Two left-hand batsmen, two diverse career paths, one partnership. Within a week, India will truly understand just how far Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina took them in this World Cup. On Thursday night, Yuvraj and Raina left Motera like the man they have named its cricket ground after. They were their team's iron men who held up against the driving will of four-time world champions Australia and at the Sardar Patel stadium, lifted their team into the World Cup semi-final.
Their partnership and its significance resonated well after everyone inside Motera had left; the two exhausted and emotionally-spent teams and the 42,000-odd spectators who produced a monstrous wave of sound and support for the Indians. The pigeons who reside in the stadium roof burst into rounds of startled night flight over the cricketers below them as Yuvraj and Raina gave wings to India's World Cup aspirations. Despite four fifties and a century in the match, their sixth-wicket stand of 74 over 10.1 overs was the highest of the game.
Before this World Cup, Yuvraj had been dogged by injury and poor form, his image as a cricketer tattered and taunted at. At the same time, Suresh Raina seceded the young batting tyro spot to Virat Kohli, and was on the verge of finding himself regularly edged out of the Indian World Cup XI due to the power-hitting gifts of Yusuf Pathan. He, first stepped into the team only for the last group game in Chennai, an injury to Virender Sehwag settling that debate for one night. The Raina for Pathan swap in Ahmedabad had been, Dhoni said, because "Raina is technically better and we were keen on batting 50 overs." Raina rested his own case with emphasis on Thursday night.
When he arrived at the crease, there were 12.3 overs left in which India needed 74 more runs with five wickets remaining. It looked reasonable but a clutch of middle-order wickets - Gautam Gambhir was goofishly run-out, Virat Kohli hit a full toss right into Michael Clarke's hands and Dhoni cut Brett Lee in his second spell straight to point - had brought about a rumbling of anxiety. One more wicket and the tail was exposed. One more mistake and India could say good bye to its World Cup. These were not Associates nor main line underperformers, these were the monstrous Australians, non-stop World Cup winners for 12 years, men capable of ripping throats to extract victory.
At the other end, Yuvraj watched with alarm as Lee's stinging wicket maiden sent Dhoni back. It was, he said afterwards, "a bit of a shock" to lose a trusted partner. It was his ever-growing World Cup equanimity, that had him coolly set about making new calculations. "I just thought that if I could have a 30-40 run partnership with Suresh, we can take it till the end," Yuvraj said.
Through this World Cup, Yuvraj has remained the fulcrum of India's batting; the centre who has held it together through top-order wobbles and Powerplay collapses. He told Raina to ignore the climbing asking rate and take his time. "I told him I know we are chasing a run-rate of six, but play a few balls, see what is happening around and let us get a 20-30 run partnership."
Raina began his innings with three dot balls from Lee's wicket maiden and the bowlers were shown respect in four of the next 11 balls. In the first half of his 28 ball innings, Raina was made to play seven of his eight dot balls. Once the frugal few were out of the way, he did his best to rotate strike for Yuvraj and put his head above water, to pounce on anything slightly lenient by the bowling.
It was as if using the drib-drab philosophy of these two partners is what broke Australia and its ambitions down. The fielding still stayed committed but the backups began to get wayward, bodies were flung in the direction of the ball but the throws began to return to the centre of the wicket. Ricky Ponting called his two 6th wicket adversaries, "terrific." Their control of their innings, he said, "didn't allow us back in the game." It was a typical Raina innings, as support cast to senior colleague, but what made it exceptional was where it had materialised. In a World Cup knock out game against a high quality opposition. Men of lesser will could have melted.
Again, it was Raina who broke free the spell of the Brett Lee wicket maiden with a muscular pull to the boundary in his very next over. Two balls later Yuvraj stepped in with two boundaries to attack the rhythm and confidence of the opposition's leading strike bowler. It is perhaps 40th over that actually established that the match was now India's for the taking.
Yuvraj said Raina had a run of average games earlier but Thursday's performance, "showed Suresh's nerve in a very crucial stage.That must have given him a lot of confidence," Raina on Thursday was more than second fiddle to an older partner. He was a more than handy decoy for diverting the aggressive attention of the bowlers. In Ahmedabad, Raina was the perfect foil to Yuvraj's epee. The senior man laid out for his younger colleague the manner in which to lead a chase, by breaking it down to a simple instruction, to stay grounded. The ball on terra firma, the eyes focussed on the next clutch of runs, to obliterate panic through partnership.
When Yuvraj crossed his fifty, there was no bat-stabbing at those sitting outside the dressing room. He just put his head down and crossed over to his crease because his job was not actually over. When it did end, close to 11pm, the winning runs were manufactured by a flashy, lofted cover drive over the infield. He then broke free, pulled out a football-style slide on the turf and let himself roar. Raina sprinted across the length of the pitch and leapt into his arms, the PA system began playing thumping celebratory music and the ground began to reverberate.
This partnership will entrench iself in India's ODI folklore. It will be remembered alongside other stands like Ganguly-Dravid in Taunton, in the 1999 World Cup, or Yuvraj-Kaif in the 2002 Natwest Trophy final or Dravid-Yuvraj in the 2003 World Cup game against Pakistan in Centurion. Yuvraj's presence in three of India's most memorable one-day stands has already set him aside to be thought of, according to Sanjay Manjrekar, as "one of the all time greats in 50 overs cricket." If Raina pays close attention, he may be able to understand what it takes to get that far.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo