Hungry for more
The future is bright, the future is Yuvraj
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Four years ago, almost to the day, my colleague, Anand Vasu, wrote a prescient article on this site. India had just emerged off a thrashing in Australia, and the article was entitled "The future of Indian cricket." It was written about a young batsman from Punjab who was then playing in the Under-19 World Cup, which Anand was covering, and which India eventually won. The man in question was, of course, Yuvraj Singh.
In that article, Anand said that Yuvraj was "hungry for runs". That may seem to be a surprising assessment of a player who is essentially a lower/middle-order strokeplayer, whose task is to belt the ball around in the slog overs. Such players are often keen to entertain and eager to hit boundaries, to hunt for the moment and not gather with the future in mind. It is players like Geoff Boycott and Sunil Gavaskar, quintessential Test-match accumulators, who are usually described as being hungry for runs. But make no mistake about it: Yuvraj burns with hunger. His delight at reaching his century (his second out of 15 times that he's passed 50) made it evident how much it meant to him. One of his constant laments through the early part of his career, which he had said to Anand as well four years ago, was that he "was batting well and should have gone on to make a hundred". Well, he did today, and he will many times more - and, with luck, not just in one-day internationals.
Of the 14 previous ODIs in which Yuvraj passed 50, India won 13. While that is fertile grounds for superstition, the natural explanation is that when a late-order batsman comes and blazes away to a half-century, setting the blistering pace that is almost inevitable for him - his strike rate is 86 - his team is likely to win more often than not. Also, while chasing, Yuvraj likes to finish the job off. He had once said of his heroics in that famous NatWest Series final of 2002 that he had decided, when he went out to bat, that no matter what happened, he would not lose his wicket, he would see India through. (In the event, he did get out, but only after turning the tide.) His hunger is also reflected in the fact that, despite being the first-choice middle-order back-up batsman for India's Test side, he has volunteered to open, a role he has taken up for Punjab. He is hungry - that word again - to get into the thick of things and, sooner or later, he inevitably will.
Now, one wishes Adam Gilchrist had a bit more of that hunger. For a batsman of such phenomenal ability to open in one-day internationals and average 36 is bizarre. He might have ten centuries to show for it, but the top opening batsmen in one-day internationals make more centuries per innings than he does, and he is as talented as anybody in the business. The problem appears to be that he seems to approach his role in the team as that akin to a pinch-hitter's; he tries to slam everything out of sight, and often gets out playing injudicious strokes. The tragedy is that he does not need to do this. His natural rate of scoring is arguably not much slower than he achieves with these tactics - his strike rate stands in the mid-90s - and he'd get many more big scores if he simply played his natural game, which would help his team greatly. When he threw it away today, after making 95 breathtaking runs off 72 balls, one of my colleagues commented that he never plays for a hundred. Well, he should!
The other batting star of the day was VVS Laxman, who certainly seems to love playing Australia. All his four one-day centuries have come against them (101, 102, 103 and 106 - is 112 next? Figure out the progression). He averages 54.4 against Australia in ODIs, compared to a career average of 31.3. In Tests, it's 63.5 to 47.4. His relish for the best team in the world is testimony to his class, and his recent performances demonstrate that he has what it takes to play one-day cricket. He was right to feel aggrieved when Dinesh Mongia was picked over him for last year's World Cup. Mongia over Laxman? Never again.
The Indian bowling had streaks of excellence interspersed with splashes of inexperience. Irfan Pathan began beautifully, then got carried away and bowled too many wides, then came back in a lovely final over to pick up two key wickets. His learning curve shows that he is both disciplined and intelligent, and he certainly has the hunger. He has become one of India's first-choice bowlers - with Zaheer Khan, when fit - and the likes of Ashish Nehra and Ajit Agarkar need to lift their games. Agarkar was too wayward at the start today, and the process of elimination by which he so often finds himself in the playing XI may cease to apply soon. He could learn from Sourav Ganguly, whose intensity should be an inspiration for his team.
Now for some final words on the youngest and oldest people on the field. Parthiv Patel's wicketkeeping has gone down drastically since his debut: he was pedestrian in the Tests, and continued his bad form today, failing to effect a first-ball stumping of Michael Clarke. Rahul Dravid's keeping in ODIs is no worse than this, which makes Patel's inclusion in the side pointless. India would have been better served playing Sanjay Bangar, who can bowl and is a better batsman than Patel.
And the drama of Bungling Bucknor continues. Steve Bucknor made another stupid mistake today, not calling for replays for a run-out appeal; the replays showed that Laxman was out, and even though the decision had no impact on the game, it was a bad error of judgment. Ganguly's official assessment of Bucknor, which the ICC is supposed to regard seriously, has reportedly been the lowest possible throughout this tour, and justly so. Such umpiring mars the game, and Bucknor's remarkable consistency in these matters merits action.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.