Another day in a decade of Umesh Yadav

September 03, 2021

In November this year, it'll be a decade since Umesh Yadav made his Test debut. R Ashwin and Ishant Sharma were part of that attack, so there's a bit of familiarity and continuity there. But in the milieu in which Yadav operates, of Indian fast bowling, it's two different worlds.

At that time, Yadav arrived like the culmination of India's first great pace bloom, those years of Ashish Nehra, Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Sreesanth and, of course, Zaheer Khan. In those early dispatches, Yadav was giddily described, and feted, as the quickest bowler in the country, which itself was revealing. Because the fast-bowling tradition had been thin, an out-and-out quick was a bright, shiny new thing to show off. Plus, he had a very subcontinent (well, okay, Pakistani) fast-bowling backstory: small town, tough early life, tennis-ball cricket, then big time, then a back injury, but then big time again.

Indian pace bowling is a more robust, populated place these days. Had Mohammed Siraj emerged at the start of the century there's a good chance he would've made his Test debut well before he'd played his 38th first-class game. Yadav has straddled these eras; an important part of this one too, if not quite as central anymore yet, still, on days like today, a little like a remnant of that time.

'Days like today' probably doesn't need much expanding. It was a messy one for India. Without their best, busiest batter, and despite being five down within the first hour, England scored at over 3.5 per over through the day. Too many boundaries conceded, too many extras, the attack feeling that little bit thin and stretched.

That Yadav ended up as their most successful bowler, that he looked at some points their joint-best bowler, and at others the joint-leakiest in some ways only reinforces an early impression that has never quite been shed. In those MS Dhoni years, Yadav, unfairly, became the face of the wider malaise of India's bowling abroad, a factor in their failure to compete.

It was unfair because he wasn't, in numbers, that bad. He was unfortunate in that his first seven away Tests were all in Australia, an especially intimidating and difficult place for young fast bowlers. He was young and around him the attacks were poor.

It's unfair to bring it up now as well because it's not as if he plays away from home. This was just his fourth Test outside of India since the start of 2019, and India's 13th in that time. More remarkably, though India have toured England thrice from 2014 and for five-Test series each time, this is only Yadav's second Test in the country. (And the very point is that India still dismissed England for under 300, so nowhere near as bad a day as they used to have.)

All of this is fairly well-known. Yadav is a home specialist, but that's a weird status for a fast bowler. Spinners are often seen that way. England have started thinking of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad in that way but only this late into their careers. Generally, the rule with fast bowlers though is that if they're thought to be good enough, they play in most places. India compete abroad now and he's not always part of that. Ten years in, it could look like a failure to evolve but the truth is - as he's acknowledged - that if you don't get to play in the first place, evolution doesn't happen easy.

And so you have Yadav as we saw Yadav in this innings. Spectacular moments, in those deliveries to dismiss Joe Root and then Dawid Malan, deliveries at the stumps and eking out movement at healthy pace, underpinning a morning burst that put India on top. In those first spells of the innings Yadav was on, matching Jasprit Bumrah for intensity: 61 out of the 66 balls he delivered were either in the channel or at the stumps (the same, coincidentally, as Bumrah).

But when he returned, a little before lunch, ostensibly to restore the order that Shardul Thakur and Siraj had let go, he conceded two boundaries in his first over and another in the next. He'd been hit for just four boundaries in his first 11 overs; he conceded eight in his last eight. If he was a 23-year-old tearaway on his first tour, you'd still be salivating at the prospect of seeing more of that magic and less of the rest. Instead, he's 33 and if this was only his second Test in England - only four Indian fast bowlers have played more than his 49 Tests - you're not quite sure what to make of it.

That boundary tally is useful though, in that a cursory, eye-test assessment of Yadav has long been that because he attacks the way he does - full, at the stumps - there's always one loose ball an over a batter can cash in on. Today, the pitch eased, and the ball got older, and the change bowlers let it slip, but a little management in those later Yadav spells was not unfair to expect.

Since Yadav's debut, an Indian fast bowler has conceded at least four runs per over in an innings (with a minimum cut-off of 10 overs) on 55 occasions. Yadav has been that bowler 17 times, 13 outside of India. In his defence, he's only conceded at that rate in four innings since 2016, a period in which he has grown as a bowler but one in which he has also played fewer Tests abroad.

And this, that of the 25 bowlers who have taken 150+ Test wickets since Yadav's debut, only six bowlers have a better strike rate than him, but only one has a worse economy rate.

This might be the thing about Yadav though, and him being a bit of both these eras and not fully of one. Back when he debuted, if you'd said he will end up with 50 Tests and 150 Test wickets, you'd probably have taken it. Only Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer would have taken more wickets then. But you look now - with the growth of Ishant in the latter third of his career, the arrival of Mohammed Shami, the futures that Bumrah and Siraj have - and you wonder whether Yadav has done well to end wherever he does, or whether we should - and still may - expect more.

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