June 2, 2013

The thrill of Umesh Yadav

Seeing him run in to bowl makes you sit bolt upright in your chair and watch the game

Sometimes you feel Umesh would have loved to bowl just to get a sprint in © Associated Press

During times like these, you are forced to think why you follow the game so closely, and watch matches so intently. Here is one reason I feel I watched Delhi Daredevils matches. After an almost interminable wait, along has come an Indian fast bowler who makes you sit bolt upright in your chair and watch the game. Forget the match situation. Forget the opposition, the pitch, the format. Forget everything. Just watch.

A run-up is something unique to cricket. There's no real equivalent in another sport. It heightens the drama like little else. In athletics, I can perhaps think of the triple jump run, the long- and high-jump approach runs. But there's nothing similar in racquet or bat-and-ball sport.

For a bowler at the top of his game, everything builds up to the final leap. As the bowler gathers himself into his last stride, the world seems at his feet and the batsman at his mercy. On an off day or, at times, against a batsman on the offensive, the run-up deepens his doubt.

With Umesh Yadav, it nearly always seems that he is itching to get into that final stride. He is one Indian quickie I'd have loved to have bowling when Henry Blofeld was on the radio. Blofeld's anticipation-heightening - "Here is Umesh, he's up to the wicket, he bowls", would have perfectly blended with the strong rapid double click and grunt on the stump mic, as he gets into his final stride.

With different bowlers, the run-up, the final stride and the point of delivery leave varying impressions. With Akram, it was that whippy arm and the final flick of the wrist that really conveyed his genius and held you in thrall. The run-up was more of a corollary. With Shoaib you watched the entire steaming run-up for its drama. Waqar had your attention throughout his sprinter's run-up with the awkward final sling. The crowd noise always rose to a crescendo till the ball left their hands. It was the same with Lillee and Thomson. Holding was incomparably effortless, every light step the epitome of feline grace.

Umesh's run-up - although not in the dramatic Shoaib category or in the bristling, aggressively athletic Lillee style, or the almost-impossibly fluid Holding run - carries the rapid confident stride of a complete athlete. If he weren't a bowler, you can be sure he'd have been a sprinter. It is not for nothing he lists Usain Bolt as one of his heroes.

It's almost as if Umesh would have loved to bowl just to get a sprint in. The fact that he has to bowl a ball at the end of the run is seemingly a bonus. His run-up is a participative one because of the sprinter's stride. Watching him urges you to bowl and gives you a high.

Young Indian cricketers, since when I can remember, used to have a problem with a lack of pace-bowling inspiration. With batsmen we have obviously had no such worries. Kapil, Zaheer, and Srinath, at his best, continue to be bowling inspirations in their own right. Kapil was all lissome grace and effortlessly athletic, Zaheer's mastery of old-ball swing is at times underrated, and an injury-free Srinath might have done more - but none of the three had run-ups and actions that could be easily replicated and none inspired thoughts of express pace. In fact Kapil's famous twisting final leap would have tied most people up in knots.

Umesh, if handled with care, and provided he remains injury-free, has the potential to ensure an end to this dearth of genuine pace-bowling inspiration. The answer to India's pace-bowling woes surely lies in its hinterland. Although these are early days, the signs are very encouraging.

The first thing going for him is his attitude to the game. His aggression is tempered, it's directed at the way he bowls, not at the batsman. With his pace, he doesn't need to get visibly over-aggressive. His follow-through takes him away at a sharpish angle to the batsman, which, coupled with his moderately side-on action and excellent wrist position, means he has natural away swing at pace.

This ability is his biggest asset and is a gift not given to every bowler. He is learning the ropes of reverse swing and can bowl a decent yorker, which I'm sure is a relic of his extended tennis-ball stint. A season in the English counties might give him the crucial wicket-taking nous that made the latter-day Zaheer a handful.

His pace, although obviously not in the Shoaib-Lee bracket, is easily discernible when he bowls straight without offering width in one-dayers. He can contain with line, and batsmen don't often collar him when he bowls straight. The effectiveness of his slower ball is further evidence of him getting to hurry his stock ball on batsmen. Very often, having got used to his normal speed, they don't react in time to hold back on his slower one. The key in Tests is his normal speed that is consistently high in longish spells, that it would appear he manages without really stretching himself.

More than anything else, I enjoy watching him because he is in some ways the bowling equivalent of Sehwag - a minimalist. He walks back to his mark with minimum fuss, starts his smoothly accelerating run, is up to the wicket and bowls. And you feel he still has a lot left in the tank. If he gets a wicket, there is a little contained celebration away towards short cover, a half-embarrassed slap of hands with his fielders, and an almost cheeky smile.

Perhaps it is his down-to-earth rural upbringing: his reactions don't carry with them the mechanical orchestration that almost inevitably seems to come with big-city life these days. You can picture him bowling to Sehwag - a four might result in a smile and a shrug from both, so might a wicket. But it will be back to cricket in real earnest and well-directed aggression the next ball. In their minimalism, they convey the sheer joy of the game.