Yuvraj Singh

It was a Yuvraj special that made the difference in Birmingham

Yuvraj Singh announced his arrival in international cricket in a tournament then known as the International Cricket Council KnockOut in Nairobi. Exactly 295 One-Day Internationals later, he was difference between a decent score and a matchwinning one in the ICC Champions Trophy, a solid 17 years later.

The stage changed from sunny Nairobi to wet Birmingham, the tournament renamed itself, the opposition was not Steve Waugh’s Australia but Sarfaraz Ahmed’s Pakistan. One thing remained endearingly the same: Yuvraj dug out a Glenn McGrath full ball with ferocious intent then, and Hasan Ali suffered the same fate, the followthrough that once reminded the late great Hanif Mohammad of Garry Sobers, being shortened to an economical punch.

When someone has gone through a life in the public eye, a career of dramatic performances in limited-overs cricket and eye-catching yet not quite meaty scores in Test cricket, been dropped and selected, fought cancer and survived, you can forgive a checked bat-swing.

Yuvraj the marauder, however, was in full display against Pakistan. At one point in the innings, India were well set, but, hampered by breaks in play and the openers, especially Rohit Sharma, taking time, looking at settling for a less than big score. Even Virat Kohli, who had a half-century under his belt, was unable to pull out the big shots at will.

Yuvraj, dropped on eight by the same Hasan Ali, ensured that the slice of fortune that came his way was not wasted. For someone who had to be hospitalised after arriving in England — imagine the scare when the symptoms of coughing, vomiting, low-grade fever, mirrored his cancer diagnosis — to walk out with the game in the balance and play a hand that ended up being the difference between victory and defeat?

It was not that he manufactured strokes, that he did something different from the batsmen who came before him. It was simply that he could be fluent because that was what came naturally to him. Yuvraj could pick off the good balls for boundaries, where other batsmen may have waited for something in their hitting zone.

And this is not by chance. Not long ago, when Yuvraj was re-inventing himself for the umpteenth time, critics questioning his selection before he had the opportunity to prove them wrong, he walked into the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. Remember, it was here that he moved from Under-19 star to Ranji and India player, way back in the 1999-2000 season.

Back then, Yuvraj was fortunate to have Vasoo Paranjape as coach. A man who lives and breathes cricket, Paranjape knows a good cricketer before he has seen one, and in Yuvraj’s case there could have been no softer touch to allow talent to flourish and potential to bloom.

But the young man trying to make a name for himself had been replaced by a cricketer raging against the dying light, trying to prove to himself that he still had it in him to make a significant contribution. At the NCA, Yuvraj now had WV Raman, the former India cricketer, an accomplished left-hand batsman himself, to work under.

When the pair set about working out what the agenda should be, it became clear early on that a tightening of technique — something every batsman aspires to — would be a fool’s errand. After all, Yuvraj had little serious chance of making it back to the Test team, and blocking the ball was never his forte to begin with. Instead, a journey of rediscovery was undertaken, Yuvraj being encouraged to think about what made him overcome his hatred for cricket: the pure joy of batting. Like a golfer rediscovering his swing, Yuvraj got his mojo back, remembering the reason for which he was put on this planet in the first place.

Armed with years of experience, scarred by battles lost that may have been won and mature enough to know he is not quite wise yet, Yuvraj turned the clock back. Having gone through William Shakespeare’s first five ages:infancy, schoolboy, teenager, young man, middle aged, at rapid pace and in full public glare, he was not quite ready for either the old man or dotage and death, in a purely cricket sense. Instead, here was second childishness minus the senility. Here was a man who played the game with all the joy of a child. And what team can stand in the way of that?

(This article first appeared in the Economic Times on June 6, 2017)