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Umesh Yadav: 'The more you play, the better you play'

The fast bowler talks about how being secure about your place in the side helps your game

"When you keep playing, you have that confidence, energy and positivity inside you"  •  Associated Press

"When you keep playing, you have that confidence, energy and positivity inside you"  •  Associated Press

Umesh Yadav had to walk off with an injured calf during the Melbourne Test in what would turn to be a historic tour of Australia for India. As a result, he remained out of contention for the first two home Tests against England that followed. Now back to full fitness, Yadav spoke about his on-and-off Test career, his white-ball ambitions, and more.
Have you recovered from the injury you suffered in Australia?
I've had enough time to rest since then. It was supposed to be a layoff for six weeks. I have now recovered and am back to fitness. I was selected in the squad for the last two Tests [against England]. I've had a lot of time to recover just before the IPL, and I'm now fully fit and fine.
Did you follow the Australia series from home after you returned?
The matches were really interesting. A lot of India's senior players were getting injured one after the other. So there were a lot of questions as to what would be the outcome of the series and how the team would be able to perform.
There were a lot of players who got a chance and they [showed] how helpful playing domestic cricket can be. Each time they got a chance, they gave 100% and did well for the team. If you have been playing domestic cricket for a while, it doesn't feel like international cricket is something new. It feels normal - yes, there is pressure on anyone who's playing for India, but since you have been playing [domestic cricket] continuously, it isn't that difficult, and there isn't so much stress as well.
You made your Test debut in 2011, but your career has been stop-start, due to injuries. Also, India have often preferred Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah in Tests, and Siraj has started well now. So how do you look at your Test career - especially overseas?
As far as playing overseas is concerned, I played in Australia [during the 2011-12 tour] following my [Test] debut. Then I didn't play outside India again [until the next Australia tour in 2014-15]. I also have one Test in New Zealand [in Christchurch in 2020] and one in England [at Edgbaston in 2018], and am yet to play a Test in South Africa.
So I haven't played much overseas, and I haven't had much experience of those kinds of wickets. But I've played a fair amount of Tests so far and learnt with experience how a particular surface will behave.
As far as the rest of my career is concerned, thank god that relatively I haven't had that many injuries. And that is satisfying as a fast bowler, because once a fast bowler starts getting injured [regularly], he tends to start struggling, which ultimately reduces his [playing] life. After an injury, there is the recovery, and then you need a rehab, which consumes a lot of time, which you can never get back. But I have lost very little time to injury periods, which has kind of helped me lengthen my career. So I haven't had to compromise a lot on my pace as well.
And so far as the other bowlers as concerned, I don't think there is any such thing called competition. Everyone has their own strengths. We have been playing for India for a long time and we don't have to prove anything to anyone. We know what the best part about us is, and we just need to continue with what we have been doing.
I am 33 now and I know that I can mostly pull my body for another two or three years, and there will be some youngsters who will be arriving [to play]. I feel this is just healthy, because it ultimately ends up benefiting the team. When you have five or six fast bowlers on a tour of four or five Tests, you can play each one of them for two games to help reduce their stress and workload, so it helps that pack [of fast bowlers] play for longer. There is support for every bowler, everyone looks to give their best, and so whoever keeps doing the best keeps getting chances.
When we look at your bowling stats, we see there has been a clear improvement in your numbers from 2016-17 onwards. What have you worked on most to improve during these last few years to help you perform better?
I feel that before that period I was never in the playing XI consistently whenever I played Tests. I often played one Test [in a series] before sitting out or didn't even play a single game at times. So you start worrying about your place [in the side]. The pressure to always do well starts building inside you and you end up making mistakes while trying to do well.
There have been such ups and downs in my life - things have gone well at times and not so much at other times, with one good patch followed by a bad one. But I got to play back-to-back Tests from the 2016-17 season onwards. We had England and Australia [plus New Zealand and Bangladesh] touring India, and I got to play continuously.
When you keep playing, you have that confidence, energy and positivity inside you. That automatically helps you in performing better, and you start believing in yourself. And so I feel that that season helped me in my career by improving my line and length and giving me more control over the areas in which I bowled. It came about only because I kept playing - the more you play, the more you keep learning.
Of late, you have done better at home than away. Apart from playing more regularly, what do you think has worked for you on Indian pitches, especially since they are known more for turn rather than pace?
I just think that I have developed the required line and length while keeping on playing in Asia. The more you play in particular conditions, the more your body starts adapting to it. I haven't done a lot different [while playing in India]; all bowlers know that the new ball swings whereas the old one reverses in India, which is what I have also focused on. It is just that I started bowling a particular line and length here as compared to overseas. Playing a lot in Asia has helped me gain the required experience and develop that mindset of bowling well here.
