Yuvraj and Dhoni produce a sequel for the ages
Some of India's finest wins have come with Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni in harness at the crease. At Cuttack they rolled back the years to extraordinary effect
It's the kind of script filmmakers write to earn big bucks from box-office collections. It's how sequels are often written, only to ride on the success of the original. To offer the viewers for the second, third, or nth time a glimpse of what they've relished in the past, maybe many years ago. To ride only that wave of nostalgia.
Hordes of Indian fans - wearing India jerseys with 'Virat' on the back - thronged the Barabati Stadium on Thursday to witness what they hoped would be another such sequel. Another hundred from Virat Kohli, another thrilling chase in India's favour.
The first familiar sight they witnessed wasn't one that they could relish - Chris Woakes' incisive opening spell that stifled India's top order on a small ground and a flat pitch. The difference, though, was Kohli's early return to the pavilion after facing five deliveries.
India were 25 for 3 when MS Dhoni joined Yuvraj Singh. What are they doing in this sequel? One is back in the squad only to add experience in the middle order ahead of the Champions Trophy; the other wants to bat more freely after relinquishing the captaincy.
Yuvraj had shown glimpses of his scintillating timing in the first warm-up in Mumbai and from the second ball he had faced in the first ODI - pulling a short one over the midwicket boundary. On Thursday, there was no deep midwicket when he faced Jake Ball in the eighth over. A flick off the pads, a pull from outside off and a wristy flick fetched him three fours. Was he back? Hang on, he was only just beginning.
Dhoni, at the other end, absorbed Woakes' penetrative spell. He blocked the straight ball, he left plenty outside off and saw off two maidens before Woakes was taken off. This was not what the fans had come to watch.
But it was a flat pitch with a quick outfield. Loose deliveries would come eventually. Bowlers would have to change. In the 11th over, Yuvraj twice drove Liam Plunkett - stylish and clean hitting all along the ground. He was scoring at more than run a ball. Was he back? Shhh!
In the background, where he often hogs space, Dhoni was playing out dots and picking off the odd boundary. Finally, he unfurled a scything cut over point and the ball reached the fence before the fielder's neck could turn.
The pair were winding the clock back. Any fans who had bought ice creams on this hot day to cool themselves after Kohli's dismissal soon found them melting into their hands. Two old friends were catching up on old times in mesmerising fashion. No-one dared blink.
When, in the 17th over, Yuvraj squirted a single down to third man to bring up their fifty stand, it was their first as a partnership since the 2011 World Cup final. Oh, nostalgia! On came the spin of Moeen Ali, out stepped Dhoni to hammer a drive straight past the bowler for four. Ben Stokes offered room time and again; Yuvraj, in his vintage style, lofted him over long-off with a high elbow for a spectacular six, staying still at the end of the followthrough with his eyes tracing the path of the ball. He had crossed fifty.
Rohit Sharma tweeted: "Yuvraj and Dhoni looking good out in the middle. Are we in for a vintage Dhoni/Yuvi partnership". The stand went past 100, the pair exchanged glove-punches, just as they have done numerous times in the past.
Memories came swarming back - how the pair had aced chases against Pakistan back in 2006 and again in 2007, the same year in which Yuvraj had clubbed six sixes in an over in the inaugural World T20 and Dhoni had cheered him with a beaming smile from the non-striker's end. In 2011, when Dhoni pinged the winning six in the World Cup final, Yuvraj held his arms high at the non-striker's end.
"We always have been batting together since he started his career," Yuvraj said after the match. "Mahi and me have played a lot of games for India. The camaraderie is always there. I think we have a lot of understanding when we bat together. Running between the wickets is always good. I hope it works in the future as well."
Yuvraj's century was his first since that 2011 World Cup, against West Indies in Chennai, and yes, Dhoni had been there to congratulate him at the other end on that occasion too.
He completed the single and celebrated - no Warner-esque leap, no vehement emotion like the old times. He simply opened his arms and looked to the heavens, almost in slow motion, as if he wanted to pause the match there and soak it in for a few minutes.
A hundred after nearly six years. Oh, nostalgia! He finally removed his helmet; he was wearing a bandana, and a beard too. No, it was not the old Yuvraj. This version looked like an old warrior returning to unfinished business, à la Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. Some stories don't need a sequel.
"It feels great, it's been a while since I got a hundred," he said. "I came back after recovering from cancer, the first two-three years were very hard. There was a time when I was wondering whether to continue or not to continue. I think a lot of people have helped me throughout this journey. So, never giving up is my theory. So I never gave up, kept working hard.
"Self-confidence is always there when you have the backing of the team and captain. I think Virat has shown a lot of trust in me and it was very important for me that people in the dressing room trust me. I've been batting well in the domestic season. And I've been hitting the ball really well. I wanted to make it big on my day."
In this age of reverse sweeps, switch hits, scoops and 360-degree batting, Yuvraj and Dhoni brought out their vintage shots one after the other. They were doing it after watching their team-mates, who have flourished under Yuvraj and Dhoni, walk back for low scores, but this was a demonstration of how to restore hope.
Ten years previously, the pair had instilled belief in India's line-up that totals of 280 to 300 were chaseable; now they were showing how 350-plus totals could be made from 25 for 3. Yuvraj was belting boundaries off short balls, so often his nemesis in the past. Not today, because England's bowlers were not cramping him up for room; most of the deliveries were outside off or too much on leg, helping him open his arms and swing the bat the way he loves.
Before long, Yuvraj was using his straight and sponsor-less bat to drill a flat six over long-off. He had bettered his career-best ODI score with those classic shots. It is as if memories of him batting in his prime had been waiting all these years for that one day when they could all flood the minds of Indian fans again. And so they did; the crowd was going berserk, Kohli had been forgotten. Emotional tweets started popping up from old team-mates and former opposition players, in both awe and praise.
Three overs later, Dhoni clubbed a full toss high into the Cuttack sky. Would it sail over the boundary? No, it smacked into the Spidercam, the crowd let out an "ohhhh" as dead ball was called. Had it been a six, it would have taken him to 99. No problem, one ball later, he opened up to smite the ball high to the top-most stand over long-on in typical Dhoni style. It is reminiscent of his six to win India the World Cup final. We are familiar with this warrior too, à la Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
Both men fell in the last 10 overs of India's innings. But had they been dismissed in the first 10, critics would have questioned what Yuvraj was doing in a side that needed youngsters, and why Dhoni was still taking up a place in the XI, despite being unsure about playing the next World Cup.
But then, who wallows in nostalgia while watching a sequel with new protagonists?
Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo