In the ICC Test bowler rankings, headed by India's spin duo of Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, Umesh Yadav does not feature in the top 25. There are 18 pacers that are ranked ahead of him, including Australia's Josh Hazlewood (4) and Mitchell Starc (11) and his countrymen Mohammad Shami (21) and Ishant Sharma (24). Umesh is a slot behind in the 26th place, but his performance in the just concluded India-Australia Test series would have one believe he will soon be rising through the rankings.
India have not been blessed with quality pacers in their cricketing history and the number of legitimate pace spearheads who have had a very good career could be counted with fingers in one hand with probably a spare. There have been many false dawns through injuries, sophomore slumps, lack of consistency, fitness issues, inexplicable loss of pace, you name it. The names of Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, Sreesanth, Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, VRV Singh will long stay in the memories of India fans in the promise they provided but ultimately the sad story of unrealised potential.
At the beginning of the 13-Tests home stand, it was clear that Mohammed Shami was the leader of the pace attack with Ishant, Umesh and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar taking turns to complement him. Shami has all the tools to be successful at the Test level: pace, accuracy, swing with old and new ball, and understanding of setting a batsman up. But as we stand at the conclusion of more than six-months long home season, it is Umesh that has come through with flying colors, with impressive record against the toughest opponents and fitness that enabled him to bowl his best even at the tail-end of the grinding schedule.
Umesh is blessed with the natural physique for a fast bowler and the athleticism that allows him to function at his best from the moment the captain tosses the ball over to him. It may not be an exaggeration to say that after the great Haryana pacer Kapil Dev, it is Umesh that has possessed the physical skills and the fitness levels to be a high-quality pacer of all the Indian bowlers of the fast-bowling kind.
Umesh debuted in 2011 at Delhi against West Indies, the same Test Ashwin made his maiden Test appearance as well. While Ashwin has shot through the record books becoming the top-ranked bowler in the world, Umesh has been in and out of the side, generally as an afterthought, even though he had the raw pace to trouble international batsmen. But at international level, if pace is not coupled with accuracy and control, the bowler becomes fodder. Modern batsmen are not threatened by pace alone.
The young man from Vidarbha has lacked the ability to consistently hit the lengths and lines that would trouble quality batsmen, and it showed in his returns. Entering the Australia series, in his 27 Tests in more than five years, Umesh had picked just 71 wickets at poor average (38.94) and strike rate (63.1), with just one five wicket haul back in 2012. However, 25 of his 71 wickets had come against Australia in seven Tests, and so there was hope that he would kick it up a notch when the series against the men from Down Under began.
Lo and behold, at Pune, on a pitch tailor-made for spinners, Umesh, belatedly introduced in to the attack, plucked four wickets and provided sufficient reasons to believe the series would be different for him. Even as he collected six wickets in the first Test, India crashed to a huge defeat. It was in Bengaluru that an other side of Umesh was revealed. Even though he only took a single wicket in Australia's first innings, he along with Ishant, maintained such disciplined lines to choke off the runs allowing Jadeja to eventually run riot. By the time the teams headed up north for the series finale, Umesh had picked 12 wickets at an excellent average of 25 runs per wicket. He was already the leading wicket-taker amongst the pacers from both sides.
Another two wickets were added to the tally on the opening day of the Test at Dharamsala but the real fireworks occurred in the second session of day three, as Australia took guard in their second innings. The ferocity with which the balls flung down by Umesh pinged off the helpful HPCA track homing in on the crests on the Aussie helmets was a testament to his fitness that in his 12th Test of the season he was able to generate such venom and pace. He had both the openers — Matt Renshaw and David Warner — hopping like the cliched cat on a hot tin roof.
Warner was hassled enough not to get in line with the deliveries and tamely drove at a fuller delivery, edging it behind. Renshaw was softened by sharp rising deliveries and sucker-punched with a fuller one. The sight of an Indian pacer putting fear in batsmen that grew up playing on fast, bouncy tracks, while playing in India would have been unimaginable but that exactly what Umesh produced in an inspiring spell of accurate and hostile fast bowling. He finished the series with 17 wickets — his best return in a series — at stupendous strike rate of 45 and remarkable average of 23.4 runs per wicket.
At the age of 28, with 31 Tests in to his career, it does appear Umesh has turned a new leaf in his career. That he had even the very tall Renshaw fending at 140 kmph deliveries aimed at his head, on the final bowling outing for him would have warmed the hearts of Indian fans, and most definitely his captain and team management that Umesh will be a capable and vital cog in their pace attack as India leave for overseas tours later this year.