A touch of Brian Lara
Perhaps the best compliment for Yuvraj Singh, who played one of the finest innings under pressure you can hope to see, would be that he had a touch of Brian Lara. There was the same high backlift, with the bat flowing down from the eye level, the quick hands, malleable wrists, sensational timing and perfect placement. To top it all, there was the part that couldn't be seen, only sensed: the ability to create a bubble where the external factors - a fresh pitch with a tinge of green, the hole that his team was in when he walked in, and the fact that he was playing for Test spot - ceased to matter.
Yuvraj and Sourav Ganguly, for whom no praise can be too high, did for India what Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have long been renowned for doing, but it will be no discredit to Ganguly to say Yuvraj's brilliance shaded his second successive hundred. Not that he would have grudged it a whit: his eyes shone brighter when he celebrated his team-mate's century than when he reached his own. No one present at the ground, even his opponents, could stay untouched by the breathtaking majesty of this innings.
At lunch, India would have felt a touch despondent. They had won the toss and chosen to bat knowing that the pitch, which had been under covers for the best part of the last few days, would be soft and offer seam movement. But given their reliance on spin, in the absence of a full-strength pace bowling attack, it was the only option available. Pakistan's bowlers wasted the first hour somewhat by either spraying the ball wide or bowling too short, but Yasir Arafat changed the course by introducing commonsense, and bowling close to the stumps. At 61 for 4, India were in the danger of having to bowl with the second new ball of the day.
Two significant things happened after lunch. Shoaib Akhtar - is he Pakistan's biggest match-winner or their biggest liability? - went off clutching his back. Far more importantly for India, Yuvraj batted like a dream. He was hit on the head once and played and missed outside off-stump a couple of times, and there was an edge off Danish Kaneria that Younis Khan put down but, rather than being intimidated by the situation, he chose to trust his game. He melted the pressure by allowing himself the freedom to play his strokes and by tea it was the bowling side that looked hunted.
Yuvraj's driving on the offside was sensational, both off the front and back foot, and the bowlers were clueless about what length to bowl to him. Some cover drives were played with the full flourish of the bat and some were punched exquisitely. Initially, Mohammed Sami and Arafat tried to cramp him by bowling straight and he either punched them down the ground or picked them through midwicket, generating velocity with his back-lift and wrists. Ganguly kept him company by piercing the offside either side of the cover fielder and the 127 runs they scored in the middle session changed the course of the innings.
After tea, Pakistan were reduced to damage control. Sami sought to deny Yuvraj by bowling a couple of feet outside off stump while Kaneria chose to bowl his googlies from outside leg. And two men were stationed behind square on the leg side for the top-edge to the occasional bouncer. Yuvraj refused to be baited but neither did he slow down. He stayed away from the wide balls but put away everything in driving range. When the sweeper was posted at cover, he still managed to hit the ball wide of him; his only pull was hit through midwicket, all along the ground. As the day progressed and the pitch eased, fours became inevitable, irrespective of the bowler and the field. At the end of his innings, his wagon wheel offered evidence of his all-round domination: 92 on the onside, 77 on the off, 50 between point and cover, 37 between square leg and midwicket. Ten of his 28 fours were hit though cover and five through midwicket.
|Despite his outstanding run in the shorter version of the game, doubts have lingered over the suitability of his technique and temperament for Tests. Yuvraj has banished those misgivings with an innings of such force and pedigree that to keep him out would be a brave decision - and may ultimately be a foolish one|
The innings was littered with dazzling strokes but a couple will stay in the mind. The first was a mere push, perhaps a defensive jab, at a full ball from Sami; such was the balance and timing that the ball sped past a bemused mid-on fielder to the boundary. The second was a back-foot cover drive to a ball from Arafat that deserved nothing more than a dead bat. By then, though, Yuvraj was long past his hundred and the merit of the ball had ceased to be of consequence. At that supreme moment, you felt in awe of the batsman but it was difficult not to feel sorry for the bowler.
To Indian fans who have long been riled by the tendency of Pakistan's batsmen to reserve their best for India - Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad have been succeeded by Kamran Akmal (three of his four Test hundreds against India) and Salman Butt (all his four one-day hundreds) - Yuvraj's third Test century against the old enemy would seem soothing retribution. That might be missing the story, because of far more significance is another common thread: each of these centuries have come when his team was in desperate trouble. On a green top at Lahore in 2004, India were 94 for 4 and 147 for 7; at Karachi in 2006, they were 74 for 4 and Mohammed Asif was in the middle of a dream spell, having knocked out Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman in quick succession. To each crisis Yuvraj has offered his fulsome and natural brilliance. His stroke-making has always exceptional, but his three Test centuries have demonstrated that he has that special ability to play them all when the chips are down.
His latest hundred has given the Indian management a happy headache. They will have one hell of a decision to make when they sit down to pick the team for the next Test, in Australia. Despite his outstanding run in the shorter version of the game, doubts have lingered over the suitability of his technique and temperament for cricket's most challenging form. Yuvraj has banished those misgivings with an innings of such force and pedigree that to keep him out would be a brave decision - and may ultimately be a foolish one.
There is plenty left in this Test yet, but Yuvraj's innings is potentially series-clinching for India. For himself, it could turn out to be career-changing.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo