India v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Ahmedabad, 3rd day December 20, 2005

Leading with the right foot



Yuvraj Singh's fifty was a fitting reply to those who doubt the efficacy of a long-term vision © Getty Images
The most significant image of the day's play came ten minutes before stumps when Harbhajan Singh attempted an outrageous reverse-sweep against Muttiah Muralitharan. By then, the Indian lead was well over 450, and Harbhajan could afford to indulge in some mickey-taking after his stupendous bowling earlier had sealed the fate of this Test match. For Murali, not fully fit and deprived of the support of Chaminda Vaas through illness, it was one more bitter pill to swallow on a day when India's lower-order batsmen appeared intent on clattering him to all corners of the Motera.

Having lost the top order for 100, the Indian team management would have been delighted with the fortitude and inventive strokeplay from the tail. Irfan Pathan came in and thumped an effortless 27, and there was a sensational knock from Ajit Agarkar, whose stroke-filled 48 reminded many old-timers just why he had been considered a prospect on batting skill alone during his school days.

But while Agarkar's innings spoke of the great depth of India's batting, he had to cede the day's honours to a man who came to the crease with everything to prove. His first-innings failure - few had bothered to note just how good a delivery Murali had produced to snaffle him - had reopened the debates about Yuvraj Singh belonging at this level and, shamefully, there were quite a few people willing him to fail here just so that their warped designs for Indian cricket could be carried on.

In the event, the management and selectors that reposed faith in one of India's brightest young talents are fully entitled to pat themselves on the back, and show contempt for those who doubt the efficacy of a long-term vision that is already delivering spectacular results. Where his 77 at Delhi had been a dour effort tailored to the needs of that particular hour, Yuvraj's 75 today showcased everything that is special about his batting.

The drives crunched through the covers were glorious, but it was the manner in which he swept a doosra from Murali to the midwicket fence that was most telling. Against the sharp-turning ball, he is still far from the finished product, but the fusillade of magnificent shots that flowed from his bat this afternoon were ample proof of why he should be in the team. At his best, his outrageous talent makes him a matchwinner, and you just don't keep men like that out of a side. If Yuvraj carries on in this vein and does what Michael Hussey has done to revitalise the Australian batting, Indian cricket will be well served.

Sachin Tendulkar had set the tone for India's thrill-a-minute innings with an easy-on-the-eye cameo, before another very ordinary decision sent him on his way. But it's a reflection on how far Indian cricket has travelled of late that they could ignore the absence of the irreplaceable Rahul Dravid, and a combined contribution of 24 from Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman, to pile up the sort of score that they did.

The build-up to this Test was dominated by talk of a tough call made with an eye on the future - not too dissimilar from the decision to replace Ian Healy with Adam Gilchrist. Australia's selectors also jettisoned Damien Martyn - who would waltz into any Test side in the world, having averaged 47.48 over his last 20 Tests despite the Ashes failure - with a view to breathing new life into a team that had nothing left to achieve.

There was no collective chest-beating, or banners in parliament, when one of the world's most graceful batsmen was hung out to dry. Such sentiment-free ruthlessness has kept Australia ahead, and today's masterclass from Yuvraj suggested that India, despite such widespread paranoia of change, might finally be ready to embrace the less-travelled road that is the preserve of champions.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo