Not many would argue that Yuvraj’s ODI career is on borrowed time. Till six months ago, fewer would have expected him to be walking out to bat at Edgbaston on Sunday against Pakistan. After being sidelined for nearly four years, the 35-year-old seemed to have faded away for good. But here he was back amongst the who’s who of India’s batting, the millennial bunch this time. And he was still the man who could come in and turn the game on its head from the word go. That’s exactly what he did with his thrill-a-minute half-century that transformed India’s total from middling to monumental.
On the face of it, Yuvraj’s recall was a stop-gap move aimed — with the Champions Trophy solely in mind — at easing the stress on MS Dhoni. India needed someone in the middle to go for the jugular. From Rohit Sharma to Kohli to Dhoni — it’s a top-and-middle order that likes to go through the gears before hitting turbo-mode. What they needed was someone who could just enter the scene swinging for the fences. Rather than go looking around for options, they chose to go for the tried and tested, someone who in his prime was the best in the business. And Yuvraj proved them right.
The Birmingham sky remained overcast for most parts of India’s innings, and despite Sarfraz Ahmed’s rather defensive strategies, Sharma and Kohli hadn’t quite managed to break away. Yuvraj, on the other hand, just walked in and took off. The fourth ball of his innings was a boundary. It was nothing more than a punch to a full, straight delivery from Wahab Riaz. What stood out was the timing. But the best was yet to come.
The science of back-lift is best left to the gurus of technique. But it’s perhaps that one facet of batting that sets up our aesthetic appreciation value. Think of Brian Lara or Mahela Jayawardene. There have probably been few batsmen more pleasing to the eye than those two. One had a lot of flourish with the bat rising well above his head while the other hardly seemed to raise it after employing his silken touch. But what stood out was their back-lift. The trigger to their magic.
Yuvraj always had the flourish. But it was that back-lift that allowed him to strike the very full delivery, even one pitched near the block-hole, with immense power. Legend has it that during his days at Bishen Bedi’s camp, bowlers would just scamper whenever the young Yuvraj would connect with one of his characteristic straight-drives, because it was hit so hard. It was the back-lift and the subsequent power generated in the drive that caught the eye of world cricket in his first-ever international innings — that unforgettable 84 against a mighty Australian attack at the ICC KnockOut Trophy (as the Champions Trophy was called then) in Nairobi.
Yuvraj had reached his half-century that day 17 years ago by thumping full delivery from Glenn McGrath and sending the ball crashing into the straight boundary before the Australian legend had finished his follow-through. Incidentally, there was hardly any follow-through of Yuvraj’s bat.
Just like there wasn’t when the left-hander dug out a near-yorker from Hasan Ali at Edgbaston and sent it screaming to the long-on fence. It was vintage Yuvraj. It was a shot that didn’t get you thinking about the last time he batted in England. This was a throwback to 2000.
As he went from Yuvraj the teenaged sensation to Yuvi the next big thing to Yuvi pa the senior pro, the one thing that had never left his batting was the ability to turn heads with his stroke-play. Few batsmen hit the ball harder than Yuvraj, not even Sachin Tendulkar. But somehow, as he struggled with illness and injury and drifted away, it was almost like Yuvraj had lost his biggest love — striking the ball. He’d shown glimpses of it during his comeback against England earlier this year. But in Edgbaston, he proved that the passion had been rekindled. That Yuvraj was back in love with smashing the cricket ball, which doesn’t augur too well for the bowling attacks that will have to deal with him from hereon, but which is exactly what India needed to establish themselves even more convincingly as tournament favourites.
Not surprisingly, Kohli couldn’t stop raving about it even admitting that he was made to feel like a “club batter” while sharing the crease with Yuvraj.
“And the way he batted was the way only he can strike the ball, hitting low full tosses for fours and sixes, and even digging out yorkers for fours was outstanding. I think that really deflated the opposition. His innings was a difference in the game,” the Indian captain said. The awe in his voice said it all. It was like India had gone all around in the four years that Yuvraj was out looking for their trump card only to realize that he was right there all along.