Grace and fire
On days like this, you realise what a waste of talent Yuvraj Singh can be. He performs below par for months at a time but, when on song, there are few batsmen in the modern era who can match him for power and placement. England are no strangers to Yuvraj's big hitting - just ask Stuart Broad - and today's breathtaking assault in Rajkot, a mix of strength, finesse and improvisation, was a reminder of his potential.
Yuvraj on a roll usually translates to India on a roll - India have won 34 of the 46 matches in which he's gone past 50 - and this incandescent innings had the same result. No bowler was spared as he hit an unbeaten 138 from just 78 balls, with 16 fours and six sixes. His smoothness was astounding; each six struck was more effortless than the last and he pulled off his favoured across-the-line, pick-up shot over midwicket with such delicate touch that you almost forgot the 127-run opening stand forged by India's gung-ho openers.
After a not-so-purple patch, this was the type of game that rusty players so desperately yearn for. "It's been a hard couple of bad months. I didn't have a good last ODI series and I wasn't in the Test side," Yuvraj said. "So I sat down and got back to what I do best. I'm very happy with my effort. I think it's one of the best knocks I've played. The rate I scored at, and that I was able to continue, was satisfying."
Yuvraj has often grumbled about not getting enough overs to bat in ODIs. Despite some patchy form, he was sent in at No. 4 - a spot he has pretty much occupied since late 2007 - and made it count. The characteristic booming drives to the off didn't flow today, as he was hampered by a back injury, and he took time to find his rhythm. The first signs of that rhythm came when Steve Harmison tested him with two bouncers, which Yuvraj, though he took his eyes off them, pulled for consecutive boundaries.
Once strapped into a back brace, though, he started playing an interesting and ultimately devastatingly successful pick-up, half-arc shot that required minimal twists of the bat and relied purely on timing and wristwork. In layman's parlance, it resembled a souped-up golfer's chip shot.
Yuvraj's innings really took off once he got Gautam Gambhir as a runner, for it gave him license to just hit. Some of his shots were outrageous. Aided by powerful wrists, Yuvraj always possessed the ability to flick - or scoop, lap and disdainfully brush, as Broad will attest to - anything on the pads or marginally straight.
Yuvraj can start off in style, but he's also proven he can build an innings. His greatest asset has been his ability to force the pace during the middle overs. In that context, his handling of the third Powerplay - which he entered on 30 from 33 balls - was excellent and gave him the confidence to launch a massive total.
The Powerplay, taken after 34 overs, saw Andrew Flintoff return and Yuvraj welcomed him with a lofted six down the ground. With that shot the fluency was back, the floodgates opened. The boundaries followed, one fiercely cut through point, another heaved over long-on. Harmison - who, with Flintoff bore the brunt of the assault - tried a slower ball and Yuvraj backed away to drive sumptuously down the ground, raising fifty from 38 balls.
By now he had no problems sighting the ball early. Three sixes formed 18 of the 34 runs taken from 18 Flintoff deliveries, while Harmison was taken for 48 from 26. No doubt he had a runner, but seldom has Yuvraj been so prolific. His first fifty took 42 balls, the second 22, and the last 37 required 13. "When he bats like that, there's nothing much the opposition can do," noted Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The problem with Yuvraj, of course, is that it's a big When. Ever since he sliced and diced his way to a glorious 84 against Steve Waugh's all-conquering Australia in 2000 his career has been marked by inconsistency. It took him 16 matches to cross fifty again, and for every dazzling innings at Lord's, Colombo, Karachi and Sydney, there were periods of scratchy indisposition to fuel his critics. His maiden century came against Bangladesh in April 2003, his next in January 2004. More than a year and a half separated that gem, against Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie in early 2004, from a century against West Indies in August 2005. There were only four fifties in between.
This innings came on the back of one such trough. It had been over a year since his last one-day international hundred. When he was stroking handsome runs against Sri Lanka, South Africa, Pakistan and England in 2005-06, it appeared his batting against spin bowling had improved. Then he went to Australia and looked clueless against Brad Hogg.
In and out of the team and dogged by a persistent knee injury, Yuvraj had only managed three half-centuries this year. He slumped miserably during the one-day series against Sri Lanka, and stumbled through five matches, scoring just 72 runs with a best of 23. His footwork was indecisive; his bat thrust forward like a dangling carrot, and Ajantha Mendis had his number thrice. This innings came as welcome relief, not least for the man himself.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo