As a breed, the Indian fast bowler was thought to be perpetually endangered when Umesh Yadav burst onto the scene in 2010, delivering balls at 140 kph-plus. Since his debut though, India's fast-bowling arsenal has been built up to the point where Umesh isn't in the first XI often now, but he remains part of the Test squad. A resurgent IPL 2018 put him back in the frame for limited-overs too, but he's been benched more often than not and it hasn't been easy. During the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy 2018-19, Umesh spoke about his hopes, his bowling, the frustration of not being in the XI, and what the team management and selectors have told him.
Were you surprised by the call-up to the ODI and T20I sides for the England and Ireland series?
I had played an ODI in Bangalore last year against Australia. Maybe the selectors saw that and the IPL performance and thought I could be trialled. Maybe they thought, "Umesh is playing a lot of red-ball matches, so let's rest him [when he wasn't picked]". I wasn't surprised. I know when I'm bowling well I can do well with the white ball too. I did execute the plans discussed in England in the T20Is and ODIs - bowling yorkers at the death, swinging the ball up front.
When you start playing, you don't think you will be selected for every match and every tour. Sometimes you have to work hard and come back. Maybe that happened with me. If I do well, I know I'll be in the team. If I don't, then obviously I can't be.
But if you executed your plans in England and still didn't get picked for the Asia Cup, even when replacements were needed, was that disappointing?
A little disappointment is natural. I thought the T20Is in England went well, but in the ODIs my economy rate was 6 [6.70 in two ODIs], so they must have thought, "Umesh could have done better". Even I thought that as per my ability and experience I didn't bowl as well as I should have. If as a senior bowler I'm giving up runs at six an over, and new guys are also going at the same rate, then there's no difference between me and others. So I didn't have much of a reaction [to not being picked]. If a fair chance is being given, let everyone get it. If I do well, then I can definitely come back. And it gives the selectors options to look at for the future.
Do you think by now you should have been established as the third pacer in the limited-overs teams, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah having already taken the first two spots?
(Laughs) I think it is a bit difficult at this time, because of how I have got my chances. I have got to play after long gaps. And in those chances, I think I may not be performing up to the expectations people have of me. If I play an ODI after two months, then there is a six-month gap, and then I get to play one more ODI, obviously there is difficulty in claiming a spot. I feel I still have good chances, but I need to do well to seal that place. [Since the start of 2017, Umesh has played only 11 ODIs out of the 44 India have played]. I am confident that I will do well and can be the third fast bowler in the ODI team.
Have the team management or selectors told you what's needed from you?
Look, if you are playing for the country and are experienced, all they need to say to me is that I should bowl well and keep my economy below six. That's it. If you work hard and bowl according to plan and still go for runs, then fine. But you should show that you are trying hard to get it right. The way Bhuvi and Bumrah are bowling, expectations from them are very high. It shouldn't be that these two bowl very well, and then the third guy comes and gives away runs. So that expectation is there - that if you want to be the third fast bowler, you have to be able to match them to some extent.
And what of feedback for the longer formats? You've been in the squad but not in XIs.
With the red ball it's a simple thing. If you have the new ball in hand, you have to get wickets. You can't win the match if you don't get early wickets. If you get two-three wickets early it's good for your own confidence too and, of course, it's good for the team. I am an attacking bowler so I will never look to bowl restrictively. Main 2 ke economy se nikal jaoon, aisa kabhi nahin sochunga [I will never think that I should just try to get away with an economy rate of 2]. If I have the ball in hand, I'll go for wickets.
Have you ever seriously thought about concentrating on your batting? You have a first-class century. If you can offer runs too, it will boost your case for regular selection.
It depends on your mindset. If you want to become a bowling allrounder, you need to focus on batting a lot. If you practise it for several months, you will become better.
Sanjay [Bangar] bhai stresses that I should think in terms of being a bowling allrounder. I can't be a batting allrounder because I need to focus on my bowling - that is my main skill. He tells me that I should aim to make, say, 30-40 runs, but it's not that if I make a 30 I should start thinking of myself as a batsman. I'm a bowler first. If I can contribute runs, it obviously gives the team extra cushioning. And, of course, if I can contribute with the bat, I will have better chances.
