Yuvraj Singh was on strike when the buzz in the close-to-capacity Eden Gardens picked up. It was in anticipation of a shot that defines him.
Yuvraj blinked his eyes repeatedly and tapped his bat intensely. Then he bent down slightly in his stance and went into pause-mode for a blink-and-miss moment. By then, Umesh Yadav had approached the bowling crease.
The Eden Gardens was the home of the Kolkata Knight Riders. And, Umesh was the Kolkata Knight Riders’ finest pacer in the IPL this year. But, none of that was likely to bother Yuvraj, who had eyes only for the ball.
Yuvraj unfroze himself from that moment of pause as soon as the ball was on its way, allowed his bat to complete its flamboyant swing and lofted it over Umesh’s head and over the fence.
With the shot complete and the desired result found, Yuvraj held his position for the cameras. The elbow was high and the bat’s face could not have been straighter as the cameras went click, click.
The Kolkata crowd would generally make their displeasure felt when the Knight Riders are under attack. But, Yuvraj can be a darling of the audiences. And, on that night too, he was their Pied Piper. The trademark straight punch, which even went on to win one of the awards for the best shot of this year’s IPL, set off complete pandemonium in the stands. It was a sign of a Yuvraj in complete flow.
It was a sign the crowds have come to recognize and feel secured in over the years. It is a shot that has beautified many a Yuvraj specials that the world has enjoyed. It is a shot that first graced the international stage 17 years ago when a lanky Yuvraj tore apart the mighty Australian attack in his first innings at the highest level.
It could have been in a low-profile game at the 7,000-seater Gymkhana Club Ground in Nairobi. Instead, it was a tense quarter-final of the ICC Knockout Trophy, as the ICC Champions Trophy was called back then.
It was a young Indian outfit led by Sourav Ganguly against an Australian side filled with legends. There was no question about who the favourites were. But, India had put its money on the team’s youthful exuberance.
Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly and Rahul Dravid were all back in the pavilion before India could even cross 100. It was the young blood of Yuvraj that now carried the hopes of a nation. And he responded.
The world had not seen much of the left-hander from Punjab. But on that early October afternoon, Yuvraj ensured that he would be seen often thereafter. He was the last batsman the Australians would have expected resistance from. To their surprise, it was him who sent them on a leather hunt in an elegant 80-ball 84.
Yuvraj drove, hooked, pulled and flicked the likes of Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie. And, it was amidst this display of dazzle that Yuvraj introduced the world to his trademark straight punch.
It was similar to the shot that charmed the Eden Gardens, but it was better. It was against McGrath, one of the greatest fast bowlers to have ever played. It was in his first international stint with the bat. And, it was to bring up his maiden half-century.
Back in 2000 too, Yuvraj’s eyes blinked frequently, bat tapped exaggeratedly and he bent down, though not as much as in 2017, to move into pause-mode. The same routine continued as he switched back into action-mode and allowed his elegant bat swing to punch it past the bowler.
The shot did not fetch him a six. It was only a boundary, but it was sweet. For, it was one of the firsts.
After Yuvraj had delighted the Nairobi crowd with the bat, he went on to exhibit why he would go on to be one of the best fielders in the world.
Point would go on to become Yuvraj’s position in the Indian team as the years rolled by. But, it was not so then. The stylish player, with a gold chain around his neck, was at cover when Ian Harvey played an uppish drive off Venkatesh Prasad.
The ball was high, it was flying at pace and seemed beyond the reach of any human intervention. Yet, Yuvraj flung himself to the left — both feet in the air, hands in the air, body horizontally in the air — and pulled off a stunner. For followers of Indian cricket, it was a radical moment. Indian fielders were not meant to pull off such stunts. They were the birthrights of those from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the likes. That’s what they believed. But Yuvraj was out to change the perception.
A few overs later, with the game in the balance and Australia’s greatest finisher Michael Bevan at the crease and going well, another moment of Yuvraj’s heroics turned the game back on its head.
Yuvraj was deep at mid-off when the left-handed Bevan played the ball to him and set off for a quick single. But the Indian youngster was quicker. The gap between him picking up the ball and releasing was unnoticeable. Crucially, he dismantled the stumps at the bowler’s end.
