India could see the chequered flag. Forty more runs would ensure India’s destruction of South Africa, the world’s best ODI side, was complete.
Shikhar Dhawan’s fall after a breezy 78 was only the second blow the Indians had suffered at The Oval on Sunday. Unless Virat Kohli and his men battered the self-destruct button, they were destined to triumph. From hereon, there was only one team in charge of the script.
The situation was handcrafted for a Kedar Jadhav or a Hardik Pandya to join their captain Kohli in the middle, feel bat on ball and see their country over the finish line. It was the kind of scenario where teams allow their lesser-experienced batsmen some time in the sun. The more illustrious counterparts prefer the shade of the hut.
Not if the illustrious batsman is Yuvraj Singh, though. Just when the packed house had resigned to the lopsided outcome of the battle and lost energy, Yuvraj’s trademark lethargic stride to the middle infused the stands with a replenished spark.
The left-hander could have nudged Jadhav or Pandya to go and complete the formalities. But not on Sunday, not against the top-ranked side, not in a game India had to win to stay alive in the Champions Trophy.
The battle was not over yet, and Yuvraj wanted to be one of the protagonists responsible for the eventual triumph. He craved to take the stage. He wanted a role in another famous Indian victory.
Yuvraj’s unbeaten 23 might have been inconsequential in the context of the game, but it would have been gold for him. Every knock Yuvraj plays in the India blues nowadays is gold, but more so when it comes in a global tournament.
The knock was even sweeter because the disappointment of managing only seven in the previous game against Sri Lanka was yet to subside. Yuvraj had wowed the crowd with a 53 against Pakistan in the opener, but a poor show in the defeat to Angelo Mathews’ team hurt. After all, he had lost a shot at contributing to his team and helping his country win.
That is why when Yuvraj opened his stance and swatted JP Duminy’s half-tracker over the mid-wicket fence to confirm India’s passage to the semifinal, there was prominent relief on his face. He pumped his fist and joined his partner, Kohli, for more animated celebrations. He had come out unscathed in his short stint. More importantly, he had relished the joy of an Indian victory from the centre one more time.
MS Dhoni was the other illustrious batsman who would have barged out had either of Kohli or Yuvraj stumbled. The former India captain had smashed 63 against the Sri Lankans, but that had been his only outing so far after his services were not required against Pakistan.
Like Yuvraj, every knock Dhoni has played in national colours is cast in gold. Hence, the itch to bat on Sunday would have been unmistakable. However, the stage continued to elude Dhoni with the bat against South Africa.
Fortunately for Dhoni, though, the time in the field can bring solace when the chances with the bat have been limited. As the wicketkeeper, he is often in the best position to tinker the field. And, as a former skipper, Kohli often shoots him an SOS when faced with a precarious situation.
It is the involvement in the game that Dhoni yearns for. He has handed over the captain’s baton to Kohli. There is no need for him to stress over the angle at which a particular fielder is standing nor does he need to keep talking to the players in the nets before a game or from behind the stumps during one. He definitely does not need to break his head over which bowler must bowl when. Yet, Dhoni does all of it and more.
Dhoni is a master of tactics on the field. While the team benefits from his continued inputs, he does it also because he wants to be the catalyst for an important move on the field that eventually flips the game into India’s basket.
It was no surprise then to see Dhoni celebrate with his gloved right-hand circling like the blades of a helicopter, when Jadhav had disturbed Tamim Iqbal’s stumps on Thursday.
Jadhav is an occasional, part-time off-spinner. But it was captain Dhoni who had first used him successfully as a surprise weapon with the ball in the ODI series against New Zealand at home last year.
The Bangladesh batsmen had begun to feast on India’s regular spinners. That is when Dhoni indicated to Kohli that it might be a good idea to hand Jadhav the ball. Tamim’s wicket had handed the normally reticent Dhoni to put on an emotive hat. Mushfiqur Rahman’s wicket soon after had ensured Dhoni had stimulated that game-changing decision he desired.
It was a decade ago that a team with Dhoni and Yuvraj in it earned India their first global crown when they ambushed Pakistan in the World T20 final at the Wanderers. It was an event defined by Dhoni’s innovative captaincy, in his maiden stint, and Yuvraj’s bludgeoning batting, with the six sixes off Stuart Broad as the highlight.
Four years from the emotional triumph, Yuvraj went down on his knees and exulted after Dhoni had smashed Sri Lanka’s Nuwan Kulasekara over the long on boundary to crown India the champions of the world at the Wankhede. The World Cup triumph is remembered for the nerves of steel an out-of-form Dhoni displayed during the chase in the final and for Yuvraj’s man-of-the-tournament performance.
Soon after, Yuvraj beat cancer and played for India again. But fitness was still a challenge, and that combined with a lean patch meant he was not a part of Dhoni’s team that won India the last world event – the 2013 Champions Trophy in England.
Yuvraj is 35, while Dhoni is less than a month from turning 36. The next World Cup is two years away. If the ICC decides to stick to its decision of playing the World T20 every four years, it is three years away. And, if there is another version of the Champions Trophy, it is likely to come by only four years from now.
Rishabh Pant will fly with the team to the Caribbean soon after the Champions Trophy. His ability to destroy attacks, like a young Dhoni was renowned for, has the cricket world eager in anticipation. And, his inclusion in the team is also a reminder to Dhoni that there is a youngster ready to step in.
In Yuvraj’s case, the axe has hung on his head almost every time he walked out for India since his comeback earlier this year. Even the 150 against England in January only provided temporary relief. A couple of failures and the murmurs for his ouster could turn loud.
While neither of them have indicated when the curtains could fall on their respective careers, the Yuvraj-Dhoni fairytale is closer to its finish than its start.
If indeed the Champions Trophy final is their swansong in ICC tournaments, India’s victory over Pakistan could be the happy end to their fairytale fancies.
For years, when Yuvraj and Dhoni were in their prime, they combined to carve out victories for India, when the team stared at a dead end. If the duo is in charge of how their story ends, a Yuvraj-Dhoni special with the bat could slay Pakistan on Sunday. One final time.