The one thing that Yuvraj Singh cannot be faulted with is a failure to evoke emotion.
The Punjabi star has always stirred up passions every time he donned his cricket gear. His trademark aggression on and off the field, an intrusive father, a doting mother and his indulgence with life meant that the press was always on to a story anytime they chased Yuvraj into the shadows. The 34-year-old batting all-rounder is back in the limelight but he continues to polarize opinion even as he works to solidify a place in India’s T20 team.
Yuvraj’s exploits with the bat have been well documented – he mauled bowlers with a beastly force that often decimated opponents into submission even while swimming in dire straits. He played a pronounced role in helping India win the World T20 in 2007 and consolidated those credentials when he was elected man of the tournament for his role in India’s victory in the ODI World Cup at home in 2011.
But his brilliance on the field was often overshadowed by his shenanigans off the field. Yuvraj was always seen as a party animal with a flair for the good things in life. It was no wonder then that he had his fair share of detractors even then.
Still only 29, Yuvraj experienced a rare ground swell of universal empathy when he was diagnosed with cancer soon after the World Cup in 2011. It was the beginning of a second chapter in his life, when the humane story of his battle against cancer captivated the imagination of a cricket-crazy nation.
So when he came back relatively unscathed from his battle with cancer, there was a genuine warmth around the country in the hopes of a grand comeback for the southpaw.
While the human story is compelling beyond doubt, it is important to also make an objective assessment of Yuvraj’s performances since his return. In 2012, selected to the team purely on the strength of romantic underpinnings, Yuvraj proved to be a more effective bowling resource than any real pyrotechnics with the bat. The Indian team returned home a disappointed lot after losing before the knockout stages.
Sport is a cruel master and it is becoming increasingly evident that time is beginning to take a toll on the abilities of this swashbuckling middle order batsman. Sample these numbers for a start – while he influenced outcomes with a T20I strike rate of 153.08 till 2013, his struggle for confidence is underlined by the fact that he is scoring at a comparatively low 92.59 since 2014.
Yuvraj earned a recall in December on the back of some solid performances in domestic competition (341 runs in 5 Vijay Hazare Trophy matches at 85.25). But in his eight outings since his return in Australia, Yuvraj has been anything but impressive. Did Not Bat, DNB, 15*, 10, 0, DNB, 15 and 14* are hardly the kind of numbers that do justice to a number five batsman in a team that has won 7 of its last 8 T20Is.
Yuvraj’s outing against Pakistan on 27 February has received mixed reactions. The 34 year old batter produced a clearly laboured effort, surviving on the edge for 32 balls to score a modest collection of runs. Admittedly, the team was in dire straits at 8 for 3, and the 55 runs he added with Virat Kohli were invaluable in getting India over the hump.
But even as Kohli embraced unbridled aggression to take the attack to an emboldened Pakistani team, Yuvraj was a picture of tentativeness nudging and fudging the means to his painful survival. In the context of the match and the precarious early stage situation, it did matter a lot that Yuvraj managed to save his wicket to the end.
Remember though that we are also talking here about Yuvraj’s role in the team just ahead of the World T20 in India. During his prime, Yuvraj would rarely hesitate to clear his right leg to make room for a bold shot or take a couple of quick steps to convert a good length ball into a juicy half volley.
In recent times though, one gets the feeling that Yuvraj is getting stuck inside the crease, uncertain of his own options. At times this leads to him taking the ball higher on the willow than he would like to, from a constrained position of discomfort. Fans must be pining to see Yuvraj rediscover the man that strode across like a knight before thumping the cherry through the covers with a brutally authoritative punch.
“He needs a bit of time. It doesn’t really matter as to how many he scores but his approach was good,” defended Dhoni after a sedate 15 by Yuvraj against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup opener. “Few more (outings) like this situation will help us,” added the captain. “I am not saying we want to lose three wickets but situations like these will help him.”
With Ajinkya Rahane warming the benches and Manish Pandey kept out altogether, Yuvraj is like an alpha lion who is struggling to keep his pride together. His strengths – clean ball striking prowess, athletic fielding and useful left arm spinners are all set to face some probing questions in the days ahead. And the evidence available since his return in January has been far from convincing.
Even in his prime, Yuvraj was always a much better player against pace than spin. He was effective at using the pace of the ball and bludgeon it to the four corners of the ground. Conditions in India are set to favour spin during this month’s World Cup and Yuvraj is racing against time to make a case for himself.
Given that he cannot command a place on the strength of his bowling alone, he will be turning in his bed knowing that he needs to strum some good music out of his bat sooner than later. Patience might be wearing thin even for his compassionate skipper.