England have seen what Ravindra Jadeja can do at home. England have seen what Axar Patel can do at home. But, India’s most unheralded weapon in recent home Tests, Umesh Yadav, could still be awaiting them, writes Rohit Sankar.
Faf du Plessis holds his defensive pose almost as though he has hit a straight drive past the bowler for four. Only he hasn’t. Instead, the death rattle has rung behind him after a wobble seam delivery hits a good length, veers away brilliantly off the deck and hits the top of off-stump. It’s often termed, rather loosely, the dream delivery for a fast bowler. For Umesh Yadav, it is worth a wag of his finger, a wry smile and a pretty casual celebration.
2019 Umesh Yadav is a far cry from the 2016 Umesh Yadav England faced in India. He has destroyed teams in the Indian subcontinent, blown the helmet off Dean Elgar, bounced out David Warner and bowled peaches as though his backyard grew them. Mind you, he was still good the last time England played him in India. What he has turned into, though, is better than most. The numbers back it.
Of all Indian fast bowlers to bowl at least 500 balls in home Tests, Umesh’s strike-rate of 45.7 and average of 24.54 are both the second best. He is the only Indian quick other than Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath to take a ten-wicket haul in home Tests. Since 2017 in home Tests, Umesh has 63 wickets at a strike-rate of 35.2, better than any Indian to take 20 wickets or more in this period. His tally of wickets is just four shy of Jadeja, the second-highest wicket-taker after Ravichandran Ashwin for India in this time frame, and he’s bowled in four fewer innings than the left-arm spinner.
These numbers weren’t always this good. Before 2017, Umesh was often seen as a tearaway quick who blew more cold than hot. His performances were erratic, his numbers a dime a dozen. On the verge of slipping away from the radar after a disastrous Australian tour in 2014/15, culminating with a 30-over spell that leaked over a run-a-ball in Sydney, Umesh rediscovered his mojo in the home series against South Africa in 2015, notorious for the turning pitches laid out.
The pitch was a bigger raging debate then, the Indian spinners unplayable. Amidst this chaos, Umesh had a rather good series, drowned by the outlandish numbers the Indian spinners managed to rack up. It perhaps set the template for Umesh’s subcontinental transformation that still took a few years to evolve fully. It took the remarkable transformation of Ishant Sharma and the offhand success of Mohammed Shami to convince India to sway away from the raging turners that they dished out for hapless non-Asian teams in the subcontinent in that period.
Until the loss at Chennai earlier in the ongoing England series, India’s fast bowlers had more wickets than spinners since the beginning of 2018 in home Tests. A loss in the first Test of the series, combined with the pressure of reaching the WTC finals, might have played its part in the pitches laid out since, but it’s fair to say India’s reliance on pitches that often flirted with the ‘poor’ category on ICC’s pitch rating, subsided.
Umesh remained in the shadows of these bigger giants in this period, often neglected in the XI, barely managing to even find a mention once Jasprit Bumrah’s Test career launched off into space. His career split at home, if divided into two exact halves, would feature Tests until the end of the last England tour as the first half. The staggering difference in the numbers show what Umesh at home has turned into.
While some of it could be attributed to the change in the pitches, what has contributed massively to it is his accuracy and consistency, features he often found himself in the wrong side of in the past. Adding to the accuracy is a fuller length, swinging the ball in both directions and finding reverse swing with the older ball. From a novice who sprayed it around, Umesh had turned a corner, and the results were stunning. That he hadn’t compromised on his pace made him a potent weapon on subcontinental tracks where his skiddy pace and unerring accuracy often forced mistakes from batsmen. Since 2018, in home Tests, nearly 50 per cent of his dismissals are bowled or LBW.
If England are still recovering from the Axar Patel spells that have doomed them twice in two Tests, Umesh’s inclusion – now a realistic possibility with Jasprit Bumrah pulling out of the fourth Test – could only pile onto their woes. Even as a fast bowler, Umesh’s strengths in India are pretty similar to that of the two similar left-arm spinners, Jadeja and Axar. He is accurate, hits the stumps a lot and varies his release point and angle to ensure the stumps are never out of the equation.
“When you start bowling from the same spot, you tend to become predictable,” he had said after a bumper home season in 2019. “The batsman knows that this is a bowler who will hit one particular length and they can manage. When you use [the] crease, you start using angles. From closer to stumps, the ball comes straight and then moves so the batsman is able to leave the ball. But if delivered from wide off crease, it comes in with the angle and then might straighten or even move away. That is a bigger challenge as impact is on the stumps. So as a fast bowler, if you don’t use the crease, you can’t create doubts in a batsman’s minds that how much will the ball swing and they can commit mistakes.”
The subtle details he gets into tells of a relentless mind at work. With Ishant Sharma as the holding fast bowler and Washington Sundar as the holding spinner, Umesh would potentially be a lethal attacking force alongside Ashwin and Axar. If the two-day pitch in the pink ball Test stirred enough controversy to avert India from dishing out another of those wickets, the milder version of that pitch, the familiar subcontinental dust bowl that’s a batting paradise to begin with, could just be right up Umesh’s alley.