There are not many times that fast bowlers get the chance to be heroes on the third day of a Test match. By the time the morning of Day 3 beckons, especially in New Zealand, the pitch flattens out, batsmen get acclimatized to the conditions and for pacers, it’s nothing but a painful toil.
But Day 3 of the Christchurch Test was not one of ‘those’ days. Even before the day’s play begun, there were signs that it was going to be a day that any pacer would kill just to get a bowl on the wicket. There was still a considerable amount of grass left on the pitch, the skies were overcast and several Indian players were in their jumpers, fully covered, protecting themselves from the cold.
All this indicated that torrid times were ahead for the batsmen. And the suspicion was proved right on the very first ball of the day - a big booming inswinger from Tim Southee from around the wicket that thudded into the pads of Rishabh Pant. Southee and Boult were unplayable in the morning and they made quick work of India. The lead for the visitors was just 131, but weirdly enough, there were still many hopeful souls. At that point in time, 131 genuinely did look like a ‘fighting’ total on this Hagley Oval wicket.
With the ball in hand, Jasprit Bumrah set the tone in the very first over with a maiden. The final ball of the over cut the batsman into half and by now, there was a considerable buzz that had developed around the ground. And as Umesh Yadav steamed in to bowl the second over, there were several anxious New Zealand supporters who genuinely feared the worst, for they knew that a lethal spell from the pacer could carve them open. What they didn’t know, however, was that there were also plenty of Indian fans who, along with them, were fearing the worst.
It was the fear of the homesick version of Umesh - the one that the opposition batsmen feast on and his own kind hate - turning up. And four balls was all it took for the Indian fans’ worst nightmare to come true. Umesh fed a drab half-tracker to Latham, who dispatched it to the boundary. By the end of his second over, he had already conceded 10 runs and given the Kiwis the push and the confidence they needed.
By the time he had accounted for the wicket of Latham in his 11th over it was too late. 10 overs of docile, timid bowling that had preceded it ensured that the Kiwis strolled to victory. It also meant that Umesh, once again, away from home, had blown a golden opportunity to wipe the slate clean. He ended up betraying the trust of his captain and letting his team down. But in no way did it come out of the blue.
In many ways, it was a ‘disappointed, but not surprised’ moment. For, this was not the first time that Umesh had ended up coming second best in conditions that were tailor-made for pace bowling. He had, in fact, done the same in the last away Test that he played prior to this one, in Perth 2018. An anything but a ‘sight for the sore eyes’ performance that the fans were accustomed to.
And so it begs the question - how long can India keep affording to trust Umesh to get the job done away from home, given that time and again, he’s fallen short, and by some distance. Make no mistake, Umesh Yadav the bowler in Indian conditions is world-class and his numbers attest the same. 96 wickets in 28 games at an average just over 24 on wickets prepared to predominantly assist spin is world-class and without a doubt, at home, he’s amongst the best. On flat sub-continent wickets, his excellence is undeniable. However, in stark contrast, he has been a liability away from home for far too long.
In his nine-year-old Test career, Umesh has featured in 18 Tests outside India, in which he’s managed to pick just 48 wickets at an average over 42. The number worsens in SENA countries, where he staggeringly averages close to 44 having played 10 Test matches. In this time span, he’s toured Australia thrice and has featured in Tests in both England and New Zealand. In fact, he has managed to scalp just 12 wickets in his last 14 innings away from home and has taken one wicket or fewer in 11 of those innings. The abject, toothless display that we witnessed today was not a one-off; it’s a sustained spell of mediocrity that has now been on display for far too long.
Perhaps, it’s more than a mere coincidence that India ended up on the losing side in each of the last three away matches that Umesh feared in - all three were games that the team could have won, mind you. But what makes his no-show even more frustrating is that he’s actually earned his place in the side through the sheer weight of his performances back home. He came into the Christchurch Test on the back of an incredible home season where he averaged 13.65 and since 2017, has been Kohli’s go-to man in India.
But as has been the case on many an occasion, today, he was barely a shadow of the bowler that we saw run through opponents back home. For the simple fact that this has been a repetitive occurrence over the last decade, going forward, maybe it’s time for the team management to completely turn a blind eye to his performances back home. Sure enough, it might be a harsh call to make and a bitter pill for the pacer to swallow, but the fact remains that he’s failed to repay the faith of the selectors who have given him a long, unending rope.
There are also factors which once made a difference that don’t matter anymore, none so more than his pace. The express pace that Umesh offered in 2014 - which was a rarity in the country back then - made him an x-factor of sorts, but that’s not the case anymore; In Bumrah and Shami, India have two pacers who can match, if not better, Umesh in terms of pace and are, skill-wise, on a whole different level. Then comes the pace stocks in the country, which is in the midst of a golden era of sorts.
In Navdeep Saini, specifically, the country also has a potentially generational talent who has been knocking on the door for a while and has all the attributes to succeed in red-ball cricket. How long is it worth persisting with Umesh and at what cost, is a question the management would need to ask themselves. Umesh, as things stand, might be a mere backup away from home, but it is time for the team to do away with him outside of India for the greater good. After all, if they can field Wriddhiman Saha and Hanuma Vihari as home/away specialists, there is no reason why the same cannot be done with the Vidarbha speedster.
Cricket FootBall Kabaddi