to cut down his pace in search for consistency. It’s foolish to mould a sprinter into a marathoner,” he says.
Maybe, these words calmed him. Umesh made peace with himself. “Once he freed himself of all these doubts, he began to settle into a nice rhythm, and he began to enjoy his bowling more,” says Banerjee. Umesh made instant amends, picking 18 wickets in the World Cup that followed, a rich vein of form he has taken into the longer version as well. He also got rid of the mental block that he couldn’t succeed without a natural in-swinger.
While his numbers in this span are hardly arresting, the impact he has made in the context of a match, irrespective of the nature of the ball or the condition of the game, was invaluable to India’s 19-game unbeaten streak. The latest example was in Bangalore, he came out of nowhere and nailed Australia’s first-innings top-scorer, Shaun Marsh with the old ball and then that game-defining two-wicket burst in Australia’s second dig. Delve further, as much as 81 per cent of his wickets since the South Africa series have been batsmen from 1-7. Even his economy rate has come down in the span — since the South Africa series at home, he has been bowling at a miserly 2.83. In this span, he has shown a mastery of different tricks too — conventional out-swing, reverse swing, bouncer and slower ball blended with supreme accuracy. And, as coach Anil Kumble aptly put in perspective, “He may not have a five-wicket haul but every time he has bowled, he has looked like he would pick up a five-for.” Umesh would hope that would change as well. But he won’t be splitting his hair over it. Or that Banerjee keeps cutting the calls.