September 10, 2008

What's the matter with Yuvi?

Yuvraj Singh is going through possibly the worst patch of his career. Injuries and his inability to adapt his game aren't helping any either

That uncertain feeling: both fitness and form have deserted Yuvraj of late © AFP

It's déjà vu. Yuvraj Singh's shortcomings are not new: we've heard about his vulnerability against spin and the moving ball, and his faulty foot movement. Add to those the perennial murmurs about his attitude and how he likes to party. We will hear it all again, now that he has been not selected for the Irani Trophy - which suggests he might not be considered for the Australia series.

Yuvraj dazzles your senses with those peachy on-the-up drives, those lunging slog-sweeps, and those gorgeous punches through the on side. When it comes off, it looks great, as it did against Pakistan in the Bangalore Test. But when the bowling and the wicket are more testing, he doesn't seem to have a plan B. Sometimes your strengths can be your weaknesses.

You don't see Yuvraj grind his way out of tough situations. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has changed from a warrior to a foot soldier, from a murderous batsman to an accumulator, to survive. Not Yuvraj. Death by aggression, by the so-called "natural game", seems his preferred route.

In the recent past you were able almost to predict what would happen to Yuvraj on wickets that offered something to the bowlers. He would make a tiny half-prod forward, misread the length and push the bat tentatively away from the body a few times before breaking free with a clip through the on side. Emboldened, he would then go for the on-the-up flash and perhaps connect once or twice before eventually edging. If he lasted that phase, the spinners would swallow him.

In Australia in the Test series, Yuvraj got out in various ways, caught out by his faulty foot movement: poking outside off to Stuart Clark, going back to a flipper from Brad Hogg, and stabbing at a wide one from Andrew Symonds when India were struggling to get a draw. Only the dismissal in the first innings in Sydney - to a full, swinging delivery from Brett Lee - was against a good ball. In the recent series in Sri Lanka, Yuvraj was even troubled by medium-pacers like Nuwan Kulasekara, caught on the forward prod, before he would be put out of his misery by his nemesis, Ajantha Mendis.

Then there is his party-hearty image, which has led to the public perception - a touch unfair - of him as a player who is not too serious about improving his game. Reports came in during the Asia Cup that the management was not too happy when Yuvraj went out partying with a couple of team-mates.

"I love to party and I have no problems in saying this," Yuvraj said in a recent interview. "As long as it doesn't affect my cricket, I am going to keep doing what I'm doing." Since he is not the only sportsman who likes to have a good time, it's only fair that we take his word for it. In any case, the experts blame his travails on his technical faults and recurring injuries.

Some feel Yuvraj fears that taking time off for surgery and recuperation would be too costly - that other cricketers would rush past him. If that is the case, perhaps the time has now come for him to rethink that position

"He is a talent, no doubt, that's why we have persisted with him, but has he managed to change his game over the years?" a national selector wonders. "Previously if he had already got in and played pace for some time, he wouldn't struggle too much against spin. But now even if he has batted in the middle for some time, he has problems against spin. For that matter, against pace as well, on tracks that do something. He just needs to go back and work hard, rectify the technical faults and get much fitter. The selectors will obviously pick him. He is too talented to be wasted."

Zubin Bharucha, the former Mumbai player who runs the World Cricket Academy in Mumbai, where Test players such as Mark Butcher, Andrew Strauss, and Mark Ramprakash have come to work on their games, worked very briefly with Yuvraj prior to the Sri Lanka series. "Look, Yuvraj takes his right foot out a touch late, and if the ball is slightly shorter than he thinks it will be, the trouble starts," Bharucha says. "The back foot stays on the leg stump, and since he has misread the length he immediately pushes his front foot back towards the leg-stump line to hold balance. In the meanwhile the bat is already starting to come down from the high, loose back-lift and he has no option but to follow the ball, away from the body."

Perhaps not being selected is a blessing in disguise that will give Yuvraj time to work on his problem areas. Simon Katich, the Australian batsman, recently revealed how frustrating - and in hindsight how much of a hindrance - it was when he continued to be in the ODI team when he had problems with his batting. There was no time for him to work out the flaws and he feared that if he relinquished his spot he perhaps would not get it back. Once he was dropped he went back to the drawing board and came back a much better player.

Yuvraj's other major problem is his fitness, especially his dodgy knees. The selector quoted above said Yuvraj wasn't picked because they were not convinced he was fully fit and ready for the challenges ahead. Not just his knees, his shoulder seems to be giving way too. He doesn't throw much from the outfield, and his fielding has lost its sharpness. One even saw him field at mid-on in recent games.

Yuvraj tore the ligament in his left knee during a training session in Mohali during the 2006 Champions Trophy while playing kho-kho, but refused to undergo surgery. Some feel he possibly fears that taking time off for surgery and recuperation would be too costly - that other cricketers will rush past him. If that is the case, perhaps the time has now come for him to rethink that position.

But if his father Yograj Singh's thinking is any indication, Yuvraj might not go under the knife in the near future. "He can do his surgery years later, after his career is over," Yograj said. "There is no urgency now. Everyone goes through bad form.

Zubin Bharucha works on Yuvraj Singh's front-foot technique © World Cricket Academy

"He will be back. Believe me, he is working very hard. He works eight hours every day, doing gymming, swimming and batting practice. Yes, he has some problem with his front foot movement and also the bat is coming down at an angle, but everything will be sorted out soon."

VB Chandrasekhar, the former selector, sees it as a tale of two batsmen. Mohammad Kaif was Yuvraj's captain when India won the Under-19 World Cup in 2000. Kaif made his Test debut that year and Yuvraj played his first ODI game. While Kaif had to wait for two more years to get into the ODI team, Yuvraj had to wait till 2003 to get into the Test team. Both didn't last long in Tests, but Yuvraj surged ahead in ODIs, playing 217 to Kaif's 125.

"Yuvraj was given many chances but he has not latched on to them," Chandrasekhar believes. "He is a talented batsman and I hope he comes back for Test cricket. But it's nice to see Kaif storming back. Perhaps he was given a bit of raw treatment, but he has gone back, worked on his game and is now once again pushing the selectors to pick him." Kaif was recently seen putting in the hard yards at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, working on the position of his front shoulder to help his driving through the off side. It seems to be working for him, as his superb 94 against Australia A bore out.

Yograj is confident that his son, too, will bounce back in style. "It's his destiny that he will play and do well in Test cricket. Sher ka baccha ghaas nahi khata (The son of a lion doesn't eat grass)."

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo