Shedding the rust
"I want to share this award with Yuvraj Singh," said a beaming Sachin Tendulkar after he was named the Man of the Series in the Future Cup, India's three-match series against South Africa at Belfast. "Had it not been for Yuvraj, we wouldn't have won the last two games."
Yuvraj could well have ended the series with a triple failure. The first match saw a promising cameo cut short by a half-hearted miscue and a harmless brand of left-arm spin being easily negotiated. The second game witnessed Yuvraj the Edgy, often swinging at random as if batting blindfolded, and the third saw him begin his innings in a similar jumpy tone. He was dropped once, edged between the wicketkeeper and first slip once, and often appeared to be a batsman completely out of place.
Yet, the fact that he ended as the tournament's third highest scorer says much about his tenacity. The turnaround was in the second game. First his bowling, snaffling a vital 3 for 36 in his nine overs, before scratching his way to an unbeaten 49 to guide India in a tense chase. It wasn't an assured effort but Yuvraj made sure he stayed till the match was won and the series levelled.
It was the sort of game that rusty players desperately hope for. Handed the ball in the 33rd over, he struck with his third delivery, removing JP Duminy with a mouthwatering long-hop that was short and wide outside off. South Africa were then forced to consolidate and Yuvraj exploited the opening to a T, hurrying through his overs with good economy. In his fifth over he tossed up the straighter one, saw it keep low, watched MS Dhoni take a smart catch, and got rid of Morne van Wyk, the set batsman. In his last over he removed the dangerous Andrew Hall with a flat, speedy, short of a length delivery on the stumps. Hall missed the cut, Yuvraj hit the stumps.
With the bat in hand he regularly fished aimlessly outside off. Andre Nel kept throwing up the bait, Yuvraj kept falling for it but, and it's an important but, he kept missing. When he did made contact, as with an inside edge from Hall, the ball sped away to the fence. Mark Boucher must have needed throat lozenges at the end of the game with his exclamations after almost every ball but Yuvraj was still there after a grim battle, celebrating India's hard-fought win.
The edginess spilled over into the third game as well. He took 12 deliveries to get off the mark and 21 before his first four. He was dropped by Hall at first slip when on ten and, on 11, he edged between the wicketkeeper and first slip for four. Only in his 47th delivery did he appear confident of taking on the bowlers. With that, though, the fluency returned. Sighting the ball early and driving with panache, he pummelled Dale Steyn for a straight six before clobbering Hall down the ground for four more.
The shot that sealed the series was signature Yuvraj: standing upright and swatting Nel over midwicket, and enacting a series of pumped-up celebrations that were reminiscent of the Natwest Series in 2002, India's last one-day series win outside the subcontinent and the one that showcased Yuvraj as a star in the making.
"He's got the power, he's got the skill and he's matching that power and skill with temperament, mental strength and brains," an elated Rahul Dravid said at the end of the series. "That's a deadly combination. He is up there among the best one-day players in the world without a doubt." And that's just a largely edgy Yuvraj. India will hope the fluent avatar lights up the English summer.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo