India's forgotten pacer Umesh Yadav takes his chance amidst cut-throat competition for places

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Six wickets for Umesh on his comeback Test. Image - BCCI/Twitter.

A record 11th straight home series win was naturally the biggest headline from India’s victory by over an innings against South Africa in the Pune Test, even as skipper Virat Kohli walked away with all the individual accolades for his monumental knock of 254.

Kohli’s name burned brightest after the mammoth win with the right-handed batsman breaking a spree of individual records, while he also added another feather to his cap in what is turning out to be a stellar captaincy tenure for India.

While it will deservedly go down as a landmark Test in Kohli’s illustrious career, for no man did the record win taste as sweet than it did to a certain Umesh Yadav. The 31-year-old pacer was once a permanent name on the team-sheet during India’s dominant run at home in 2016-17 but such has been the growing pace riches for the Test outfit that he risked becoming the forgotten man.

14 of Yadav’s previous 19 Test appearances had come on Indian soil with the Nagpur-born pacer being one of the unsung heroes of the team’s rise to the top of the ICC rankings in the 2016-17 period. However, with the emergence of Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and a revitalised Ishant Sharma, Yadav had found chances hard to come by in recent times with the Pune clash being only his first appearance of 2019.

Fate conspired to hand Yadav his comeback with the pacer initially not named in the 15-man squad for the series. It took an unfortunate lower-back stress injury to Bumrah to open the door for the fast bowler’s comeback to the Test side. Even then, he had to contend with the towels and drinks-carrying duties while Ishant and Mohammed Shami were given the nod in a two-man pace attack.

Yadav was Kohli's go-to man in India's 2016-17 home stretch.

Yadav was Kohli’s go-to man in India’s 2016-17 home stretch.

Come the second Test in Pune, Yadav would have expected another role on the bench given the venue’s past history of throwing up a rank-turner for spinners. Somehow, the stars aligned perfectly for the bowler with the Pune curator laying out a track with a slight hint of assistance for the pacers.

That was all the encouragement that Kohli needed to name a three-man pace attack for the second Test, a tact he has rarely used at home in his India captaincy stint. Yadav had been waiting for this opportunity for nearly 10 months and he pounced on it with the dexterity of a Bengal tiger.

While his South African counterparts in Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Anrich Nortje were barely able to leave a dent in India’s batting despite the helpful conditions, Yadav had no such troubles with the pacer looking completely at home despite a prolonged absence.

It took just two deliveries for him to make his mark with Aiden Markram caught plumb in front of the wicket. Nine deliveries later, it was Markram’s opening partner Dean Elgar making the long walk back with Yadav making it two wickets in as many overs.

The forgotten man was only getting started though, with Temba Bavuma becoming his third victim in a remarkable opening spell. Despite landing three early blows on his comeback, Yadav was surprisingly underutilised by Kohli with the pacer getting only 13 overs in total during South Africa’s first innings.

In fact, he would bowl just the eight overs in the second innings but the result was the same with three more wickets falling. In the span of just 21 overs, Yadav had equalled the tally that Rabada and Philander managed between them over the course of two Tests.

It was poetic justice in a way for a man who was on the brink of fading away into obscurity. Having done the hard toil for India in their extended home stretch previously, Yadav had to watch from the sidelines mostly while Bumrah and Co grabbed wickets by the bucketload in helpful overseas conditions of South Africa, England and Australia last year.

The competition for places is cut-throat in India's pace attack.

The competition for places is cut-throat in India’s pace attack.

To not be named in the initial Test squad for the South Africa series would have hurt even more for the pacer who had claimed a 10-wicket match haul in his last home appearance exactly a year ago against the West Indies in Hyderabad.

It is, without a doubt, a golden period for India with regards to their pace attack and the competition for places is as cut-throat as it gets. While Yadav has had to wait 10 months for another chance, Bhuvneshwar is yet to feature in the Test format since January 2018.

Yadav himself knows it all too well that chances will be few and far in between in India’s current pace battery.

“These things (selections) aren’t in my hands. I can’t say, ‘no, I need to play every Test match’. All the bowlers are good, all of them are doing well, and there’s healthy competition,” he said after his Pune display.

“Whoever does well will keep playing. At some stage, each of us will get chances, and when that happens, I need to be ready, positive, and focused.”

Ready and focused he most definitely was in Pune, and it will be hard for the team management to ignore him again after that stellar show.

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