Your career-best figures of 6 for 88 against West Indies came in Hyderabad in a ten-wicket match haul. Can you tell us a bit about that performance?
We had started the match with two fast bowlers before Shardul Thakur got injured. That made me wonder how far I could take the side as the only fast bowler. I had never thought that there would be such a situation where I would execute such a performance in my career with one fast bowler in the playing XI down and with the pressure of bowling extra overs on my shoulders. It was just that I gave my 100% and kept myself calm throughout while telling myself that I would keep bowling no matter how many overs I had to bowl - after all, it was a matter of just that one game. I just kept bowling with a positive mindset and it worked for me.
India have played three day-night Tests so far - the first of which was at home, against Bangladesh, where you got a five-for - and you have played in two of them. Do you think the pink ball helps in getting more swing, as is widely believed?
I wouldn't say that the pink ball swings more. A pink-ball Test is a tricky one because you don't play many. Suddenly there comes a pink-ball match in between the other matches, for which you even have to practise differently, and all the hype ends once the match is over. It is not that the entire tournament is played with the pink ball and so you have time [to get used to it]. You play one pink-ball Test and then you are back to playing with the red ball.
Yes, the pink ball has a different coating and make-up to the red one and it was a good experience for me playing with it. If you ask anyone who's played a pink-ball Test, they will tell you that it does get a bit difficult for a batsman to watch the ball once the floodlights start taking effect. But it's also difficult for a bowler during the day because there's not much happening with it. So you have to wait for the twilight period and for the night for the ball to do something. That's the only difference [between a pink-ball and red-ball Test].
You have been around in the national set-up for over ten years now. Do you think that over the last few years the BCCI has looked after their fast bowlers better than they did before?
Of late, the BCCI has definitely worked a lot on managing their fast bowlers, knowing that there are a lot of tournaments that are played and bowlers have to play back to back. There is someone or the other who has a breakdown at some stage. So it was really important that they took care of their players and ensured that no one had a [work] overload. They also took care to see that no one has to skip a major tournament due to an injury.
So the focus is a lot on these aspects, while also seeing to it that certain bowlers play only Tests or only limited-overs cricket. They have looked after us to see that whoever is doing well in a particular format continues to get more opportunities there. They have helped manage the workloads of players, which in turn helps them lengthen their careers.
One ODI World Cup and two T20 World Cups are scheduled for the next three years, two of which will be played in India. Do you see yourself in the fray for these upcoming tournaments?
I think it depends on my performance. If I do well in the IPL this year, I may be considered for the [white-ball] national side again. I feel the IPL will be really important for me if I have to play white-ball for India again, and so I am not looking too far ahead at the moment. You will be noticed only if you do well in it, after which it will be decided whether you fit in the World Cup side or not. So my only goal now is to do well in the IPL. You also need to do better than the current crop of fast bowlers in the national side if you have to enter the limited-overs teams.
There are bowlers like Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Thakur in the national side who can execute slower balls, cutters and knuckleballs pretty well. With the IPL holding so much importance ahead of the T20 World Cup, have you also worked on some variations to use in T20?
You can bowl cutters and knuckleballs in limited-overs cricket these days, but I believe that along with them, you also need to maintain control - the more control you have, the better your bowling becomes. So I will keep trying to bowl these variations without losing control - on which I will have to keep working. Both of these aspects are essential.
You have represented three IPL teams so far, and will be back to playing for the Delhi franchise this season. What has been your experience playing in the IPL? How has it helped you improve your game?
T20 is a format where nothing can be guaranteed - you may do well today but not tomorrow, or you may take three wickets for just 30 runs in one game and then go wicketless and get hit for 50 in another. That is what you learn from your experience in the IPL. It keeps you ready for the worst, because it is difficult to keep doing well in all the matches. It teaches you that though you may have bowled three good overs, just one over of 12 runs can spoil your figures. And so you learn how to keep yourself calm and remain relaxed in those situations, while focusing on one over at a time.
What is the one thing that one you would like to achieve before you end your career?
We have reached the World [Test] Championship final, and I can't wait to win that match for India. We have worked really hard to get there, and with players like me who are not regulars in white-ball cricket, it is this that we consider our World Cup. If I am able to perform well in that match and we end up winning, being world champions will forever be a memory. The match is in England, where swing and seam are important, so I definitely see myself in the playing XI for that game.

Himanshu Agrawal is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo