AROUND 3 pm on Sunday, Indian cricket seemed to have turned back the clock. Here they were chasing a mammoth total in the Champions Trophy final of 2017 at the Oval, and MS Dhoni was walking out to join Yuvraj Singh in the middle. The poster boys from the mid-2000s were back together again a decade later with the stage set for them to produce an encore of one of their vintage and destructive duets.
The performance started rather promisingly too with Yuvraj smashing Mohammad Hafeez, a punt by Sarfraz Ahmed based purely on the ageing left-hander’s travails against spin bowling early on, for three fours in his first over.
While Yuvraj was punching the ball extremely hard, the punches he was receiving on his gloves from Dhoni after each boundary were even harder. It was just like old times.
As far as that Hafeez over was concerned anyway. For, the nostalgia didn’t last for more than two overs, not long enough to even count as a spoiler. Hafeez was replaced by Shadab Khan and he had Yuvraj trapped in front with a perfect leg-break that landed on off and had the awkwardly prodding left-hander in a tangle.
Next over, Dhoni followed suit, falling once again to that very trap that’s become a norm for opposition bowlers against him. It was the short ball at his ribs, getting him to attempt an uncharacteristic pull that only went as far as Imad Wasim’s hands at deep backward square-leg. Just like that, the partnership was over, and rather soon so were India’s chances of making a match of it.
And now they head to the Caribbean as part of a rather strong Indian squad that will take on a struggling home team who only last week came from behind to draw a series against Afghanistan.
Many have already questioned the selectors’ wisdom in picking a full-strength outfit for what is just another bilateral series with not much on the line. And it’ll be pretty much that for the likes of Virat Kohli and most of his teammates. But for Dhoni and Yuvraj, this promises to be much more than that. The Caribbean sojourn could well end up being the defining point of the rest of their respective careers.
Mohammad Amir had plucked out India’s top three in his first five overs and deflated the Indian run-chase rather drastically by the time the two veterans came together.
In their heyday, the Dhoni-Yuvraj pair is exactly what India would have wanted now and would have hoped rather confidently that they will see the team through.
Going into the final, both Dhoni and Yuvraj had produced one knock of note in the league stages. Yuvraj’s sensational cameo had helped India push their total past 300 in their opening encounter against Pakistan at Edgbaston. Dhoni’s cameo had helped his team do the same in the next match against Sri Lanka at the Oval.
But they were pretty much that, cameos. But here in the final with their team barely hanging on and an imposing total facing them, a few big, lusty hits wasn’t what was required from their two most experienced members – Yuvraj having become only the fifth Indian to play his 300th ODI a match earlier.
This was time for them to steady the ship and bring that experience into play even if it had eventually meant that India didn’t quite get close to the target. But getting out within the space of 20 balls to soft dismissals only got their place in the Indian team under even more scrutiny.
India are, after all, building up to the 2019 World Cup from this point on, like every other team, and series like the one they will commence on Friday in Trinidad are the best opportunities to work towards getting that combination in order.
And Yuvraj and Dhoni will have to do a lot more to ensure that they’re part of the next ICC 50-over event in two years’ time. Against an inexperienced West Indies bowling attack, they should look at this as their best chance.
Perhaps the selection of Rishabh Pant for the West Indies tour with Dhoni already in the squad is a subtle yet strong signal from the selectors. And there are a number of young middle-order batsmen waiting in the wings and on the fringes, from Manish Pandey to Shreyas Iyer, who will be vying for the No.4 spot that Yuvraj occupies presently. And with the pitches in the Caribbean expected to be flat, he will have to make the most of it.
The last time Yuvraj went to the Caribbean as part of an Indian team was in 2010 for the World T20. The last time Dhoni went there, in 2013, he smashed Shaminda Eranga for a six in the final over to seal a famous tri-series win in Port of Spain. Over the next weeks for India’s most popular ODI players of this century, it might not be so much of a question of turning back the clock but more about stopping the clock. For, the sands of time are fast catching up. Or so it seems.