Bevan was found short. He did not expect Yuvraj to be as clinical with the pick up and throw. Few would have expected an Indian to produce such a run-out but this was a new chapter in the history of Indian cricket that Yuvraj had decided to unfold.
It was, hence, at that tournament that Yuvraj had arrived. Australia were the first team to be blown away his special talent. As the years rolled by, most teams faced his wrath.
For the longest time, India had not lost an ODI in which Yuvraj had scored a half-century. That streak came to a close only in the end of 2002 when his 68 against the West Indies at Vijayawada was not enough to help the team mount a successful chase.
While his career saw downs like India’s first-round ouster from the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, Yuvraj typified the knack to achieve the impossible.
It started with Yuvraj and Mohammad Kaif’s partnership that took India past England in an improbable chase in the 2002 NatWest Trophy final at Lord’s. It peaked when Yuvraj was the player of the 2011 World Cup, which India lifted at home. It was epitomised by his successful fight with cancer after he had helped India bring home the World Cup. And, eventually, it reappeared when he returned to the ODI side after more than three years and slammed a 150 against England earlier this year.
In the midst of this glorious journey that is an inspiration for every player around, his affair with the Champions Trophy has continued.
Apart from his invaluable 62 with the bat, Yuvraj changed the course of the 2002 Champions Trophy semi-final against South Africa in Colombo with his acrobatic fielding.
Yuvraj had made the point position his own by now. And, when Graeme Smith aerially cut Zaheer Khan in that region, the left-hander flew to his right and pulled off an eye-popping catch.
When the same game was headed for a climax, Yuvraj turned out to be the catalyst as he dived, again to his right, from short fine leg to complete a game altering catch off Jonty Rhodes, arguably the best fielder in the world himself.
Two years later in England, Yuvraj was once again up in the air, horizontal to the ground as he stunned Moin Khan to complete his catch at point. The Pakistan wicket-keeper had driven, and would have expected the ball to meet the fence. But, Yuvraj happened. It was not enough to arrest Pakistan’s chase completely but it caused a definite flutter.
Injuries and fitness issues meant Yuvraj missed out on the subsequent Champions Trophy events in 2009 and 2013. In fact, his return to cricket after he had defeated cancer has been a stop-start affair.
It took Yuvraj a while to hit the kind of fitness that would allow him to slay bowling attacks across the world. Even now, he is not fit enough to be the fastest player on the field, but he has put in the hours in training to ensure he can compete and conquer.
Not a lot of players at 35 would continue to fight for a return to the national team, once on the wayside. But Yuvraj does not feature among those players. His desire to play, and exceed in the India blues pushed him to regain his fitness and form.
Apart from the hours in training and at the gym, the World Cup winner and a star of many India triumphs decided to accept the challenge of grinding it out in domestic cricket.
The life of a domestic cricketer is not easy. Especially not if you have been pampered by international stardom. Yet, Yuvraj slogged it out in front of near-empty stands in the Ranji Trophy for a couple of seasons.
When India were engaged in an ODI battle with New Zealand in October last year, Yuvraj was busy scripting his comeback. Around the time India wrapped up the 3-2 series win, the now veteran all-rounder registered a mammoth 260 against Baroda for Punjab at the Feroz Shah Kotla in a Ranji Trophy tie.
Yuvraj was still playing and helping Punjab excel in India’s premier domestic tournament even after India had commenced the Test series against the visiting English.
In his last Ranji Trophy game of the season, Yuvraj top scored in the match with 85 on a tricky Rajiv Gandhi Stadium wicket in his team’s triumph over Uttar Pradesh.
672 runs in five Ranji games last season at an average of over 80 meant Yuvraj had done enough to earn the national recall he craved. Back in the ODI side to take on England in January, Yuvraj showed that the fire in him still burnt bright. With his 150 against the visitors at Cuttack, he reminded the world that there are perhaps a few more Yuvraj specials still in the bank. That along with similarly glittery knocks in the IPL meant Yuvraj will be on the plane to England.
And, when Yuvraj walks out for Virat Kohli’s India against Pakistan at Birmingham, he will return to the stage — the Champions Trophy — on which he performed his first act of majesty. It could now be the stage for Yuvraj to kiss his bond with the event goodbye with one final act of enthrallment. And, if he manages to put on that show in England, India will fancy their chances of defending their crown.
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Updated Date: Jun 03, 2017 20:00:25 IST