10 years ago, a 19-year-old Jaydev Unadkat made his Test debut for India. Unadkat’s maiden outing went horribly wrong, with him returning figures of 0/101, after which he would never play a Test again. But what if India, instead of Unadkat, had decided to hand Umesh Yadav a Test cap that day?
We know Umesh Yadav made his Test debut a year after Unadkat, in the home series against West Indies in November 2011. Umesh impressed in that series and subsequently sealed himself a place in the starting XI for the tour of Australia, after which his career took off. But what if the Vidarbha pacer had debuted a year earlier?
South Africa skipper Graeme Smith wins the toss and puts India into bat in wet, overcast conditions in Centurion, but all eyes are on MS Dhoni, for people are itching to know who will replace the injured Zaheer Khan. “The young and exciting, express quick Umesh Yadav will make his Test debut,” says Dhoni, and the decision comes as a surprise to many, who were expecting teen sensation Jaydev Unadkat to pip the right-armer.
India put up a hideous batting display, getting bowled out for a meagre 136, but it takes all of one delivery for the debutant to lift the spirits of the faithfuls. Umesh bowls a rip-snorter of a first ball in international cricket, clocked at 149 kph, to send Alviro Petersen to the hut for a golden duck, and his instant impact exhilarates the Indian fans, who haven’t witnessed express pace like this in the entire century. Tragically and anticlimactically, though, that turns out to be the only moment to savour in the entire Test for the visitors. A rampant South Africa remarkably end up scoring a mammoth 620, and in turn, beat India by an innings and 25 runs, and the brunt of this pasting is borne by none other than Umesh, who finishes with appalling figures of 25-1-150-1.
Deeming him ‘too raw’, the selectors swing the axe on Umesh for the second Test and replace him with the returning Zaheer Khan, but that, interestingly, isn’t the biggest change ahead of the game. Following an extended lean run - average of 28.10 across 10 innings - the Proteas management drop Petersen and replace him with 20-year-old Rilee Rossouw, who’d amassed a mind-numbing 1189 runs for the Eagles in the 2009/10 Super Sport series, including striking a triple ton.
Rossouw’s quality and tenacity are tested instantaneously, with India reducing SA to 103/7 after posting 205 on a lively Durban wicket, and the youngster comes up with the most extraordinary response. Batting with the tail, the southpaw takes the attack to the Indian seamers - notably dismantling Sreesanth for 24 runs in a single over - and mind-blowingly finishes on 103*, carrying his bat to give his side a 13-run lead. The lead eventually proves to be match-defining as the Proteas chase 213 in the fourth innings to seal the series 2-0, further establishing themselves as the most dominant force in Test cricket.
The third Test ending in a draw results in the series finishing 2-0, but the Proteas have a call to make ahead of the five-match ODI series - choosing between Rossouw and Faf du Plessis. The numbers - 567 runs @ 81.00 for the Titans in MTN 40 - say that picking du Plessis would be a no-brainer, yet the selectors opt for Rossouw, thanks to his startling showing in the Tests. The 20-year-old sits out the first ODI, but, replacing David Miller in the second ODI, makes a telling impact on his ODI debut, just like he did in Tests. Batting at No.6, Rossouw sees South Africa slump to 163/7 in pursuit of 191, but keeps his cool and strikes an unbeaten 53 to ease the jitters and take the side over the line. Rossouw’s cool-head eventually helps the Proteas seal the series 4-1, and, as a result, the youngster is rewarded with a call up to the final squad for the World Cup.
Come the World Cup, the Proteas sail smoothly - barring the defeat against England - and make their way to the quarter-finals in prodigious form, having topped the group table with 5 wins. They start the knockout match off well, restricting the Kiwis to 221/8, yet tragedy strikes them at the halfway mark of the chase. 101 runs shy of the target, having the match well under control, Rossouw and de Villiers get involved in a horrendous mix-up, and this results in the youngster sacrificing his wicket. De Villiers is livid with himself for making an erroneous call, and for a moment the tragedies of yesteryear flash in front of his eyes, yet, keen to not let a moment of misjudgment disrupt his mission, he carries on. Wickets continue to tumble at the other end, but the right-hander stays put, overcomes the demons, and takes the Proteas over the line to hand their first knockout win in World Cup history.
Despite their win against New Zealand, though, doubts are cast over South Africa’s firepower heading into the semi-finals against co-host and favorites Sri Lanka, with many claiming that they were handed an ‘easy draw’. However, 37 overs is all it takes for Graeme Smith’s men to silence critics as a stupendous spell of spin bowling from the duo of JP Duminy and Imran Tahir - who combine to take 7 wickets - sees the Saffer skittle out the Lankans for a paltry 133. Malinga removing Amla for a duck in the first over gives the Men in Green a mini heart-attack, but an unbeaten 132-run stand between Smith and Kallis sees the Proteas book a place in the World Cup final for the first time in their history.
Having exceeded expectations, Smith & co. are ecstatic with their achievement, yet awaiting them in the final is the biggest challenge yet: India. Having come up short against the Proteas in the H2H game in the group stage, the Men in Blue, this time around, are keen to play their cards right, but while Sreesanth for the injured Ashish Nehra was expected to be the only change, Dhoni drops a bombshell at the toss, revealing that India have opted to gamble with Piyush Chawla in place of Virat Kohli.
India’s bold move to drop a batsman divides opinions and elicits controversy, yet the added responsibility ends up having a positive effect on the rest of the personnel as the Men in Blue post a daunting 295, courtesy a 118 from Gambhir.
Needing 296 to win the World Cup for the first time in their history, the Proteas get off to a flyer, with Smith and Amla racing off to 50/0 in 6 overs, but an equally baffling yet genius gamble from MS Dhoni turns the game on its head. Dhoni brings Chawla into the attack in the 7th over, and the leggie runs through the Protea batting, accounting for the wickets of Smith, Amla, de Villiers and Duminy in a span of three overs. Yet just as the Wankhede goes ballistic, with the Proteas reeling at 74/4, some near-flawless batting from the duo of Kallis and Rossouw brings back nervous energy into the stadium.
Rossouw’s counter-punching acts as the perfect foil to Kallis’ solidity and in the blink of an eye, South Africa coast to 175/4. 121 shy of the target, gliding towards the finish line with ease, the duo decide to take the batting powerplay to accelerate towards victory, yet for the second time in the game, they are outdone by a Dhoni masteroke. The Indian skipper, much to the fans’ bemusement, throws the ball to Sreesanth, who until that point had figures of 5-0-49-0, and the right-armer strikes on the first ball, taking revenge for the 24-run onslaught in Durban by rattling the stumps of Rossouw. The southpaw’s dismissal opens the floodgates, post which the Proteas lose their last five batsmen for 25 runs to hand India their first World Cup title in 28 years.
The Indian fans and players are rejoicing, but so is Jaydev Unadkat, albeit a few months later. The 20-year-old makes his long-awaited Test debut versus the Windies and marks his introduction by picking 16 wickets in 3 Tests at 18 apiece and is celebrated by the fans - but not just for batting. His heroics in the Wankhede Test, where he strikes a boundary with India needing 3 runs to win in the final over, sees him become an instant hero. Unadkat’s phenomenal start to Test cricket sees Umesh Yadav further pushed down the pecking order, but the Vidarbha star is not too concerned, for he knows he will be making his ODI debut in a few days’ time.
Umesh is not the only cricketer looking forward to a debut, though, as Faf du Plessis, after being snubbed by the South African national selectors yet again, pens a deal with Nottinghamshire to pursue his new-found dream of playing for England.