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Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh looking to reinvent themselves

A close look at the two out-of-favour Punjab cricketers who are using their time on the domestic circuit.

Harbhajan Singh (left) and Yuvraj Singh during practice session (File) Harbhajan Singh (left) and Yuvraj Singh during practice session (File)

Harbhajan Singh has cut out the jump from his run-up while Yuvraj Singh’s trigger movement now is not as pronounced as it was earlier. Siddhartha Sharma takes a close look at the two out-of-favour Punjab cricketers who are using their time on the domestic circuit, looking to reinvent themselves and ressurect their careers.

BIG STEP, SMALLER STRIDE

It’s late evening. The Punjab-Jammu and Kashmir Vijay Hazare game has just ended. The Jamia Millia Islamia University ground’s stands have gone from sparsely-occupied to nearly-deserted. A few fans do hang around to pay respects to a couple of India stars in Punjab colours. The dressing room too has an end-of-the-day feel to it. Tired fingers are busy on fancy phones while exhausted bodies are sprawled over easy chairs. That’s when Yuvraj Singh’s purposeful walk to the central square, in the company of a few spinners, disturbs the  unhurried atmosphere.

Dropped from the India one-day side, Yuvraj missed the tour to New Zealand and the Asia Cup in Bangladesh. But in about a week’s time, the left-hander will be wearing the India colours once again as part of the World T20 squad in Bangladesh. About seven years back, in the inaugural edition of the event, he built a reputation for himself. Even today they use him, and Stuart Broad’s 36-run over, not to forget the six sixes, to sell the diet World Cup.

The ODI team, minus Yuvraj, hasn’t been in the best of form and the blame partly rests with the young middle-order. Yuvraj is surely aware about the openings available and wants to be at his best. And since this could probably be the 32 year-old’s last chance to extend his international career, he wants to iron out all his flaws.

At Jamia, Yuvraj is putting in the extra hours and going the extra mile to overcome a batting problem that has been bothering him of late. Far too often, he’s been trapped in front of the wicket by the slow bowlers with his front-foot getting in the line of the delivery. As a strict coach (like his father Yograj) would say, ‘what his bat should be doing, his pad is doing.’

Fatal flaws

Since the time he played the NKP Salve Challenger Trophy in Indore last September, Yuvraj has committed this fatal flaw four times. Interestingly, Delhi’s Rajat Bhatia has been his conqueror on three of those occasions during the domestic season. Medium pacer Bhatia foxed him at the Challenger Trophy first and later got him twice in the Ranji Trophy games. According to Punjab coach Bhupinder Singh Sr., Yuvraj has been working extra-time to eliminate this weakness.

“Having played at the highest level, Yuvraj knows how to analyse his batting. I remember when he joined the team a day before the Delhi game, he said that he was getting hit on the pads quite often. So he had that issue in mind. He asked me if he was playing half-cocked or if he wasn’t going forward enough. I told him that he needs to have a smaller trigger step. And then if he needs to play on the front foot, he can always stretch it a little more,” says the coach.

The change the two worked on is visible in his stance and strokes these days. The Yuvraj-trademark long stride forward is still there but his trigger movement, which earlier saw his right foot getting planted too far forward, is now not so pronounced. Once committed it was difficult to move out of the ball’s way. Slow bowlers, such as the likes of Bhatia, exploited this weakness by bowling in the line of the stumps to dismiss him leg before.

The new Yuvraj stands almost still, till the bowler has released the ball. He moves only when the ball is in the air. The trigger movement is just enough to break his inertia. He is now less committed and the footwork is less fixed and more flexible.
Old-timers have often spoken about how domestic games gave them enough time to tweak their technique and reinvent their batting to face new challenges. Yuvraj, who for most of his career has been caught up with Team India’s busy calendar, finally had time at hand. After getting dropped from the ODI squad after the South Africa series, he hit the domestic circuit not just with the purpose of scoring runs but also with an eye on honing his skills.

Those who saw his hundred in the BCCI Corporate Trophy and the painstaking unbeaten 96 against Delhi on a sluggish Kotla track in the Vijay Hazare Trophy say that Yuvraj is a changed batsman. The earlier Yuvraj was more entertaining; today he’s more effective. For Punjab, he is now a finisher, who will be around till the winning runs are scored. In a young Punjab middle order, Yuvraj has been a reassuring presence.

From star to mentor

But he hasn’t done so by being solely obsessed with his own cricket. Coach Bhupinder speaks about how, even off-the-field, Yuvraj has started taking the responsibility of mentoring the young side. “This year he is a changed man. He has been helping by sharing his ideas about how the team can improve, how individuals can deliver. Now he is more involved than he used to be,” he says.
The senior citizens of the Punjab dressing room have also seen a telling change in their long-standing teammate’s demeanour in the pavilion. They say Yuvraj isn’t the prankster he once used to be. That is a result of him being too pre-occupied about his batting and his focus on a return to the national side. “He doesn’t miss a training session. His fitness regime is tremendous. Mostly, he keeps to himself,” says a player close to him.

