Yuvraj Singh's return to India's limited-overs side has proved to be triumphant. He made his highest ODI score, in Cuttack, and in the process took India from the peril of 25 for 3 to the safety of 281 for 4.
It is tempting to conclude, based on this effort, that the selectors have been proved right. But this would be just another side of the fallacy holds that, had Yuvraj failed in all three games, the selectors would have been proved wrong. The merit of a selectorial decision does not depend on the player's performance over a single series; perhaps not even over a year.
Selection is a thankless job. It involves expert judgement, which can be difficult to write about, because the inner logic that produces it is often inaccessible to a non-specialist audience. Journalists do not have systematic access to a selection committee meeting. There is no tradition of transcripts or minutes being published. As such, it is difficult to coherently argue the merits of a selection committee's decisions. Beyond the words of the chairman in the press conference and the odd leak or whisper, all one has to go on is the little other information that is publicly available. As a result, it is difficult to write intelligently about selection decisions. This should it make more difficult, not less, for writers to argue that the selectors made dumb choices.
Coming back to Yuvraj, why might the selectors have picked the 35-year-old this year? When asked, they pointed to his improved domestic form this season, especially his multiple long innings in the Ranji Trophy. The long innings also signal match fitness, which, given his recent battle with cancer, is a tremendous achievement in itself.
The counterpoint is that there are plenty of promising younger batsmen available. Given Rohit Sharma's injuries, and the fact that Ajinkya Rahane's and Shikhar Dhawan's place in the XI is not undisputed, Karun Nair, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, and even Shreyas Iyer might represent more fruitful long-term investments.
There is one possible explanation for Yuvraj's selection.
ODI cricket has changed in the last few years, with fielding restrictions and the use of two new balls decimating bowlers. Consider the first two India v England ODIs. At most, they featured four bowlers who have demonstrated sufficient skill to be considered specialist international-class bowlers - R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Chris Woakes. The remaining overs were bowled by journeymen, picked as much for their ability to hit the ball hard. This is not surprising. Why would teams pick specialist bowlers when the rules are designed to constrain them for nearly all 50 overs of the innings? ODIs are gradually being transformed into elongated T20 contests.
Given these developments, teams are being built accordingly. It is a lesson England learnt after the 2015 World Cup. One essential skill in a contemporary ODI team is power-hitting in the middle order. India lacked this muscle from positions four to eight in the last World Cup. They have also lacked it since. The result is that after nearly a decade of great success, India have lost more games than they have won against teams other than Zimbabwe since the World Cup.
The table below shows the record of each team against the top nine Test-playing opponents (excluding Zimbabwe) in batting positions four through eight since the 2015 World Cup. India have been unable to compete with the top teams when it comes to middle-order power (or the ability to score boundaries). Further, elementary arithmetic (and small grounds) shows that scampering twos and threes cannot adequately substitute sustained power-hitting capability throughout the middle order.
A trade-off has to be made to achieve these hitting results. In exchange for power-hitting, one has to be willing to concede that teams will occasionally collapse. Batsmen who score quickly also get out more frequently. Unless one can find a truly elite batsman who can hit the ball hard when needed and who has the technical skill to build innings when required, it is probably a better idea to pack the middle order with power-hitters than with batsmen. The power-hitters will lose many games, but they will also win many.
Yuvraj's limited-overs record tells us that he's an exceptional power-hitter. He can reach or clear the boundary as well as MS Dhoni does. The table below shows the records of all Indian batsmen in batting positions four through eight since Rahul Dravid took over the captaincy in 2005. That was the beginning of India's successful run as an ODI side. Rohit, Rahane and Virat Kohli have unsurprisingly been preferred at the top of the order (Nos. 1, 2, 3).
Yuvraj has been not just the top middle-order power batsman in India over the last dozen years, he's been one of the two or three top bats in the world during this period. The table below shows all such players who have made at least 2000 career runs batting from Nos. 4 to 8 in the last dozen years.
Yusuf Pathan, Shahid Afridi and Jos Buttler present an interesting sub-category within this group. If you bring the qualification mark down to 1000 runs, several other players of this type are evident in contemporary ODI middle orders. These are players who get out more frequently but also score boundaries more frequently.
These players also present a different trade-off. They usually end up taking the place of specialist bowlers in the XI. Instead of playing four specialist bowlers and two allrounders, teams are increasingly willing to play two specialist bowlers and four allrounders. This is a gamble India have been (rightly) unwilling to take. It would involve selecting power-hitters who can bowl a bit in place of R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja (or both), which would weaken the bowling.
India have been looking for an elite, middle-order power batsman to play alongside Dhoni. They have also been looking for an able replacement for Yusuf - a player in the mould of Glenn Maxwell or Corey Anderson or Buttler.
In Yuvraj, they have one of the greatest middle-order power bats in the limited-overs game in the last dozen years. If the selectors were convinced that Yuvraj's game and physical preparation were close to what they were before his illness, then, given the Champions Trophy is in June this year, it was a no-brainer to try him out in this short series against England.
The preference for the 31-year-old Jadhav ahead of Ambati Rayudu (also 31), Rahane and Pandey is another sign that India are looking for power in the middle order without opting for the bits-and-pieces power-hitter. If India can find a bowler who can bowl as well as, say, James Faulkner, while being capable of hitting the long ball, they'll probably pick him. On flat pitches Hardik Pandya's bowling (like that of Ben Stokes for England) is probably too great a liability, but he is perhaps currently India's best available player of this type.
Happily for the Indian selectors, Yuvraj vindicated their faith almost immediately. But even if he hadn't, the argument I've made here would still have just as much merit. If he's near his best preparation, Yuvraj gives India additional power-hitting capacity in the middle order without requiring them to sacrifice their two best spinners and without them losing depth in the middle order.