You have spent a lot of time on the bench. Does anyone take you aside and tell you why you're not playing? Definitely. They know that if you're making someone who has played 35-40 Tests sit out, you have to explain to them why. So that communication is there. Like, in England, I played the first Test. In the second Test, they felt they should play a spinner, but with the rain all plans were changed. Nobody can do anything about it. Their decision went a little bit wrong. Still, they had told me, "It's not that we are dropping you, Umesh. But our thinking and planning is for an extra spinner, that's it."
Then, when Bumrah got fit, he was coming in after already having done well in South Africa. And in the first match, Ishant [Sharma] and [Mohammed] Shami had performed well, so they had to get the nod [ahead of me]. Then they kept doing well, so I also knew that it would be difficult to get a chance. I couldn't even say, "I should get a chance", because the guys were taking 20 wickets in every match. I knew I would have to wait for my chance. After playing for a few years, I have that much honesty and awareness to know when I should get a chance and when I shouldn't.
But however much you reason it out, it must still be difficult. You sat on the bench through the South Africa tour, then one Test and back on the bench in England.
It is difficult. You are sitting for five days, trying to read the game from outside, to be aware of what's happening… Nobody likes to sit out. You can't really do anything. Sometimes you feel like, "I would have got wickets if I was playing." Sitting outside is more tiring than playing! So yes, it was disappointing for me that I got to play only one of the last eight away Tests, but I think there's nothing to be gained from harping on it. Now I need to focus on how to do better if I get a match, so that I get more chances in the future.
In England, what were your plans as a bowling group?
We all sat together - those who were playing and not playing - because you never know, the best idea could even come from someone who's not playing. We shared all the information about any weaknesses we would spot, or any plans we had made. Some batsmen might have a problem with playing inswing and be comfortable against outswing, there are lengths that work better in England, and some bowlers hit it naturally. If it's going off, you can sometimes spot it better from the outside.
In terms of specific plans, like when we saw Alastair Cook was having trouble against Ishant round the wicket, we needed to get the ball to swing from around the wicket to Cook, and it was executed properly. And we saw the results, with Cook starting to get out to balls swinging from the stumps. And when Bumrah came back, we knew that Joe Root is strong on off stump, so the ball that comes into him was more difficult. Jonny Bairstow was also suspect against the ball coming in.
How have your interactions with bowling coach Bharat Arun been?
He is a very genuine person and a very good coach. He gives bowlers confidence, which is very important whether you are doing well or badly. He would tell me, "Umesh, I know it's frustrating for you because I know you are bowling well", since I was sitting out. He was there for me, ensuring that my morale shouldn't go down.
He has told me several important things too. Like he noticed how I was holding the ball and my wrist position, and suggested that some part of the ball should be touching my palm all the time. Earlier when I would bowl, the palm of my non-bowling hand would face the batsman in my load-up. He told me to keep it parallel to the batsman (palm facing midwicket), which would help my line, and that's what happened. Earlier, my non-bowling hand was falling away, and that made the line go wrong at times. Sanjay bhai also told me this.
You had said last year that Bangar also helped you out. He noticed that your speed while running in was varying and that was affecting your lengths.
Sanjay bhai was a batting allrounder and bowled a lot too. He noticed that when I was running with the correct rhythm, my length was fine. The line was okay, but my lengths were varying when I was not running in well. It felt very nice, and I asked him to keep observing me, in case he spotted during a match that my lengths were up and down. He pushes me to improve my batting too.
Your performances in the long home season in 2016-17 were very strong. You did well on Indian pitches, where help for fast bowlers is minimal, but in eight Tests that had pacer-friendly conditions - in England and South Africa - you were made to sit out.
(Smiles) That is there. But sometimes the team combination is such that you have to sit out. The selectors and our management committee also wouldn't want me to sit out. They know ki Umesh accha dal raha hai [Umesh is bowling well], so they also feel bad telling me that I have to sit out. But if your team combination doesn't sit right, then it will be an even bigger problem. I can't complain. I have also got lots of chances, I've played lots of Tests continuously.
