A partnership made in batting heaven
Batting together in the middle-order, MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh have saved matches, brought about momentum shifts, set up victories and accomplished so much more in only 49 partnerships. They are an odd pair: Yuvraj is stylish and makes batting look easy; Dhoni works hard without bothering about aesthetics. And yet, when they combine, they produce something special. To the list of great middle-over associations - Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf, Michael Bevan and Steve Waugh - Dhoni and Yuvraj can easily be added.
When Dhoni joined Yuvraj at the Feroz Shah Kotla, India had slipped from 37 for 0 to 53 for 3, only 16 runs had come from the last 6.4 overs, and the Kotla pitch appeared as devious as it did during the Champions League. Both batsmen looked ungainly and unconvincing initially and scored only 19 in the next six overs. Then Yuvraj broke his shackles without taking any risks by sweeping Nathan Hauritz to fine leg and flicking Moises Henriques to midwicket for fours in back-to-back overs. They were at it again.
Then they started running on intuition, turning three-fourths into ones, and one and three-quarters into twos. There were some poor calls too, but that didn't lead to mistrust between the batsmen. Odd boundaries came but the run-rate was not an issue, sensible batting was. Around the 34th over, they realised the team was out of danger and, even before the ball was changed, Yuvraj opened up. His classy hitting met Dhoni's awkwardness perfectly as it so often does. Batting together in the middle-order, they have now scored 1991 runs. None of the pairs that have scored more are in business now. Today's 148 was their ninth century partnership. For a change they were separated before victory, but Dhoni is not the man for late twists.
The Kotla pitch took batsmen out of their comfort zones but, with each other, Dhoni and Yuvraj find comfort and in their case familiarity breeds runs. Dhoni has often spoken of the reassurance Yuvraj brings. As a batsman Dhoni knows he doesn't need to take risks as long as Yuvraj is around. As a captain Dhoni knows Yuvraj is his go-to man, his Powerplay specialist and his finisher. That Dhoni is a surer captain when Yuvraj is playing is obvious.
Coincidentally it's for the same reasons that Yuvraj likes batting with Dhoni. "I am very comfortable batting with him," he said. "Our running between the wickets has always been good and, whenever there is pressure on me, Mahi [Dhoni] is someone who can get the odd boundary. He has become a bit slow, but he still manages a boundary when the pressure is on. Last game he was fantastic. I think he deserved to be Man of the Match today."
There share mutual respect, banter and a sense of purpose. One can sense when the other is under pressure and both are capable of doing something about it. As Yuvraj said in jest, Dhoni has slowed down a bit, but he can hustle the opposition; he has strength too, to run endlessly or hit sudden powerful shots. Theirs is an instinctive partnership. "We don't really assign goals, we play according to the situation," Yuvraj said.
Dhoni has made a lot of his ODI runs in Yuvraj's presence. But Yuvraj has added more with Rahul Dravid than he has done with Dhoni. When asked to compare batting with both those batsmen, Yuvraj gave glimpses into why he was enjoying batting with Dhoni more. "They are both different types of players," Yuvraj said. "Mahi is more dynamic … not these days. Rahul was more, you know, picking up the singles, getting into partnerships. Mahi is someone who can obviously make it up in the end. No doubt Rahul Dravid is a great player, but the way Dhoni bats in one-day cricket is something we should all learn from."
There's a higher level of comfort with Dhoni. In three minutes Yuvraj made three jokes about Dhoni, but paid him three rich compliments too. While Yuvraj-Dravid was a profitable partnership while it lasted, Dravid was a senior and perhaps Yuvraj didn't express himself as completely as he does in Dhoni's presence.
His relationship with Dhoni could easily have been complex. Yuvraj would have had captaincy ambitions when Dravid resigned and Virender Sehwag was out of the side, but it was Dhoni, about a hundred ODIs his junior, who was chosen to lead India. That doesn't come in either man's way.
For Yuvraj tonight's 78, with his team in strife on the slowest one-day surface he has played on, was a personally satisfying performance. "I often get criticism from you guys [the media] that I don't play well on slow wickets, that I am not a good player of spin, so it's always a challenge for me to prove you guys wrong, and I did that well today."
It was his day and yet Yuvraj said Dhoni should have been Man of the Match. Had Dhoni been given the award, he would have said the same thing about Yuvraj.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo