Yuvraj gets his swagger back
During the 2011 World Cup quarter-final between India and Australia, Yuvraj Singh played the cut off Brett Lee. It was a typical Yuvraj stroke. It was played on the move, with the confidence of a batsman settled in an ODI innings, actively seeking runs. The ball travelled so fast, third man had little chance of saving the boundary. Yet, Yuvraj hadn't appeared to have used brute strength. He hadn't merely guided the ball either. What he had done seemed to lie exactly between the two extremes - the hard and the soft, the severe and the gentle. He had blended power and timing so well the stroke appeared effortless as well as graceful without losing any of its potency. Yuvraj in full flow, they said.
That is what Yuvraj of the old used to do before being hit by cancer. That is what the man who came back last year after overcoming the illness could not seem to do. That is what the man who has mounted a second comeback seems capable of, again. Tonight against Australia, that characteristic blend of power and timing marked his strokes. Yuvraj in full flow, they said again.
It has been a while since we have seen that "flow". Yuvraj was given an emotional comeback in 2012 after recovering from cancer, in a T20 against New Zealand in Chennai. He played a big slog-sweep or two in making 34 off 26 but generally struggled to rediscover his rhythm. Tellingly, he paused to catch his breath for several seconds after running a two, or even when sprinting for a quick single, his eyes wide open with the effort.
It was the same sight in the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka a couple of weeks later. The running and fielding were labored. The pulls weren't flying into the stands. The drives didn't have the familiar imperiousness. If you looked closely, even the ever-present swagger had lost some of its assurance. It was becoming clearer and clearer that it had been a largely emotional selection, with evidence of the lack of match practice. Yuvraj's body hadn't regained enough strength to be able to execute his mind's desire to perform like he used to in international cricket.
He hung on for some more time before being dropped. The desire was still intact, and led him to put his body through a punishing fitness regimen. A leaner, fitter Yuvraj forced his way back this time through the weight of List A runs.
It is only one innings yet, but the contrast with the earlier comeback, and the resemblance with the original version, was striking. It was not simply the fact that Yuvraj made an unbeaten 77 off 35 to resurrect another limited-overs chase for India. It was the way he made those runs. It was the way those pick-up flicks and lofted drives flew off his bat.
The pick-up flick is not an easy shot to pull off. A leading edge can make people wonder what exactly you were trying to attempt. But when he is in his zone, as he was on Thursday, Yuvraj can make the shot appear so straightforward a response and its execution so emphatic, not going for it would seem unnatural.
Apart from the choice of strokes, there is one larger theme to Yuvraj on such days. He gives you the feeling that he is in complete charge of the situation. He does not seem to be merely controlling the narrative of a match, he seems to be bossing it. You can spot that in his movements, in the way he picks up the length, in his swagger after hitting a boundary, in his determined eyes. You know the asking-rate is high, you know there isn't much batting to follow, but somewhere inside, you also know that Yuvraj is going to produce the big shot when it is required.
There were a few tweets from fans saying that the sight of Yuvraj in flow had somewhat lessened the numbness they felt on the day Sachin Tendulkar had announced his retirement. That is what the Yuvraj of old could do. He could move people. As he did in Rajkot. It has been a while.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo