Years from now, when people think of Yusuf Pathan's maiden one-day century, they are unlikely to remember much more than the sheer brutality of it all. Yet, there was so much more to the innings than the clinical straight-hitting, which admittedly was in a league of its own. A batsman's response when his weaknesses are targeted can say a lot about his state of mind. While Yusuf dismantled New Zealand when they served him freebies in his hitting areas, the clarity he showed when tested with the short ball was even more telling.
Dead rubber or not, there was a lot riding on this for Yusuf when he came out to join Rohit Sharma in what was turning into a shoot-out between the two to stay in the hunt for a full-time middle-order spot. India required 208 off 183 - not the situation cut out for a batsman termed a fifth-gear slogger who cannot handle the bouncer.
It is a reputation that has tagged Yusuf for a while now. After losing favour following the tri-series in Zimbabwe, he returned to domestic cricket and did what came naturally to him - he flayed India's local attacks in all formats. The manner in which he scored his runs - 195 off 138 balls in a Ranji game, 89 off 42 to lift a derailed Twenty20 chase, and a 63 off 30 in the Challenger Trophy - did not help his cause as much as reinforce the tag of flat-track bully. Had he been putting his front foot forward and tucking into over-pitched deliveries, or had he found a way past the short stuff? He got his chance to address that question today.
It helped Yusuf that he checked in against spin, before facing the trial-by-bounce. Daniel Vettori tried trapping him with arm-balls, getting the odd delivery to skid in with the late-evening dew. Nathan McCullum was flighting his offbreaks, asking to be lofted over a vacant long-on. But Yusuf resisted the bait. He began with measured dabs on either side of the wicket, picking Vettori's variations from the pitch and reaching out to deal with McCullum. By the 25th over, he had quietly moved to 8 off 13 balls, before Vettori brought back the seamers.
Andy McKay, New Zealand's fastest bowler, came on and square-leg was pushed back to the boundary. McKay's third ball to Yusuf was a slow bouncer, which he spotted early but chose to let go. Two balls later it came again. McKay's left-arm, around-the-wicket angle, at around 140 kph, makes the bouncer a tough delivery for any right-handed batsman. Six months ago, Yusuf would have pressed forward looking for the drive, before arresting his momentum and getting into a tangled attempt at a pull without transferring his weight back. No such confusion this time: he stayed put with a more balanced and crouched stance at the crease, and ducked under it with intent.
McKay tried it again in the 30th over, and having warmed up to the chase by now with a flat six off Vettori, Yusuf took on the challenge. He was, however beaten by the pace and failed to make contact with the pull. Yusuf's reaction gave nothing away - no self-admonishing, no air-practice to perfect the shot - he just stood his ground and looked down the track as McKay's follow-through ended closer to the batting crease than normal. The next ball was pitched up, the surprise delivery to catch the batsman waiting on the backfoot for another bumper, but Yusuf knew the two-card trick was being played, and lofted it cleanly over mid-off.
Rohit departed, the rains came down and broke play for an hour with India needing 113 from 14 overs. While Saurabh Tiwary fidgeted around with nervous energy, one could sense calmness in the way Yusuf faced up to a few throwdowns before play resumed.
Vettori's first ball on resumption was launched over long-on, bringing up Yusuf's half-century. In the 39th over, he asked for the batting Powerplay, and flexed his muscles by depositing the fifth ball of Kyle Mills' over, over the roof behind wide long-on. Tim Southee tested him with fuller lengths and three quiet overs ensued, as Yusuf played out incisive yorker after yorker without panicking. In the 43rd over, he made up for lost time, swinging Mills' shoddy lengths for 21 runs through the leg-side. India moved ahead of the D/L par-score, and from there it was a canter to victory, despite Tiwary's scratchiness at the other end.
Fittingly enough, the century came off a McKay bouncer that was dispatched over wide long-on. It angled in sharply from wide of off stump, and Yusuf moved back and across, without lunging forward as he once used to. The crack of the ball pinging the meat of the swinging blade gave way to warm applause from a crowd that had earned its treat for having waited through the rains. Yusuf threw his arms up and soaked in the moment. It is a shot that will be replayed several times in India in days to come. It is the shot of a man who had stared his biggest challenge in the face and found a way to deal with it.