As Punjab began their preparations for their fifth round clash of the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy campaign, some of the players and the support staff were keeping close tabs on the Indian Test squad that was about to be announced for the home series against England. The calls grew louder for the inclusion of Yuvraj Singh, predominantly from the fans after his exploits in the four previous matches, and the Punjab management was keen to see if their captain gets rewarded.
Yuvraj, at that point in time, was the leading run-getter in the tournament and had just scored a mammoth 260 against Baroda, his highest score in first-class cricket. For someone to register his highest score in the format 20 years after making his debut, and at the same time to put in a string of consistent scores, something that he wasn’t renowned for in four-day cricket, Yuvraj was certainly making a case for a Test return after almost four years.
The selectors though were not willing to change a winning combination after India had thrashed New Zealand 3-0 in the Test series. Punjab coach Arun Sharma, at that time, was coy on Yuvraj’s non-selection but did point out that it was the best he had seen Yuvraj bat over the years. “Yuvraj is a legend, on the Lahli surface, he batted like a champion,” he had told Cricbuzz then. “In the present, he is in the best form of his life in four-day cricket. Most difficult sessions, during morning sessions with the new ball, he survived. His concentration level is so high at present. He is doing his work, rest of the things depends on the selectors.”
The fans were clearly disappointed by the move as the emotions were running high on social media. Certain cricketers have always enjoyed a demigod status in this country and Yuvraj belongs to that breed.
Ever since his exploits in the T20 WC in 2007, his Man of the Series performance in the 2011 World Cup at home and his heroic fight against cancer, fans have revered their hero. With teams playing their games at neutral venues, the Ranji matches have hardly attracted a soul but Punjab enjoyed a little support in some games purely due to Yuvraj’s presence.
Three days after the team was announced for the England Tests, Yuvraj put the disappointment behind him and scored a stroke-filled 85 in Hyderabad to help Punjab beat Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally, that was also his final innings of the season as he didn’t take further part because of his wedding and his team’s failure to reach the knockouts.
Two months later, he has found himself back in the ODI and T20I teams with the selection panel deciding to reward his performances that coupled with his sheer determination to keep fighting and not give up. “You should appreciate the way Yuvraj has played in domestic cricket. He’s scored a double hundred and got a 180 (177) on a Lahli wicket. He’s done extremely well in domestic cricket and has been given the due chances,” chief selector MSK Prasad said on his selection.
The hundred at Lahli had indeed made people take notice of him as it came under some testing conditions. He came into the middle at a difficult scenario as the opposition bowlers found plenty of bounce and movement on the track. He was also hit a couple of times but went on to fight hard and carve a majestic 177 that included some of his trademark shots.
His never say die attitude has certainly yielded results like it has done before. After being ignored post the 2014 T20 WC, he made a comeback last year around the same time for the T20I series in Australia as the selectors viewed him as a huge asset with the T20 WC scheduled to be played in India. He then suffered another setback after he was ruled out of the T20 WC semifinal with an ankle injury.
Perhaps at this point, another comeback appeared bleak as he also had to miss the start of the IPL. After regaining full fitness, he did play a part in Sunrisers Hyderabad clinching the IPL title but India appeared to have moved on. The call-up didn’t come for the Zimbabwe tour or the New Zealand series and with him not being present in the Test picture, the chances of him donning the national jersey started diminishing.
But the southpaw began his bid to re-enter the fray in the only possible way, and it was the hard way. With regular skipper Harbhajan Singh not being available, Yuvraj also had to shoulder the responsibility of leading Punjab apart from focusing on reviving his own international career. His presence helped the youngsters immensely in the dressing room throughout the campaign.
The perseverance has finally paid off but what lies ahead could be Yuvraj’s biggest challenge yet in international cricket after all these years. Even though he turned out in the DY Patil T20 cup recently alongside the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Hardik Pandya, there could be some rustiness in his game after not playing at a very high level for more than two months. And hence the first practice match against England ahead of the series is an ideal opportunity for him to get into the groove.
There is also some confusion prevailing over his exact role under Virat Kohli’s leadership and he could be batting anywhere between four to six in the order. Thirteen months ago, Yuvraj did mention that he would love to take up the role of a finisher in India’s limited-overs sides.
With MS Dhoni preferring to bat up the order, Yuvraj could be pushed to No. 5 or even No. 6. But the challenges these days for a modern day batsman at those spots have slightly changed. Especially with the Champions Trophy being the bigger picture, Yuvraj might be asked to do a role that he is not too familiar with.
Scores in England in the last two years have been massive with conditions favouring the batsmen. Yuvraj over the years gained a reputation at No. 4 where he had taken time to settle down before launching. So asking him to bat at six and tonk the ball straightaway against extreme pace could easily backfire.
The last time he played ODI cricket three years ago, he had a tough time dealing with the Australian pacers. In a series that most of the batsmen made merry in India, Yuvraj was perhaps the only frontline batsman to come out with low scores that hugely dented his confidence. He was dismissed by Mitchell Johnson three times in the series as the Australian seamers consistently troubled him. He did show flashes of his old self last year in Australia and in the subsequent matches, but they were in the T20 format.
Even though no one can dispute his prowess against the spinners, a fair bit of uncertainty does exist over his ability to rediscover his magic touch against the pacers. In many ways, this could well be his last chance saloon considering he is 35 years old. But if Yuvraj can manage to prove his doubters wrong like he had managed before, there will be no need to try and forge another comeback.