All too familiar footing provides the launch pad for Umesh's bounce

A few weeks ago, Umesh Yadav must have been wondering what it takes to get picked at the auction. He went unsold twice at the auction before being picked up at his base price by Kolkata Knight Riders. Cut to the present, and his IPL captain Shreyas Iyer is “seeing him everywhere,” be it at the practice or at the gym, not to forget in the middle of the pitch, celebrating a bucket load of wickets under his belt.

It must be a similar sense of wonderment for Kolkata Knight Riders too. Twice they let go of Umesh before picking him with an uncontested bid towards the end of the auction. Sure, it worked for Umesh who was looking for a new franchise after failing to get a single game at Delhi Capitals last season. But it seems to have more than worked for KKR, who got Umesh in the middle of a buying rampage, which they were panicked into after spending a bulk of their purse on only three players.

It was a poignant moment, then, after KKR’s smashing win over Punjab Kings, when Harsha Bhogle asked Umesh just why he’s being spotted everywhere by his captain. “Zaroori hai (it’s necessary),” he said thoughtfully. “With age, you need to push yourself, there’s one thing that’ll make you better is practice, the more I bowl the better for me.”

Clearly, at 34 and out of favour with IPL franchises and without a limited-overs game for India in over three years, the challenge was to get noticed. Now, it’s difficult to take your eyes off him.

In the three games so far, Umesh has been all about his strength: swinging with the new ball. Ruturaj found all about it in the first over of the season at Wankhede, when he was drawn into an outswinger that pretty much swung out of Umesh’s hand, but such was the pace that he was sucked right into it. The other dismissal that stands out was the beautiful dismissal of Virat Kohli at Brabourne, setting him up like it’s a Test match in Trent Bridge and getting him to reach out and edge an outswinging delivery. Perfect.

But it’s not all been about moving the ball away from right-handers. Anuj Rawat expected a full ball going to go across him from an over-the-wicket angle, but it bounced, caught his edge and sent him back. Mayank Agarwal thought he’d lined Umesh up and wanted to hoick him to square leg. Instead, the ball skidded on after pitching and trapped him in front. Was it the wobble ball? The replays weren’t conclusive but whatever’s coming out of Umesh’s hand is doing the job alright.

Besides being in rhythm, there are two other things that seem to be working for Umesh. The venues in Mumbai have taken kindly to his bowling strengths; the red soil pitches are allowing him that bounce and the evening sea breeze is helping him swing the ball right from the word go. Then there’s the clarity about his role in the side, perhaps for the first time in many editions.

With KKR having the services of Sunil Narine and Varun Chakaravarthy in the death overs, and with Pat Cummins also set to be available soon, Umesh can afford to focus on bowling with the new ball. In fact, that’s exactly what the team management has asked of him.

“His brief is very much to try and take wickets for us. If he goes for a few runs, we don’t care, we just want to have the attacking mentality,” KKR head coach Brendon McCullum had said after a three-wicket loss against RCB. “In two games, he has done more than we could have asked for.

“I know he is closer to the end of his career but he is still incredibly fit, very very driven and we see him as a huge asset for us, especially in the early stages of the tournament when the ball is still swinging and seaming.”

Of course, greater challenges will await Umesh deeper in the tournament. The pitches will slow down and he will have to be fast on the uptake, adapting his methods to what’s out there. He’s already shown an improvement with regards to that already, though. Shreyas held him back against PBKS in the powerplay, meaning two of his overs had to be bowled with the old ball in the middle overs. And if a double-wicket maiden is anything to go by, he did alright.

It might be early in the tournament but it’s perhaps safe to say that Umesh looks at home in a team he’s represented before. He looks at home at the different playing venues in Mumbai and he looks at home with the no-holds-barred philosophy that McCullum has brought to the side. Looking back, he wouldn’t just be glad about being bought at the IPL auction, but also that he was bought by KKR.

Updated: April 3, 2022 — 10:31 am

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