Before taking the field against Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) on Friday, Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) had lost each of their previous five matches at home. It's an unusual statistic, but one that captures the essence of RCB's dismal run in 2017.
While the sluggish nature of the Chinnaswamy Stadium pitch was thought to have impeded the free-stroking RCB batsmen last year, it papered over the absence of a genuine fast bowler in their ranks, one whose pace through the air would negate the fatigue in the pitch.
Cut to 2018, and the Bengaluru-based outfit shelled out Rs 4.20 crore to rope in Umesh Yadav after a protracted tug-of-war between Delhi Daredevils and Rajasthan Royals. Against Punjab on Friday, the Vidarbha pacer justified the price tag with a 'Man of the Match' performance. He hit his straps for the second match running, and prised out three out of Punjab's top four in one over, after KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal added 32 runs in the first three overs.
Yadav first got rid of Agarwal, the leading run-getter in domestic cricket last season, with a fast and full delivery that drew the right-hander into an expansive drive, only to beat him for pace and take his outside edge. With the very next ball, he trapped Aaron Finch in front of the stumps on umpire's call, with the ball just clipping the stumps. And four balls later, he beat Yuvraj Singh with a full and fast incoming delivery after softening the experienced left-hander with a short one a ball before. He later admitted that it was Yuvraj's wicket that he enjoyed the most.
His three-wicket burst ripped the heart out of KXIP's line-up and it was left to skipper Ravichandran Ashwin's 21-ball 33 to give respectability to their total.
Even in RCB's first game of the season, against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) on Sunday, Yadav found his bearings quickly and got rid of the free-flowing Sunil Narine early in his spell. He also castled Robin Uthappa in his next over, proving that he is ready to don the mantle of the strike bowler that RCB missed last year.
Two things stand out in Yadav's two impressive outings: His knack of getting the top-order batsmen, and his much-improved economy. While there has been little doubt about Yadav's potency as an out-and-out pacer, questions have been repeatedly raised about his accuracy. Against KKR, his economy of 6.75 was the best in his team. On Friday, he conceded just 5.75 runs per over, the second best in the match. Overall, his average economy in the two matches has been 2.09 runs less than his IPL average, and if he can continue his hot streak for better part of the coming six weeks, RCB's hopes of going deep in the tournament will receive a major fillip.
In Virat Kohli, Yadav has found a skipper who thinks like a fast bowler, and in Ashish Nehra, he has an astute bowling coach who understands the craft of pace bowling. Expectedly, the only advice he got from the two was to bowl flat-out without bothering about variations.
"I've been trying too many variations, was giving away too many runs. Here, I wanted to keep it simple. That's what Nehra and Kohli told me. They said 'attack the stumps, bowl fast and don't bowl too much about variations'. I tried my best to bowl the hard lengths and bowl into the wicket," he said on Friday.
Yadav is not new to shouldering responsibilities. Cricket observers would remember that he had excelled in the long home season for India in 2016-17. However, despite playing the most matches and bowling the most overs by an Indian fast bowler in the victorious season, he only warmed benches in South Africa. He was not part of the limited overs' leg of the tour either, and also couldn't make it to the Nidahas Trophy in Sri Lanka earlier this year.
The 30-year-old utilised the downtime by turning up in first-class cricket, and the hard yards are beginning to bear fruit. He looks devoid of early-season rust and seems to have come into the IPL in rhythm. If the two matches are an indicator, Yadav seems to have cracked the code of what works best for him. His three-wicket haul against KXIP was his sixth against them — the most by a bowler against one particular team in the IPL — and armed with the simple gameplan of running in and bowling fast, he looks set to make the right noises this season.