But there are times when he goes back to being the lovable rascal of the Punjab camp. He also doesn’t mince words when a youngster doesn’t stick to the game-plan.

In the game against J&K, the young Punjab opener Manan Vohra, batting in his fifties, played a rash stroke and barely survived. Yuvraj, sitting in the dressing room with his pads on, rose from his chair and walked to the boundary ropes. In chaste Punjabi and at the top of his voice, he gave the youngster an idea about the terrible fate that would await him in the dressing room if he got out playing a loose stroke. Vohra, who has learnt the ropes at Yuvraj’s father Yograj’s academy, got the message. He went on to play a match-winning knock for his side.

Another next-generation Punjab batsman, Gurkeerat Mann, too got the Yuvraj treatment when he played a reverse sweep against Himachal while batting in his forties. Mann got the signal and eventually scored 83 to confirm Punjab’s participation in the knock-outs.

Against Services at Palam, it was Taruwar Kohli’s turn. Prior to Yuvraj’s intervention the young right-hander was struggling to cope with the slow wicket and was finding it tough to pierce the in-field. At the drinks break, he was asked to take his chances by his mentor. The youngster changed gears and stepped up the run rate.

“The bowlers were slow and so was the track. He told me to be enterprising and take the initiative or else it would get tough for the batsmen to follow. He insisted that you have to put the team first when batting and to do that, you have to do something special,” says Kohli.

Bhupinder, who has seen Yuvraj since his early days, talks about his star ward’s dramatic transformation in recent months. And he takes a very pragmatic view of it.

“With the passage of time, personal growth and maturity comes. When you are young your priorities are different. You are more active and energetic. But when you are 30-32 you don’t want to react to stupid things,” says Bhupinder. “After his illness, he got a close look at life. I guess he has started loving it and valuing it much more than he used to earlier.”

CUTTING THE HOP TO BOUNCE BACK

There’s something different about Harbhajan Singh these days. Since the time he broke into the Indian team in the late ’90s, the pugnacious off-spinner had always turned heads with his unique action. If Shane Warne had the ‘I’ve-got-your-number’ smirk, Muttiah Muralitharan the bulging eyes and Anil Kumble the bouncing approach to the crease, Harbhajan had the hop — the one that would follow the initial two steps with his hands unfolding like a bird preparing to take flight. The little skip gave Harbhajan the momentum that would translate into the heavy tweak which would finally result in the ball turning or bouncing.

Now, the hop is gone.

“Without it, I have a fraction of a second more to watch the movement of the batsman,” says Harbhajan. “I know the hop in my run-up is my originality and it gave me momentum, but even without it, I am able to complete my follow through and to pick the batsmen’s movement with the same rhythm. There’s also better balance now.”

Harbhajan last played for India close to 12 months ago in a Test against Australia at Hyderabad. He finished with two wickets in what was a comprehensive victory by an innings for his team. With very few longer version games to play, Harbhajan has had to prove himself with the ball in the shorter formats. Here, he feels his new action, which provides him with a slightly prolonged view of the batsman’s movements, really has come in handy. In Harbhajan’s opinion, it’s all about dot balls in the shorter formats.

“I feel that controlling the run flow is very important. Dot balls are crucial. Secondly with the wickets being so placid, I keep varying my bowling, keeping the off-spinner as my stock ball. I do use the doosra and the straighter one but those are just variations. In one day cricket, once you contain the runs, wickets come easily,” Harbhajan explains.

Credit to IPL

The veteran of nearly 350 international matches is also not ashamed to talk about having to reinvent his plans to keep abreast of the changing climes of world cricket. “It’s all about evolution. You can’t keep doing exactly the same always. Compared to what I was doing 10 years earlier, I am able to handle situations much better now,” he says.

For now, the new action has brought some joy for Harbhajan. In the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy, he has been economical and has picked up seven wickets in the bargain. He had 24 wickets at 25.58 in the Ranji Trophy this season, including 17 from his first two games. At the back of these numbers, Harbhajan is hoping for a recall.

The man with the most number of Test wickets among contemporary cricketers, believes that he owes the IPL some credit for that. Last year, Harbhajan topped the wicket-taking charts for champions Mumbai Indians and that too at an economy of 6.51.

“When the IPL began, I thought I knew how to bowl there. You could bowl yorkers. After the first year I realised I was wrong.

Batsmen over the years have learnt how to play yorkers and I feel there are much more chances of getting wickets with your stock ball than the dart balls. In the 2007 World T20, I bowled six yorkers in an over but batsmen started to go after my bowling,” he recalls.

While he’s convinced that the new routine is here to stay in the shorter formats, Harbhajan is not ruling out a return to the ‘hop’ in first-class cricket.

He says: “I will see when I feel the need to use it again. If I feel that my body is not getting that rhythm, I may revert back to it. But preferably in longer formats, as I then have time to bowl longer spells and do not have to worry about batsmen playing unnecessary strokes.”

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