Yes, the hope is always there that if you have done well in India, you get a chance outside, where you have better opportunities to take wickets. But that chance has gone now and I can't do anything about it. Now I need to give such strong performances when I get the opportunity that people will have to think that I have to play.
You weren't picked regularly in the limited-overs squads for a long time. Did that ever change your approach, or make you think you'll focus exclusively on the long format only?
No, I'm still fit and my body is strong. So my thinking was I can play all formats. Red-ball cricket, you'll play a maximum of ten to 12 matches in a season only, but there is a lot of cricket left after that. So if you play only Tests and focus only on that, you will find yourself with a lot of free time. I didn't want to do that.
And I was playing domestic white-ball cricket, I was playing the IPL. If I had switched off and thought that I am only going to play red-ball cricket, things would have changed in my bowling. My white-ball skills would have been finished. Because whatever you need to do in limited-overs cricket, you get only by playing in a match. You can't just come in cold having only bowled with a red ball and say "it will happen". But one thing is there - whether it's a red ball or a white one, the new ball has to land in the same place.
Was it easy to remain switched on all the time, especially when you weren't getting picked or weren't making it to the XI?
To be honest, there was a brief period when I did switch off - when we had come back from Sri Lanka. I was playing only the long format [for India], and was rested for the ODIs. Then Australia came and I played just one ODI, and then went to South Africa but was sitting outside. I thought I should ease up mentally a bit. The more I would have run behind something, the more I would have brooded. I didn't want to fall into that spiral because you can get very negative, or you keep thinking of things that aren't in your control. During that whole period, from coming back after Sri Lanka to the end of the South Africa series, it was more acute. It was also because I played only occasionally. I would get a game, and wait a long time for the next one.
Did you speak to someone during that time?
I was speaking to Subbu sir [Subroto Banerjee], who has coached me often. He was the coach at Vidharbha Cricket Association's academy in Nagpur. Now, he's coaching Bihar. There are people who you just feel good talking to, and he is one of them. He always makes you feel good. There were regular chats with [Ashish] Nehra paaji . He always told me that I was fit for one-day cricket and that he thought I had it in me to be India's third pace bowler. I used to talk to him much before he joined Royal Challengers Bangalore's support staff. What you can learn from a guy who has done it and shares his experience, you sometimes cannot get from formal coaching.
How did you snap out of it?
After coming back from South Africa, I had played the Vijay Hazare Trophy matches [for Vidarbha], which is why I had good white-ball practice under my belt. Then I got a chance in the IPL and I was able to execute my skills there. My confidence was also higher with Nehra paaji being there [with RCB].
You had said during the extended home season in 2016-17 that the confidence of getting a lot of Test matches together led to good performances and that there were no major changes to your bowling. Did the reverse happen this past year, with so few opportunities?
I think I feel better when I play. I grow in confidence. It's like having a car. If you drive it regularly, it goes very smoothly. If you suddenly stop using it for a couple of months, you have to send it for servicing before it gets into the same rhythm. It's the same with bowling. Bowling in the nets can never replace bowling in a match.
Is it a challenge to stay motivated for domestic cricket when you are coming back to it from international cricket?
My thinking is that more than motivation, you need positivity around you. If the people around you are negative about things and lament that "You were playing internationals, and now you have to play domestic matches", it will pull you down. Whether I play international or domestic, I am playing because I love this game. This is my passion. I have grown up with this. Whether in the galli or domestic or international, my mindset has to be the same, and it has to be positive. That thing defines the sort of cricketer you are. So, for me, I want to just play. I will bowl with the same intensity at whatever level I play.
IPL 2018 was particularly successful for you. What did you do different?
