Yuvraj Singh spent the best part of the last year climbing out of a trough. He was dropped from the Test and one-day teams, was struggling with fitness and injury, and found his career crash landing. Had he been younger, Yuvraj once said, he may even have considered giving up the game. Within the course of this last month, he is fast approaching what could become his finest hour as a one-day cricketer. Strangely, that does not even depend on how far the Indian team goes in the World Cup because if India looks around their dressing room to identify its most improved cricketer in 2011, it would have to be him.
If the team were to pick their totem for the kind of cricketer they need as their sport's biggest event goes into its most oxygen-depleting stage, it would also have to be Yuvraj again.
Other than the opening game, every match won by India at this World Cup has featured their heavy-hitting, loose-limbed, floating middle-order man as Man of the Match. Ireland and Holland may not be the strongest of opposition, but without Yuvraj, India would have floundered, both with runs and wickets.
Against West Indies, in the gorgeously renovated Chepauk, India needed an emphatic performance in their last group game, and their 80-run win was led by Yuvraj's first one-day century since July 2009. The century did not contain Yuvraj's signature big shots crashing around the ground like waves on the nearby Marina. It was a slow, long, quiet haul, the hundred buttressed by two dropped catches (at 9 and 13), 45 humble singles, stomach cramps, retching and the dehydrating demands of an intestinal bug.
In the latter half of his innings, Yuvraj began to squat on his haunches; the hardships focussed his mind to a point where he found a way to push on. Two sixes in 123 balls is docile by his standards, but he clung onto the big picture: bat till the end.
It meant keeping the ball on the ground and making the most of having come in at No. 4. "I wanted to get to the 100 mark because this was the opportunity, batting at no. 4," he said afterwards. He began his media conference by sinking an entire bottle of Gatorade down his throat, and then making wisecracks. At No. 5, Yuvraj said, he never faced enough deliveries to hit his way to three-figures. "I just wanted to bat till the end today ... I just wanted to get to the 100 mark, because it's been a while."
Yuvraj must look around the dressing room and realise that, in this World Cup, it has been an alarming while since India's middle order has showed up as a collective unit that can build from his singular performances in the tournament. With Sachin Tendulkar walking off early and Virender Sehwag sitting out the West Indies match due to a nagging knee injury, this was the best stage for the next clutch of batsmen - Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and the captain MS Dhoni himself - to treat this particular game as a stage on which to make a statement, rather than merely show off their skill.
The batting order suited everyone in the line-up; the team didn't have to choose between Raina and Yusuf Pathan in the XI, Gambhir could open, and Kohli could bat at No. 3 and have 49 overs in which to "express" himself. Kohli's two-hour innings, in which he scored 59 off 76 balls, was promising. He built a 122-run partnership in which he gave Yuvraj large swathes of the strike. Yet Kohli's departure, caused by a missed attempt at a cross-batted shot against the probing and incisive Ravi Rampaul, with 18 overs left to play and his older partner visibly struggling, was a moment that makes coaches want to bang their heads in bathrooms.
Ever since they battered Bangladesh's bowling attack in Mirpur, India seems to have picked the 40th over as the moment their line-up must go down in spectacular flames. In Mirpur, they added 94 in their last 10 overs for the loss of two wickets. After returning home though, they have gone in the opposite direction. In Bangalore against England, India scored 91 runs for the loss of seven wickets from the 40th to the innings close; against South Africa, they managed 28 for 8, and against West Indies, on Sunday, they got 56 for 7.
In the previous three matches, it was believed India had taken the batting Powerplay too early; they took it from the 35th to the 39th over against Bangladesh, from 37 to 41 against England, and 39 to 43 against South Africa. Against West Indies, they left it for the very end, and still it trapped them, as they failed to bat out their full quota of overs. Little appeared to have changed since the weeks post Mirpur, yet one thing did: for the first time since the first match of the World Cup, India won big.
Their flailing middle order must now realise they have run out of all room for what the tennis folk call unforced errors. Yuvraj was replying to a question about crowd support, but produced what could be a handy dressing room speech to his middle-order partners going into the knockout phase. "You are playing the World Cup quarter-finals for your country. This is the moment of your life. This is the moment you live for as a cricketer."
During his annus horribilius, he said he had hung onto an idea: that tough people outlast tough times. Well, at least now the batting around Yuvraj knows what they need to do to push this team through the World Cup. Be like him. Keep hanging tougher.