Impact players. That is the watchword when selectors name a Twenty20 squad, or when a team management sits down to pick a best-possible XI. As the Men in Blue round up a successful campaign ahead of the 2016 World T20, it is easy to note the ‘impact players’ among this bunch ‑ Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
Perhaps the refreshing Hardik Pandya can be added to this list, as also Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina whenever they are on song. Maybe Ashish Nehra or Jasprit Bumrah can be thrown in too, depending on whether they can retain their consistency for the length of the tournament.
MS Dhoni, then, is the enforcer among this lot, both behind and in front of the wickets, leaving the others in the squad in a supporting role. And notably Yuvraj Singh is one among these ‘support players’.
The left-hander, who played a stellar role in the team’s 2007 and 2011 World Cup wins, has been in the spotlight ever since his return in January. His form has been patchy at best, with short spells with the ball a saving grace.
There are a couple of obvious questions to ask here. Was Yuvraj always going to play a support role in Dhoni’s plans? Has the batsman justified the selectors’ call in picking him for the upcoming World T20?
No. Yuvraj needs more confidence and more runs under his belt.
Let us go back to the announcement of the T20 squad for the Australian tour in December. Yuvraj was recalled for the tour Down Under on the back of his strong showing in the then-ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy (346 runs in 6 matches at an average of 69.20).
Later, when the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy came about in January, his touch deserted him. He scored only 56 runs in 4 matches (avg. 18.66). Notably, 54 of those 56 runs came in a single innings. These statistics throw into doubt the wisdom behind selecting Yuvraj for the World T20 squad on basis of a 50-over domestic tournament.
The southpaw stroked a fine 35 off 18 balls against Sri Lanka the other day, including three fours and three sixes. This was his most fluent innings since comeback, which has otherwise been laden with stuttering knocks across three countries. The highlight among them was his unbeaten 14 off 32 balls against Pakistan.
Patchy and a true indicator of his form, it was a vital knock in the context of the match though. With Yuvraj in poor touch, India needed him to occupy the crease and use up as many deliveries as possible, allowing Kohli at the other end to knock off the runs. Call it luck or chance, that plan actually worked as Pakistan’s bowling fizzled out after Mohahammad Amir’s inspired spell.
These two highlighted innings are a study in contrast. “He needs to regain confidence, and we will try to give him a chance to bat up the order,” Dhoni had said time and time again. Yet, it was only after nine consecutive matches that the team management was able to promote Yuvraj to No.3 against the UAE.
Chasing a low total against a pedestrian attack, he was able to stroke his way to 25 not out off 14 balls without much trouble. But, can it be said with any certainty that the left-hander has truly found his touch? Or did Dhoni leave it too late to afford him a proper opportunity?
Yes, Yuvraj provides optimal balance
“In the T20 format, we can play anywhere in the world with this team. Three proper seamers, two spinners, and if needed part-timers, I think it’s the right combination,” said Dhoni after India completed a ceremonial 9-wicket win over the UAE in Dhaka on Thursday.
It wasn’t the case in October against South Africa as the hosts struggled with their bowling combination. None of Nehra, Bumrah, Pandya or even Jadeja was in that side. It was the perfect wake-up call for selectors and the team management, as they set about getting the combination right in the backdrop of Tests and ODIs. And they did, given how India have won nine out of 10 T20 matches they have played since.
The key, perhaps, was giving the captain what he needs. And in limited-over matches, Dhoni likes to have numerous bowling options. The arrival of Pandya and Bumrah along with the resurgence of Jadeja has been vital. But at the same time, there can be no doubt that the skipper has enjoyed a certain comfort in deploying his tried and tested part-time options.
Since January, Yuvraj has bowled 14 overs, and Raina has bowled another 7. A total of 21 overs in 10 matches from his two main part-timers have meant that, on average, Dhoni has only needed his frontline bowlers for 18 overs every innings. In T20 cricket, this allows increased liberty to shuffle the bowlers around, in turn helping them to make an impact when the captain wants – in the power plays or the middle overs.
In conclusion then, Yuvraj’s return to the side has been beneficial as a whole, considering the enhanced balance it provides to the team. His captain certainly enjoys his dual role as a batsman who can also bowl.
Has Yuvraj regained his confidence enough to be in the side on his batting alone? No. Is he in the side on the added caveat of his bowling? Yes.
In that light, only one question remains: what happens if Yuvraj finds himself in a situation like the 2014 World T20 final again? That is anybody’s guess.