Yuvraj Singh, with his spectacular knock, has cemented his place in the team, fans’ hearts

The second of April, 2011. The greatest day in the history of Indian cricket. A home World Cup win at the Wankhede Stadium in front of a packed house. A MS Dhoni six to seal a brilliant comeback over Sri Lanka. There had been great days before this for Indian cricket, but that win was in an India that was a global cricketing superpower blossoming from its chrysalis into a dominant butterfly.

Dhoni led from the front to seal his status as a legend until the end of the time. Sachin Tendulkar was chaired around the stadium on the shoulders of his adoring teammates in front of his adoring Mumbai public. It is difficult to imagine a moment that will resonate like that sight of a triumphant India on that April night in Mumbai.

At the centre of that final, and the matches that led to it, was Yuvraj Singh. When Dhoni hit that six, Yuvraj was at the other end. He was the Man of the Tournament, batting eight times, getting out in just four, and making 362 runs. That he also took 15 wickets at an average of 25 only further cemented his place in the hearts of Indian cricket fans. The cup may have belonged to Dhoni and Tendulkar, but it was won by Yuvraj.

The difficulty for both Yuvraj, and his supporters, has been his performances since. A cancerous lump on his lung was defeated just as he had dispatched so many bowlers, but he was never quite the same cricketer again after that tournament of tournaments. The Indian management, fans and selectors wanted a Yuvraj that could pull the quick bowlers for a six with a dismissive wristiness, but he was not to be found.

Yuvraj played seven Tests after the 2011 World Cup but, after averaging just 21 in those games, he was left out of the side after the third Test of England’s tour of 2012, and he didn’t ever make it back into the team in that format.

Yuvraj lasted a little while longer in the ODI side, playing 19 matches between April 2011 and December 2013. He scored just 268 runs in those matches, averaging 18.53.

Yuvraj’s career appeared to have ended with his innings in the final of the 2014 World T20. He walked to the crease with the score at 64 for two in the 11th over, he was dismissed in the 19th over having made 11 runs from 21 balls. It was an aberration of an innings, and the figure that Yuvraj cast as he walked from the field having chipped a bad ball straight to long off was in stark contrast to the all-conquering colossus that held the cricketing world, and the World Cup trophy, in his hands in 2011.

Yuvraj was back in the team for the 2016 Asia Cup T20 tournament, and the World T20 in India that immediately followed, but there was little evidence of his return to form. His only score of note in the 15 Twenty20 matches he played at the beginning of 2016 was a 35 made against Sri Lanka in Dhaka. Whatever mystique that had surrounded Yuvraj appeared to have gone, a once shiny penny that brought good luck was now tarnished.

So when Yuvraj was selected for the ODI series against England that began last Sunday, there were some raised eyebrows. Yes, Yuvraj had performed well in the Ranji Trophy, but first-class runs are not the same as limited-overs runs made in international matches. It seemed to be a selection that was made because of nostalgia rather than cricketing sense, although the new ODI captain tried his best to explain it.

Virat Kohli insisted that he wanted Yuvraj back. “We cannot leave so much burden on MS [Dhoni] alone in the middle order,” Kohli said when asked about Yuvraj’s selection. “I am willing to take responsibility up the order, but there needs to be one more guy with him down the order in case the top order doesn’t fire. That’s why I said we brought in Yuvi, to have the best batting combination possible, and Yuvi has had a very good first-class season. This just gives the team much more balance in the middle and lower-middle order with MS and Yuvi.”

This made sense and Kohli was proved right, but still, it seemed a long shot when it was announced. When Yuvraj made a quickfire 15 before edging behind in the first ODI, it seemed to be a botched Hail Mary.

MS Dhoni raises his bat to celebrate scoring fifty runs as Yuvraj Singh looks on in Cuttack ODI. AFP
MS Dhoni raises his bat to celebrate scoring fifty runs as Yuvraj Singh looks on in Cuttack ODI. AFP
Then on Thursday, he rolled back the years. Those flicked pulls in front of square were back. The languid drives down the ground had returned. It was like watching Yuvraj plundering 113 from the West Indies at the 2011 World Cup. It wasn’t as destructive as when he took 36 off a Stuart Broad over in 2007, but it was mightily effective. A lean and fit Yuvraj was playing the best innings he had put together in six years, and the Cuttack crowd were ecstatic to be there to witness it. He reached fifty off 56 balls and brought up his century off 98. He smashed three sixes and caressed 21 fours.

He put on 256 in partnership with Dhoni. It was the first century stand that the two of them had shared since the World Cup final in 2011. If you had been on a cloudy mountain-top in the intervening years with no access to scorecards, you could have been fooled into thinking nothing had changed, that all the struggles that Yuvraj has faced since he bossed the World Cup had been nothing but a fevered dream.

This innings will book Yuvraj a place in the squad for the Champions Trophy in England this summer, and that will be a much sterner test than what he faced in Cuttack, but there was enough of the old Yuvraj to make you think he could well be back. Perhaps not the same player, but one that is fit, driven and capable of dismantling bowling attacks nonetheless. There is not an Indian cricket fan alive that would not wish to see Yuvi back to somewhere close to his best.

The thing is, it won’t really matter if he does or doesn’t make runs. As far as cricket fans in India are concerned Yuvraj could never make another run and his place in their hearts will remain. He will forever be the man of the tournament when India won a home World Cup, but that doesn’t mean they don’t long for more. That dream is well and truly alive.

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