There is something about the world stage that brings out the best in Yuvraj, and with the sands of time running out, he has one more chance to roll the years back
Yuvraj’s cricketing career has been nothing short of tumultuous and dramatic. He announced himself on the world stage with a spectacular 84 against Australia in the ICC KnockOut Trophy in Nairobi in 2000, in his first hit in international cricket, the quality as much as the quantum of those runs standing out against a high-quality Aussie attack. Even at that early stage, and he hadn’t yet turned 19, Yuvraj seemed destined for a long, successful international career. He had it all – the game, the swagger, the strut. Style with substance, if you like.
More than 13 years on, Yuvraj will be the first to admit that he hasn’t quite fulfilled expectations – of people around him, the fans and the aficionados, and of himself. His Test career seems to have run into a stonewall, 40 appearances netting him 1900 runs at just under 34, while his One-Day International career is at the crossroads, India having jettisoned him for the tour of New Zealand after a poor run that brought him just two half-centuries from 19 previous 50-over internationals.
The Twenty20 format is perhaps the least likely comeback route to the longer versions, but Yuvraj hasn’t always been known to take the conventional approach. When he is fit and firing on all cylinders, there is no more destructive batsman in Indian cricket, indeed world cricket, than the Punjab left-hand batsman. He is fit physically, that much is obvious; Yuvraj hasn’t allowed his exertions of last summer, working alongside Zaheer Khan under the tutelage of Tim Exeter in the south of France, to go to seed. He is obviously hungry enough to want to play more than just international Twenty20 cricket. Whether he can fuse physical fitness and the burning desire to make a 50-over comeback, and translate it into meaningful performances over the next several months, is the big question.
The World T20 provides him with the ideal stage to showcase his enormous wares. He doesn’t bowl as much as he used to, and enhanced fitness levels or not, he will never be the same fielder who patrolled the point region with such zeal, athleticism and resolve, but if he can rediscover his magical ball-striking ways, then a dip in fielding skills won’t be such a decisive factor. Few hit the ball harder or more cleanly than Yuvraj; fewer still do it with such graceful, effortless authority, left-handed or not.
There is something about the world stage that brings the best out of Yuvraj. At the ICC Cricket World Cup in India in 2011 when he was violently ill physically – at that time, Yuvraj and his teammates put bouts of nausea to anxiety and nerves before it was discovered that he had contracted a rare form of cancer – he was on top his game with bat and ball, not just the Player of the Tournament but the talisman that acted as the engine room and drove the Indian team forward.
His all-round brilliance was the catalyst for India’s unstoppable surge to the title, easily the high point of an illustrious limited-overs career that will, however, not compensate for the lack of commensurate success in the longest, most challenging format of the game. Since then, Yuvraj has only sporadically reproduced flashes of brilliance internationally, despite having recovered fully from cancer and also shed plenty of weight.
Now, with the sands of time running out quite rapidly, Yuvraj has one glorious chance to roll the years back. He will be under pressure, of that there is little doubt – pressure from within, to prove to himself that there is fight left in the old dog yet, and pressure from without, with the cricketing world keen to see the stuff he is made of. Yuvraj has been around long enough to know how to deal with extraneous pressure; it is the battle with himself that he must win if he is to find a second, or a third, or perhaps a fourth wind, if he is to rediscover the free spirit that can exhilarate like few others.
Fortunately for him, Yuvraj finds himself in the middle of a group that swears by him, that thinks the world of him, that openly adores him and that will walk the extra mile to see that he courts success. Enveloped in an atmosphere of feel-good, Yuvraj will find the setting both encouraging and soothing. All he has to do is set his mind free, clear it of clutter and do what he does best – see the ball, strike the ball.
It was the ICC World Twenty20 that catapulted him to superstardom. At a time when it was perceived, rightly or otherwise, that Yuvraj felt slighted that the captaincy of Twenty20 side had been handed over to Mahendra Singh Dhoni after the big guns pulled out of the inaugural event in South Africa, Yuvraj vented his frustrations on the opposition bowling. Stuart Broad bore the full brunt of his fury when Yuvraj smashed him for six sixes on his way to a 12-ball half-century, the quickest to date in T20I history. In his next hit, Yuvraj plundered Australia in the semifinals, muscling to 70 in 30 deliveries to set the base for India’s entry into the title round.
England and Broad are not in India’s pool, but Australia most certainly is. As isPakistan, and the West Indies, the defending champion. Pitches at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium here in Mirpur are unlikely to particularly encourage breathtaking strokemaking, but Yuvraj is supremely capable of mocking the conditions and expressing himself. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it will all boil down to how badly Yuvraj wants it. The rest of the world, of course, is just waiting to lap it up.