In 2014, a lanky medium-pacer named Ishwar Pandey was included in India’s ODI squad for the tour of New Zealand. He didn’t get a chance to play through either series and usually was seen bending his back in practice nets. Once when the team management was asked about Pandey’s case, the reply from then-skipper MS Dhoni was about how he was being assessed during net sessions and would step up eventually to the international level.
Pandey is now 29, and is yet to play international cricket. In fact, he probably never will, having fallen off the selectors’ radar even before the 2015 ODI World Cup (in Australia/New Zealand). Something good did eventually come out of his Kiwi sojourn though – Pandey subsequently went on to play in the Indian Premier League for Chennai Super Kings under Dhoni’s leadership of course.
It was a classic case of not being good enough for the world stage, but good enough for a secondary ‘global’ platform that the IPL provides. It happens when a franchise captain sees your progress and deems you a good-enough bowler, but you just miss that final cut in the international arena because there simply are better bowlers than you in the squad. Pandey was never going to get ahead of Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Varun Aaron and even Stuart Binny. And he didn’t.
Why is this being mentioned here though? For the 2018 IPL season, Royal Challengers Bangalore bought Umesh Yadav for Rs 4.2 crore. It was nothing out of the ordinary – Yadav is a terrific fast bowler, arguably the ‘second’ most improved pacer in Indian cricket in recent times, and of course, Bangalore are always short of quality in their bowling attack. It just fit together.
The Pandey parallel comes in because Yadav didn’t play enough international cricket before the 2018 IPL. He didn’t feature in the T20 tri-series in Sri Lanka in March. Prior to that, he sat out the Tests, ODIs and T20Is in South Africa. Before that, he sat out the ODI series against Sri Lanka at home. He did play two out of three Tests against Lanka (also at home) and one ODI against Australia in October-November last year, whilst completely sitting out the ODI/T20I series against New Zealand at home.
Basically, since the Sri Lankan tour in 2017 ended in September, Yadav had played international cricket for nine days in six-plus months until the 2018 IPL. He has featured a bit more since the IPL, but mostly because the Indian team management was either resting Buvneshwar and Jasprit Bumrah, or they were out injured, or experimentation for the 2019 ODI World Cup (which didn’t last long) was going on.
The underlying point herein is simple. Over the last couple years, Yadav has done everything in his power to become a better pacer than he ever was in his career. He is fitter than ever, and has found a good balance between pace and line-length, and has even worked on tools that are helpful in death overs (like surprise bouncer, yorker, reverse swing, etc.). And yet, like Pandey, he is just down in the pecking order behind Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar, Ishant and Shami.
A simple measure of this is judged from how Bumrah shaped up to make his Test debut at Cape Town. It was a surprising selection for many on the outside, but behind the scenes, the team management had been preparing the pacer for this first Test in South Africa since the Lankan tour. Yes, while Yadav was toiling hard on the sub-continental wickets as India won 3-0 in the Test series, the team think-tank had already set a plan in motion for six months in the future.
On the face of it, this development was a tad unfair to Yadav. Whilst playing Test cricket in India, there is seldom need for three pacers and usually Ishant-Shami get the nod with their ability to workhorse the bowling and reverse the old ball, respectively. When traveling overseas, there is an inherent need to play three pacers. If the pitch is soft and green, Kumar will play. If it is firm and hard, Yadav gets a game.
This overseas cycle was Yadav’s one chance as such to get consistent cricket under his belt. Even so, it hasn’t happened. Sample what transpired in England – he played the first Test because both Kumar and Bumrah were unfit, and then became a victim of maddening selection chop and change in perfect bowling conditions in the second Test at Lord’s. When Bumrah became fit ahead of the third Test in Nottingham, Yadav simply disappeared back into the shadows.
One way to look at this situation is the rich pedigree of pacers Indian cricket currently boasts of. It is quite different from the times when Kapil Dev and Zaheer Khan used to run solo. But when you have too many options available, each designed for different conditions on offer, one or two pace bowlers will eventually lose out on valuable game time. It is nobody’s fault, and you can apply Darwinism herein.
From Yadav’s point of view though, at age 31, he isn’t getting any younger and has perhaps already hit his peak as a pacer. Is this his last Australian tour? Ishant – aged 30 – thought so before taking off from India. Where does that put Yadav? Well, Somewhere in the dressing room, he will hoping to get into the mix of the three-pronged pace attack Kohli will play in the next four Tests.
And if he doesn’t get a game Down Under, well, the 2019 IPL isn’t far away.