Yuvraj Singh is back in the Indian team for the limited-overs games against England for two simple reasons. He scored 672 runs from eight Ranji innings at an average of 84 that included a 295-ball 177 against Madhya Pradesh in Lahli, the venue where seamers of all kinds fill their boots, spinners stretch out on the couch in the dressing-room and batsmen are happy to just last half an hour at the crease. Yuvraj is also back because the selectors genuinely believe that this Indian team needs some experience in the middle- and lower-middle order.
But, while he did make runs, and in some style – he doesn’t really know any other way – the point was that he had last had a hit in competitive cricket on November 7, 2016. He certainly was in good form then, but two months is a long time in cricket. The questions were obvious ones: Was he still fit? Match-fit, not gym-fit, mind, which he most certainly is. Was he still in good form, whatever that means?
With Suresh Raina out of the mix for the moment and the selectors looking for experience in the One-Day International and Twenty20 International teams, Yuvraj was an obvious choice to turn to. The questions over his fitness and form needed answering, and thankfully for Yuvraj and the selectors, the warm-up match against an England XI at the Cricket Club of India provided the perfect opportunity.
Yuvraj walked out to bat at 136 for 2, his team not in trouble but not in control either. The sixth ball he faced was a bouncer from Jake Ball, well-directed and climbing at decent pace. The stroke was not the most reassuring, an eyes-closed fending of the ball to leg, but he had done many things right. Soft hands, bat closed to send the ball down, knowledge that there wasn’t a fielder close-in on the leg side. It did not look good but it was perfectly safe.
Captains of international and domestic teams know that Yuvraj would rather not face spin early in his innings. The old Yuvraj resorted to the sweep, a shot he plays either brilliantly well in front of square or horrendously to be caught off the top edge by the man at 45, but this day was a new dawn. When Adil Rashid tossed the ball up, inviting Yuvraj to have a go, it was plain as day that the batsman was picking the googly from the legbreak. At the first instance he simply let the ball go.
Then, Yuvraj did something perfectly logical yet utterly surprising. He hit Rashid back down the ground, with a straight bat, backing his strengths having picked the line and length of the ball early. This might seem obvious, but it is not something Yuvraj has been able to do consistently. He did bat like this, effortlessly, and seemingly without a care in the world, when he was a teenager and beyond, but the pressure of having to constantly produce hampered his natural instincts as the hardest striker of a cricket ball since Sachin Tendulkar.
When Yuvraj hits the ball, either with brute musculature when he is aiming at the on side, or with crisp timing through the off, the result is almost always a six that looks effortless. Naturally, this belies years of working on his game, even discounting his battle with cancer that would’ve brought many of us to our knees.
The Yuvraj of 2017 is a player who has the experience and the street-smart cricket knowledge of 293 ODIS and 55 T20Is, over and above countless Indian Premier League matches. But, equally, he is a player who has learned life lessons from Test cricket and it is easy to forget that he has played more of these games than the likes of ML Jaisimha, Ajit Wadekar, Lala Amarnath or Vijay Hazare and is now in a space where he can bring this to the fore.
Not long ago, Yuvraj, while working out at a gym in central Mumbai, told a friend that he had stopped thinking about playing for India. “I want to bat. If India calls, I’m always there, but if I’m not needed it doesn’t mean I’ll stop playing,” he had said.
The Yuvraj of 2017 does not need the money that cricket can bring him, he does not crave the attention that being an India player entails and he does not want the constant pressure of having to please someone else. What he does want is the opportunity to watch the ball and hit it, as only he can.
William Shakespeare suggests that there are seven ages of men. The final of which is second childishness. While Yuvraj is nowhere near senile yet, he has made a return to his roots, when batting was a joy, when attack was the only form of defence. And, when he plays like that, he is irresistible.
As for his fitness, at the end of a week-long wedding extravaganza that took place in multiple cities, Yuvraj was game enough to stand for hours on end on the stage in a sherwani that was probably heavier than his full batting gear. He did that with a cheeky smile, and had enough juice in the tank to shake a leg after. Batting for a couple of hours? That’ll be a breeze, in comparison, and if he is at the crease, rest assured the runs will come at pace.
(This article first appeared in the Economic Times on January 20, 2017)