I didn't do anything radically different actually. I just focused more on line and length. Earlier, I would bowl one over, or maybe two overs at the start but this time, the captain and Nehra paaji said that if I am getting wickets, I should continue bowling for three overs. That gave me more chances to bowl with the new ball, and what paaji told me is that I don't need to try to do too much. If I bowl my hard lengths, there will be chances to get wickets. The message was to stick to my strengths and not try stuff - a yorker here, a bouncer there - unnecessarily.
What are your strengths?
My strength is to swing the ball at pace. If you swing the ball at 140 clicks, then whether it's a T20, one-day or Test, it will trouble batsmen. If you are swinging the ball, then it's not easy for the batsmen to hit you over mid-off or mid-on. They look more for singles and twos. So it would benefit me to do that and try to keep the ball in one spot. I had to try and get the batsmen to hit me over the top, not give them easy boundaries by letting them cut or pull me, or bowling on their pads.
Was there some extra focus on keeping the ball wicket to wicket?
Look, I know I have pace. And pace aisi cheez hai, woh agar aapko kuch deti hai, toh woh aapse leti bhi hai [If you gain something by pace, you lose something too]. Batsmen have chances to score runs, they just need to time the ball. If you stray on the pads, it's an easy boundary if you have pace. So I did some reflection about my bowling and thought that if I keep it wicket to wicket, and I can swing the ball from the fourth stump, it will be difficult for batsmen to hit anywhere. And even if he goes to hit it, there is only a 50-50 chance of success. But if I bowl half-volleys or very wide, then I don't give myself a 50-50 chance, it's much less.
What was Nehra's role and input overall?
He told me that he's not going to "coach" me, because he knows I have also played a lot of cricket. He spoke to me as an experienced cricketer. He shared what he had done in various situations and told me that I can take from that what I feel will work for me. Often what happens when you play T20 is your mind starts thinking too much. You want to try all sorts of new things because you don't want to give away runs. What happens then is that even if you have the confidence, the execution will go awry, because you're not a machine. If you try one yorker, then one slower ball, then something else, one of them can go wrong. The yorker can end up a full toss or a half-volley. But if you focus on what you can do well, then it is better for you. So that's what I did. I concentrated 80% on my length and only 20% on my variations.
So Nehra freed you mentally?
Yes. He took the burden of experimenting too much off me. He removed all confusion by telling me I don't need to try different things, and that sticking to the things I know best will work out. The more clear your mind while bowling, the better it is.
What gave you the faith to follow his advice?
Most of my wickets don't come off variation balls. I don't get wickets off slower balls or bouncers or yorkers. Most of my wickets have been off length balls - caught behind, bowled, lbw. So I had that faith from before. It's just that T20 sometimes makes you think that you shouldn't bowl in the same spot, because the batsman can step out and hit it if I'm predictable. It's a mind game. If you can think ahead of the batsman, you'll win. Ashish paaji has always advised me to read the batsman.
You've had a lot of success in Australia. Among more short-term goals, are you looking at the series in Australia as one in which you must do well?
A lot of my career is associated with Australia. After my debut, my second tour was in Australia and I got a five-wicket haul. The World Cup also had gone well. I always think of Australia as a country where I have had good performances. It gave me quite a lot of name and fame when I was starting out. There is good bounce there, so if your length is good and you have pace, you can get wickets. The Kookaburra ball doesn't help fast bowlers much after the initial 15 or so overs, so you have to focus on line and length, like we do in India. But they have more pace and carry, which is why I think I have performed well there.
Who is the ideal captain for a fast bowler?
Everyone is different. Mahi [MS Dhoni] bhai was very calm and cool. Virat [Kohli] is different, he does well when he's aggressive. The more aggressive he is, the better he plays, so that suits him.
The captain should give the team confidence and stand with them. Both do that, just that they do it differently. As a fast bowler, you just need a captain who understands you. He should know when to talk to you, and what you want, when to leave you alone to bowl and when to step in and say, "Umesh, bowl like this."
There is joy in working with a captain who has confidence in you, who says, "Tu bindaas daal [Bowl without worrying about anything]." I have played under quite a few captains. I have liked playing under both Virat and Mahi bhai the most. They both have given me freedom at the start and helped me if my plans weren't working.