India v South Africa, 1st ODI, Hyderabad November 16, 2005

From potential to performance

A few more innings like this, added to an extra pinch of consistency, and India may once again whole-heartedly embrace a player who has only flirted casually with greatness since that most eye-catching calling card in East Africa



Has Yuvraj Singh stopped flirting and finally begun to court success? © Getty Images
Just over five years ago, Yuvraj Singh announced himself to the cricketing world at large in the best possible fashion, with a devastating 84 against Steve Waugh's all-conquering Australians. An attack that boasted Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie - not to mention the canny medium-pace of Ian Harvey - was treated with disdain as Yuvraj breached the field almost at will on his way to an 80-ball 84. But another 16 matches were to pass by before he crossed 50 again, compiling a dazzling match-winning 98 against Sri Lanka in Colombo. The intervening period set the tone for his subsequent efforts, with 11 sub-20 scores sandwiching the odd cameo and squandered start.

The inconsistency was all the more infuriating because of the odd resplendent innings he would script, reminders to the growing number of critics of just what he could do. There was a splendid unbeaten 80 against Zimbabwe at Hyderabad, and that celebrated 69 in the NatWest Trophy final when he and Mohammad Kaif helped India past the most improbable of targets.

But for every innings where he looked a million dollars, there were half a dozen where he did a fair imitation of a dissolute wastrel, and by the time the current season started, the sand was trickling inexorably towards the bottom of the timer. In 44 innings since the World Cup in 2003, Yuvraj had managed just 1167 runs at 29.17. After striking his maiden century against Bangladesh at Dhaka in April 2003, he had managed only one more three-figure knock, a stunning 139 against Australia at the SCG in January 2004.

His apologists suggested that the lean trot had much to do with coming in to bat lower down the order, with quick runs the need of the hour. But an average of 10 when batting at No.3 (five matches) and 19.33 when at No.4 (13 games) suggested that lack of time wasn't really the root cause of Yuvraj's underachievement. Besides, the middle-order argument was rendered utterly facile by Michael Bevan's astonishing tally of 6912 runs at 53.58, most of them plundered in the last-leaf stage of an innings.

Coming in late also hasn't stopped Andrew Flintoff from smashing 1092 runs since the World Cup at a mind-boggling average of 57.47, nor has it prevented Justin Kemp from becoming every death-bowler's nightmare come to life. So with excuses being exposed for the pathetic inventions that they are, the start of the Chappell era was also a warning light for Yuvraj to get his act together.

He has done that quite spectacularly. Centuries against a second-string West Indies side in Sri Lanka, and against Zimbabwe, weren't enough to silence the carpers, but today's breathtaking back-to-the-wall effort was every bit the equal of his splendid maiden Test century at Lahore last year. Sadly, as with that and his other saved-in-sepia knock at Sydney, it wasn't enough to inspire an Indian victory. The 103 today took his tally for the season to 635 (at 48.85) and gave further insight into why Rahul Dravid was so irked when asked at Mohali whether Yuvraj deserved a place in the side.

Crucially, Yuvraj has started to eschew the flamboyant for the prosaic when the situation calls for it. Till he got close to his 50 today, there was little of the languid elegance or trenchant strokeplay that one has come to associate with him. Instead, like a man on a raft in a stormy ocean, he hung on, took his chances, and middled and edged his way to a platform that allowed him to fully express himself later in the innings. Whether it's the Chappell influence or a kick up the backside, or both, that have prompted the change in approach is a matter of conjecture for those on the outside, but the transformation witnessed this season has certainly been for the better.

With Suresh Raina and Venugopal Rao showcasing their potential in recent times, and the door still partially ajar for Sourav Ganguly, it was imperative that Yuvraj make the case in his favour a cast-iron one. A few more innings like this, added to an extra pinch of consistency, and India may once again whole-heartedly embrace a player who has only flirted casually with greatness since that most eye-catching calling card in East Africa.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo