An hour after Sachin Tendulkar slapped one past point to sew up the Kotla Test, Yuvraj Singh walked out to the middle. Hardly anyone was left in the stands and only a few cameramen and officials watched his stint. Facing a group of net bowlers, one of whom tried his best to imitate Shoaib Akhtar, he went about pounding the netting. The fury in some of those shots was indicative of how hard he's knocking on the doors of selection.
By just being around, he's keeping an entire batting line-up, a selection committee, and a media contingent on its toes. His name has come up in four of the six press conferences here. Before the game he was being talked about as a replacement for VVS Laxman, now he's being linked to Dinesh Karthik. Often he's also giving Sourav Ganguly a run. At the danger of giving him too much credit, he's obliquely contributing towards a consistent batting effort, match after match.
Ganguly and Laxman, though, must be a bit confused. One has reinvented himself over the last year and the other played his part in a quiet, efficient manner. Both have come through high-pressure situations, dealing with it in an assured manner. Ganguly has silenced those who doubted his ability against pace and Laxman has done the same against swing. Both have eked out runs with the tail, both have kept out the second new ball and both have, crucially, played out important final sessions. Ganguly has four fifties and a hundred in his last eight Tests; Laxman five fifties and a hundred in his last ten.
The Kotla Test was a case in point. If Laxman blunted the Shoaib threat in the first innings, Ganguly did the same in the second. If Laxman appeared far more comfortable than any batsman in the first dig, Ganguly occupied that slot in the second. Both walked in amid a collapse and, in contrasting styles, calmed the nerves. Both didn't hesitate to play their shots. They made some important contributions on the field too: Laxman plucking a sensational catch to break Pakistan's dangerous opening partnership and Ganguly having one of his best Tests with the ball.
Before the game, Kumble made it clear that Laxman would play. At the end of it, having seen his decision justified, he didn't understand the fuss. "I think Laxman's knock was very crucial considering the circumstances. He's a fantastic player and his partnership with Dhoni was very critical for us. I don't know why there is always a sword hanging over his head. It's only a perception from those not within the dressing room. We [the team] know what quality he brings in and his role in the team is very crucial."
Laxman's value is probably forgotten because of the long gaps between Test series. One-day performances are usually enough to make you a superstar and it doesn't help that Laxman leads a distinct double-life - one in the Test arena and another in the quiet confines of first-class cricket. Others may soon find themselves in his position, considering that half of India's Test squad don't play one-day matches.
Karthik, however absurd it sounds, seems to be the new one on the chopping block. He was the only batsman to not make a mark and the highs of the England series, when he cracked 263 runs at 43.9, suddenly seem a distant memory. Kumble, though, brushed aside any such suggestions. "He just missed out here," he said. "His contribution on the field was important - he took the crucial catch and effected the run-out [both off Misbah-ul-Haq]. He was the highest run-scorer in the last Test series and it's not fair on anyone to be judged on two innings."
India triumph in England was built on a slew of partnerships and they'll be heartened that the trend continued here. Not only do they have a batting line-up responding as a team but also a stand-by who's pushing everyone that little bit harder.