In sport, precocious talent is a seductress. If that talent even as much as shows signs of realising its potential, even the most rational of observers would be willing to cut it some slack when the said talent isn't producing the promised goods. Especially if the talent also has produced an impressive track record, even if it is no longer anywhere near its peak, it is almost impossible to wean away from those glory days and the imagined possibilities.
The name Yuvraj Singh still conjures up images of his bat, at the bottom of a regal downswing, making the sweetest thock as it made contact with leather. The mind is crowded with scenes from matches where he, time and again, was instrumental in yet another run chase. Balls sent racing past the bowlers with seemingly most minimal of effort and brutal assaults that launched sixes with just a flick of the wrist, as commentators on air cooed like cheerleaders at the sheer majesty of skill and talent on display, they all come flooding back.
For all that Yuvraj was for so many years, at the ripe old age of 35, he is not the same old Yuvraj. In his first decade as the middle order linchpin in the Indian limited overs side, Yuvraj wasn't dropped till 2010, the spot he quickly regained a year later on his way to becoming the player of the 2011 World Cup. If there were any doubts about his resilience, he recovered from a rare from germ cell cancer, and made his appearance in blue in 2012, after nearly a year and a half layoff.
Since then, he has been in and out of the side, because the Indian selectors and the team management just couldn't escape the visions of Yuvraj's talent being realised on the field. After he made a celebrated return from his illness, he was dropped in January 2013 as he averaged just 20 in eight ODIs. He was then recalled in October 2013 only to be dropped again as he averaged less than 19 in 11 ODIs. It was during this stretch that it become obvious to the watchers that he was having trouble facing quality pace, as Mitchell Johnson routinely exposed him on the most placid tracks where even 350+ scores were unsafe.
Then came the ultimate embarrassment for a batsman so pure, as he was recalled for the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh, when he pottered around in the final. As I was making my way to the post-match presser, a seasoned Indian TV commentator declared to me, “He is done." Yuvraj averaged less than 20 in his six innings in that tournament while striking at less than a run a ball. It wasn't hard to agree with that commentator's view, and soon Yuvraj was off the India scene.
But then, we already know the pull Yuvraj's talent has on people's minds. He was again back in the Indian T20I side for a three match series in Australia and was part of the 2016 World T20 squad. Perhaps, the tournament being played in India, and the successes of Yuvraj from the last time a global cricket tournament was held in India, swayed the judgment of the selectors. In four innings, he averaged a measly 13 runs with a strike rate of exactly 100. He would then soon be dropped from the limited overs squad to Zimbabwe, and that brings us to January 2017, when he is back not just in the T20I side, but also the ODI squad for the home series against England!
The selectors have said that Yuvraj's impressive domestic form – and quite possibly his career record – convinced them to pick him again, even as there are plenty of younger talents waiting in the wings, some of them warming even the benches. No question he has been the leading run getter for Punjab in the 2016-17 Ranji season and that he averaged 45 in 20 List A games since his last ODI for India in 2013, but the time to revisit Yuvraj is long gone and it was most definitely the time to test out some of the younger batsmen ahead of the Champions Trophy in England this summer.
With MS Dhoni prudently relieving himself of the limited overs captaincy, allowing Virat Kohli the space and time to establish himself as the Indian captain in all formats and an opportunity to mold the side in his image for the 2019 World Cup in England, it would have been appropriate if the selectors also had had shown a forward looking decision regarding Yuvraj. He has been a terrific asset to the Indian limited overs side for many years, but it was time to blood the young ones like Yuvraj himself was, during the 2000 ICC Knockout Tournament in Kenya.
But perhaps Kohli becoming the leader of the limited overs side also had a role in Yuvraj making his umpteenth comeback to national colors. It is not a secret that Kohli and Yuvraj go long ways back, and Kohli has publicly expressed his admiration for Yuvraj many times over the years, from when he was a young kid leading the India Under 19 side, to a new comer in the Indian senior side to now when he is the senior statesman.
After Kohli was named the captain of the IPL side Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in 2014, he lobbied his owner Vijay Mallya to acquire Yuvraj in the auction. Mr Mallya opened his wallet to the tune of Rs 14 crores because his captain was so keen on it. With returns in the 2014 IPL season not really commensurate with the money spent, RCB released him to cut their losses.
In a Facebook interaction with his fans, Kohli expressed (again) his admiration for Yuvraj in early 2016, after Yuvraj was selected for the T20Is in Australia and that he has always “guided” him. “I am very close to him. He is like an elder brother to me. I have always been very fond of him.”
Considering Yuvraj's returns in T20s in 2016 (15 T20Is, 166 runs, SR 104, 5 wickets; 10 IPL T20s, 26 runs, SR 131.8; 0 wickets), and that he has not appeared in an ODI for India since December 2013, it must have been a strong case of nostalgia and wishful thinking of the selectors to have gone back to draw water from the well that has evidently dried out, or that of a new captain lobbying for the figure of his admiration to get one last go around to say his thanks. Either way, one wishes Yuvraj all the best and that with this possibly last opportunity to represent India, he provides at least a few moments of magic that jog the memory of the most strident of watchers of the precocious talent that seduced millions.