"I believe that he's the most improved bowler in the last season-and-a-half," Sanjay Bangar, Indian cricket team's batting coach said of pacer Umesh Yadav after the one-off Test against Bangladesh. It was a big call to single out Umesh for special praise, considering the exploits of the Indian bowlers of late, but Bangar spoke with real conviction.
Umesh bowled a feisty spell in the first innings in the game against Bangladesh, accounting for three wickets and breaking the back of the visitors' batting line-up. He inflicted a blow that Bangladesh never really recovered from. Shakib Al Hasan, who had a torrid time dealing with Umesh's deliveries, hailed it as "the best spell he's ever faced in his Test career".
The Vidarbha pacer has always had blistering pace – a rare trait among Indian bowlers – but it was control that has let him down over the years. "We need to make a decision if we want quick bowlers or if we want good bowlers even if they are not quick. We have been backing too many quick bowlers who haven't been bowling well." The then captain of the Indian limited-overs team, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, vented his frustrations after his side's solitary win during a 1-2 ODI series loss in Bangladesh in 2015. The captain's word might not have been meant for Umesh alone, but it was evident that he was part of the guilty party.
The 29-year-old bowler has had a history of being either too short or too full, resulting in him going for runs in the shorter formats and being less effective in the longer one too. But ever since that taunt-like statement by Dhoni, Umesh has given his former captain lesser reasons to feel the way he did. One, however, has to credit the former India captain for showing the faith in Umesh in spite of some low-key performances. Umesh still lacks the consistency one associates with a top fast bowler, but recent performances show he has stepped on the path to be one.
"All our three seamers were able to get the reverse swing. But Umesh (stood out) with his pace and the lengths that he bowled. Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar) can bowl the conventional swing, but Umesh can swing the ball both ways. Again Ishant (Sharma) bowls slightly back of a length, but Umesh's length allows him to swing the ball with the new ball and also with the old ball. He has worked a lot on his wrist positions and balance at the crease." Bangar said after the one-off Bangladesh Test. It seems then that Umesh is finally turning into a bowler India can bank on.
So how did he manage to bring about a change? Umesh gave a hint when he spoke to the media ahead of the Australia series.
"So what exactly did change for me? I believe my experience of using the crease came in handy. Our coach Anil Kumble advised that if I had to take the ball away from the left-hander with fuller deliveries, I need to come wide of the crease and push it through. The wider you go, the better angles you can create for a left-hander, provided you hit the right length," said the 29-year-old from Nagpur.
"Similarly, when I am bowling to right-handers, I would come closer to the stumps and try to hit a channel where I can make them play more deliveries," he said.
The real difference for Umesh is the fact that he's been able to execute all that. Now, he's not just creating pressure, but also sustaining it. "He was moving the ball both ways and some of the deliveries were unplayable. The best I could do was to hit the deliveries that I could and the ones I couldn’t, I tried not to nick it. I was lucky that I survived that spell," said Shakib.
Another thing that stands out for Umesh, as Bangar said, is his ability to swing the ball both ways. If he continues to have the control which he has had recently, he could give the Australian openers plenty of problems. It will be crucial for India to keep a check on David Warner as he can take the game away from them with his swashbuckling style.
A good spell from Umesh upfront could make the job of the spin twins, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, a lot easier. Having survived the pressure piled on by the fast bowlers, it would be quite sickening for the Aussies to see India's spin duo coming hard at them. With little respite, their mental resolve would be put to the test.
Umesh employing the reverse swing later on in the innings could be the game-changer for India. His ability to swing the ball either way could make the Australians sweat and he could give Virat Kohli the opportunity to mix his bowlers and give his frontline spinners a breather.
However, against the visitors, who are brilliant against pace, Umesh will have to be at his very best. He must cut down on his occasional loose delivery as it will allow the likes of Warner and Steve Smith to counter attack and put pressure back on the Vidarbha pacer.
India, though, will be hoping that Umesh, one of their genuine quick bowlers, could carry on his good work against the very best in the world and perhaps give them a taste of their own medicine. With the Indian spinners expected to do most of the damage, a bit of help from Umesh would be decisive. It could give the Ashwin-Jadeja combination a licence to have a real go at the Australians right from ball one. That's a situation which the Indian spinners will relish, as it would give them the chance to run riot and the visitors would be feeling the heat of the Indian summer.
India whitewashed the Aussies the last time they visited India in 2013, and if they repeat that this time around, Umesh is certain to have played a big part.