Lessons from Yuvraj put India in right frame of mind
Nobody in the India team has yet been crass enough to consider the challenges ahead in World Twenty20 and pronounce 'We'll win it for Yuvi', but there is little doubt that Yuvraj Singh's exultant return to the side after treatment for a rare germ cell cancer is having a profound effect on their approach to the tournament.
It can be deeply disturbing, particularly so, for such a blessed group of sportsmen - highly feted, well rewarded and at the height of their physical prowess - to find that one of those in their midst, one of the most celebrated players of all, has had to contend with a potentially life-threatening illness.
Merely to watch Yuvraj back in his daily training regime again, growing stronger, middling the ball once more with customary power, honing his left-arm spin or fielding in that customary languid style, is to remind them that to talk of stress, of fear of failure, or of the unbearable pressures of their lives is often to lose perspective. They should give thanks for the opportunities that lie before them and the chance to thrill and to achieve.
It will be left to the media to state that India want to 'win it for Yuvi', and maybe deep down they do. It has been striking to see India's mood on arrival in Sri Lanka. Cricket is littered with teams who arrive in relaxed fashion and then simply fail to perform, but to witness India's first steps in Sri Lanka was to witness a side that looks comfortable about the challenges that lie ahead.
The fact that they are not favourites could be part of the explanation. As R Ashwin, their offspinner, suggested: "There is less pressure on us this time around because people are talking about other teams being favourites, and a team not going in with a lot of pressure is always a dangerous side. We fancy our chances. Our batting is very dangerous in terms of batsmen who can turn the game on its head even until the last moment. That is our biggest strength."
It could also be that tournaments in Sri Lanka simply sit comfortably with India - Suresh Raina joked that all it takes is a big Sri Lanka hotel breakfast to put him in a contented mood for the day. It could even have something to do with the fact that the impact of the IPL gives India an underlying confidence that they somehow have ownership of the T20 game. But more than all this, it is somehow down to Yuvraj, the team-mate and friend whose illness caused them so much heartache.
Raina took to Twitter, more and more the accepted vehicle for a sportspersons to display their emotions, to encapsulate the feeling in the Indian dressing room, writing:
From today in the T20 mode. It becomes all the more special because of @yuvstrong12. The strongest man we've known - Yuvraj the warrior!— Suresh Raina (@ImRaina) September 8, 2012
In Colombo, he expanded a little on his thoughts. "He has been phenomenal," Raina said. "Credit goes to his family and his friends. I think everybody wants him to perform well for the Indian team again: the way he showed character and responsibility to his body and showed everyone that disease can be cured.
"When I saw him playing the last game against New Zealand, he was fully pumped up and he fielded really well, bowled brilliantly and batted like he did earlier, so I think it is important for us to keep faith in him and keep supporting him, and I think it is going to be good for the Indian team."
Irfan Pathan was another player to draw strength from the way Yuvraj had fought against adversity, leading team-mates and fans to talk of a subject that is not easily faced. "Not only Indians, but every sports lover is extremely emotional about Yuvraj and is backing him," Irfan said. "If we win, a lot of credit will go to him."
It is for others in India to fret over the fact that the Sri Lankan pitches might not turn, especially early in the tournament, and with monsoon season not all that far away, the ball is even more likely to swing and seam under the Premadasa lights so exposing India's weaknesses.
Ashwin concentrated more on what Yuvraj, if he recaptures something akin to his best form, could bring to India's challenge. A couple of powerful blows against New Zealand in Chennai have got his team-mates believing again. India lost the match - and against a New Zealand team who for once are not even regarded as dark horses for the World Twenty20 - but the talk has not been of India's cricketing frailties as much as Yuvraj's physical strength.
As Sourav Ganguly, the former Indian captain, said: "It was incredible, to say the least" that he could return with such resolve. As Ganguly also remarked on a Bengali TV station, the World Twenty20, intense for sure but only demanding physical exertion for three hours at most, could be the best stage for him to complete his return.
If Dhoni ever turns to Yuvraj to fiddle through an over or two, to give himself more tactical options, never will an ephemeral bowling spell have been loaded with so much significance.
India then have cause for contentment and that is a good frame of mind in which to play T20 cricket. The game changes so quickly that decisions must be taken instantly and better decisions are often taken by the most optimistic. India's players, more steeped in IPL than most, recognise that only too well. Perhaps this is the form of the game where, despite the clamour, India's cricketers feel less pressure than in any other because fearlessness is simply the only way to play.
England might have been the first country to recognise the commercial appeal of Twenty20, but it is India which has looked it in the eye. "We play a lot of T20," Raina said. "A lot of other players are coming from other countries to the IPL and getting a lot of money and a lot of exposure. It is all about enjoying the format and enjoying each and every game. It is very important that whatever format you are in, that you are smiling on the field and enjoying it the most. Just keep working hard and enjoy each and every success."
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo