India v New Zealand, 1st ODI, Dambulla August 9, 2010

Time for Yuvraj to turn the clock back

The tri-series is Yuvraj Singh's first chance to steer the focus back to his cricket, away from the fitness issues, away from Page 3

At his best in limited-overs matches, Yuvraj Singh gives Indian fans and the dressing room a feeling of assurance few others can, and that is the reason he is integral to the country's dreams of a World Cup victory at home.

A case in point is India's ill-fated campaign to defend their World Twenty20 crown in 2009. Having entered the tournament as one of the hot favourites, with the country's love affair with the newest format burgeoning, India were staring at a humiliating early elimination during the second Super Eights game against England at Lord's. The top-order was floundering to a bouncer barrage and after the youngsters, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma, fell cheaply, Gautam Gambhir and Ravindra Jadeja poked and plodded at one-day pace. With the asking rate touching double-digits and the title defence in tatters, Yuvraj walked out in the 11th over and gloriously lofted his first ball for a huge six, the first of the innings. There was another nonchalant hit for six more before a brilliant, quicksilver stumping from James Foster ended his 14-minute stay. India went on to lose but for those 14 minutes, irrespective of the odds, fans believed victory was possible.

That is where Yuvraj towers over the gaggle of youngsters with whom he is now jostling for a middle-order berth. He has always been a man for the big occasion, whether it was the dazzling 84 in his first one-day innings after a top-order collapse against Steve Waugh's Australians, the star-making turn in the NatWest series final in 2002 or the jaw-dropping 70 off 30 balls in a take-no-prisoners semi-final against Australia in the inaugural World Twenty20.

There hasn't been any addition to that highlights reel in 2010. A spate of injuries, a ballooning waistline, indifferent form and those never-too-far-away questions about his attitude culminated in his axing from the one-day side for the Asia Cup. That was meant to chasten a man who had perhaps taken for granted a spot in the ODI middle order after eight years of being a guaranteed starter. And it left Yuvraj in the peculiar situation of being in the Test side and out of the one-day team.

Ahead of the Test series against Sri Lanka, he spoke of the tough training his father put him through as part of a bid to regain full fitness. It seemed to have paid off as Yuvraj, more streamlined than the butt-of-all-jokes who turned up in the IPL, started with a flawless century in the tour game against Sri Lanka Board President's XI and followed it up with a brisk 52 under pressure in the first Test.

It started to unravel again when flu forced him to miss the second Test. Raina grabbed his chance to make a debut hundred that ensured the match was a draw and elbow out Yuvraj, bringing an end to his first extended run as a Test starter in a decade of trying. And, to make things worse, he responded to taunts from visibly drunk fans provoking a flurry of unflattering headlines which reinforced the impression of Yuvraj the brat.

The tri-series is his first chance to steer the focus back to his cricket, away from the fitness issues, away from Page 3. It is his first chance to remind us of the man whom MS Dhoni calls "the main strength of our middle order". It is his first chance to add to that highlight reel.

As the most experienced player in the line-up, Yuvraj remains the proven performer India need in a middle order in which several players still have the learner's wheels. It's a middle order that looks particularly shaky if there is an injury to Dhoni, who has managed to so far steer clear of fitness troubles despite playing the triple role of wicketkeeper, key batsman and captain. It's a trick Yuvraj will love to learn after an injury-filled year.

Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo