On a day when he took his hundredth Ranji Trophy wicket and returned career-best bowling figures of 7 for 48 in first-class cricket, Umesh Yadav must have been most thrilled with the way he dismissed Sijomon Joseph. Coming from around the wicket to the left-hander, he bowled on the good length area and the bounce squared up Joseph. The ball hit the handle of his bat on its way to the hands of R Sanjay at first slip.
The ball was just six overs old in Kerala’s first innings on the opening day of the Ranji Trophy semi-final, but such deliveries don’t come out of the hand automatically. True, the surface was helpful, but the bowler also needs to understand the conditions early to know where to pitch the ball, how much shoulder to use to generate the right amount of pace for maximum damage.
Such knowledge comes with experience, and Umesh, when in rhythm, is a master of it. Considering how devastating he has been with the red ball most of the times he has played for India in recent times, Kerala batsmen hardly had a solution against him. The body balance of the batsmen was all over the place, and after a point, Umesh seemed to have created a dent on their psyche too.
Aided by the confidence of a Man of the Match performance in the quarter-final against Uttarakhand, which was his first Ranji match of the season, on a relatively docile pitch, Umesh displayed skills of the highest level as Vidarbha dismissed Kerala for 106. Ahead by 65 and with five wickets in hand, Vidarbha are far from stamping their complete authority of the game but Umesh has put the defending champions in a strong position for their second final appearance.
The pitch at the Krishnagiri Stadium in Wayanad was always going to be the talking point once it was confirmed that Vidarbha would be playing Kerala in the last-four clash. Kerala had prepared a green and pacy surface for the quarter-final against Gujarat and it had worked in their favour. But with Umesh being a factor in the semi-final, a similar ploy was going to be dicey. As things turned out, Vidarbha won the toss, and having played just two out of India’s 12 Test matches in South Africa, England and Australia since January last year, Umesh’s eyes must have lit up when Faiz Fazal opted to field first.
“This was perhaps the fastest track I have bowled ever in India. We don’t get tracks like this usually,” Umesh said after the day’s play. “Even when we play Test matches in Mohali, we don’t get green wickets. The plan was to hit the deck. It worked for me as the ball did the rest...Kerala batsmen were in two minds, whether to play or shoulder arms.”
Umesh has been in the circuit for ten seasons now, so his assessment that this was the ‘fastest track’ in India carries weight. As much as it was Umesh’s talent on display, it was also his way of letting out his frustration for not getting a regular run in the Indian team. He is both hungry and angry, and Vidarbha are benefitting the most from this deadly combination. Had Umesh been with the Indian team for the ongoing limited-overs series in New Zealand, then the equation would have been completely different.
Vidarbha may have opted to bat first because Rajneesh Gurbani, the chief architect of their title triumph last season with 39 scalps, has been a bit off-colour recently. Not that he has been wayward, but he has not been able to provide regular breakthroughs like 2017-18. Other pacers in their rank obviously still don’t have the ability to run through oppositions like Umesh.
On a surface where every run counts, without Umesh, Vidarbha may not have been able to bundle out Kerala within 29 overs. Umesh said that any lead in excess of 100 gives his team the advantage, and that’s because he knows he can produce an encore, having taken 16 wickets in three innings so far. His presence has also reduced the pressure off Gurbani and freed him of distractions. The three wickets he took in Kerala’s innings is Gurbani’s best performance in this season till now.
At a time when the debate on whether India’s international cricketers should be compulsorily asked to play domestic cricket or should be rested in favour of workload management continues to divide opinions, Umesh offers the virtues of his presence in the state dressing room.
Kerala still have a chance to mount a comeback, but there are already questions about the surface they chose. The other option for them was to go for a fairer pitch where batting was easier. But it would have meant allowing Wasim Jaffer easy access to more runs.
The first ball Jaffer faced at the fall of Sanjay’s wicket was met with a backfoot punch for the cover fence. The shot was as classy as he has been through the season. It looked like the soon-to-be-41-year-old was set to give a long lesson on how to bat on this surface.
It was not to be as he fell for 34, but even in that 52-ball knock, which was laced with six fours, he set another record for himself. Jaffer became the first batsman in Ranji history to score 1000 runs in a season twice. He had first breached the milestone in 2008-09 — incidentally the season when Umesh made his first-class debut. He had aggregated 1260 runs and taken Mumbai to title. He tallies 1003 runs at an average of 77.15 with potentially three innings left this season. Talk about a veteran showing the world how to boss the currently trending #tenyearchallenge.
If Umesh is fire, Jaffer is ice, and together they make Vidarbha unstoppable. All that they need to do now is build on this momentum for their team to be the first since Karnataka in 2014-15 to defend the Ranji Trophy successfully.