When Rohit Sharma was given run-out and Yuvraj Singh replaced him in India's Champions Trophy match against Pakistan, it felt like a flashback. Yuvraj has been around so long, he carries the past to the crease when he walks out to bat. A bit like MS Dhoni; so literally has Virat Kohli remade this team in his image -- all those kohlibeards -- that a clean-shaven Dhoni behind the stumps comes as a shock, like a ghost from another time, with gloves on.
Dhoni and Yuvraj are both 35 (Dhoni is fractionally older) but it's Yuvraj who is swaddled with the aura of another era. This is partly down to the fact that his struggle with cancer and a dip in form saw him disappear from the international stage for four long years. But it's also because he has been playing for longer than Dhoni has; his career is as old as this century.
I watched him at Lord's 15 years ago to the month, winning the second match of the Natwest Series for India in heroic style. I had spent the morning on a train, riding up to London, so by the time I got on the bus the match had begun. It didn't help that Lord's was a couple of miles from the nearest bus stop, obscurely called Swiss Cottage. I got to the ground two hours into the match to find England disastrously well placed: 200 and a few for three with 12 overs to go.
Yuvraj strangled the England innings in the closing overs and took three wickets to keep the score down to 271, and then, in partnership with Rahul Dravid, smacked Matthew Hoggard and Co all over that strange tilted ground to make the target with more than an over in hand. He was a magnificent prospect: a useful left-arm spinner, electric-heeled in the field, who batted like Bheem padded up. Yuvraj and Mohammad Kaif seemed like the future of Indian cricket.
That wasn't to be. Kaif never quite made the grade at the highest level, and it wasn't in Yuvraj's nature to be a constant star; he has been India's limited-overs comet, blazing trails of glory in between disappearing from the night sky. But here he was, ten years after he last played an ODI in England, having missed the two warm-up games because of a fever, walking out to play the first match of a big tournament against the old enemy.
The openers had built a big platform, then Kohli helped Rohit get the score up to 192 before the opener was unluckily run out. India were comfortably placed, but thanks to rain breaks and an initially subdued performance from Kohli, there was a danger that the 300-plus score that seemed certain earlier, was slipping from India's grasp. The innings needed velocity. Enter Yuvraj.
There are sporting moments that seem scripted by a higher power but it wasn't clear that this late-model buccaneer was up to reprising the star turns he had played in the past. Wahab Riaz made him hop with a short one that he played down uncomfortably, and then whistled one past his head at 92mph. Nobody likes fast bouncers and Yuvraj likes them less than most. Then Wahab pitched one up and Yuvraj reflexively played his patented flick through midwicket for four.
The turning point of the innings came immediately afterwards, against the excellent young legspinner, Shadab Khan, who had already troubled the top order with a hard-to-pick googly. He bowled another one, temptingly tossed up, and Yuvraj went for it. He pranced down the pitch, planted his front foot and swung, aiming for the stands beyond the straight boundary. He was beaten in flight, done by the turn and managed only to lift it into the hands of the mid-off fielder… who dropped it.
"Yuvraj, more than any batsman I've seen, lives to perform, to strut his stuff, to make crowds gasp and people respond to that. He's a latter-day Salim Durani"
After this it was a vintage Yuvraj innings, which is not to say that it was perfect, because then it wouldn't be a vintage Yuvraj innings. Wahab tested him with a fast bouncer again and Yuvraj, in Ricky Ponting's words, "pull-ducked": he swished at the ball and tried to get out of its way all at once. Even as the commentators speculated about Wahab pitching one up after having unsettled Yuvraj with the bouncer, the bowler decided that his killer ball would be a slow long hop outside the off stump. Yuvraj, who had taken the precaution of backing away, gratefully extended his arms and smeared it through cover for four. The die was cast.
Mohammad Amir, Pakistan's best fast bowler, decided to test Yuvraj with a slow bouncer for reasons best known to him. Yuvraj, weeping with joy inside though grim without, swatted it through midwicket for four. When he inside-edged Hasan Ali behind the wicketkeeper for four, he knew it was his day. The next time Ali pitched it up, he hit him straight so hard it should have set the turf on fire. Upon which Ali decided to bounce him.
Yuvraj likes medium-paced bouncers; it's not the short ball that bothers him; it is the fast short ball. He was waiting for it. There's no sight in cricket that thrills the desi fan more than Yuvraj standing tall, swivelling and whaling the ball deep into the square-leg stands. He was off. His captain said that Yuvraj was hitting the ball so well, he felt like a club cricketer at the non-striker's end. That straight drive off Hasan Ali was Yuvraj summed up in a single shot: a flamboyant backlift and no follow-through at all; the bat stopped at the point of impact and the ball raced to the boundary.
It wasn't a long innings - 53 runs off 32 balls - but it was enough to win him the Man-of-the-Match award despite the fact that he had been outscored by Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli. I think he won it because Yuvraj, more than any batsman I've seen, lives to perform, to strut his stuff, to make crowds gasp and people respond to that. He's a latter-day Salim Durani. It's a low-percentage, high-wire act and when it comes off, we are seduced both by his neediness and his heroics.
He has played for India for over 17 years now and won everything there is to win in the limited-overs game: that NatWest Trophy, the inaugural 2007 World T20, and above all, the 2011 World Cup. He didn't win his medals anonymously, by being part of a powerful squad; no, he left his mark on all those tournaments. He won four Man-of-the-Match awards on the way to the World Cup final and he was the player of the tournament. But for me and many of his admirers, the Everest of his long career was that over in South Africa where he hit a young Stuart Broad (who used to look like Little Lord Fauntleroy on stilts) for six sixes.
Two sixes into the over, the camera focused on Yuvraj's face and every desi watching realized that the loon was going to go for it. Supporting a team in a big match is a kind of madness, a junoon, and what we saw in his eyes was an answering insanity. The third six went over extra cover, the fourth over backward point, and the fifth and sixth over square leg and midwicket, but where they went didn't matter; it was enough that he had been crazed enough to try. That's the excitement that Yuvraj will be remembered for, well after more organised batsmen with better records are forgotten. He isn't as sprightly as he used to be, but he has survived bouncers and cancer, and when he walks out to bat his eyes still glint with arena madness, that promise that he might set the place on fire again.