Just over two weeks ago, M.S. Dhoni resigned from limited-overs captaincy and Virat Kohli assumed charge. The latter would have been forgiven for thinking that he had inherited a messy One Day International (ODI) batting line-up.
A lack of clarity over first-choice openers, the debate over Dhoni’s spot, and the middle order in a muddle—things looked in bad shape with only three matches, against England, to go before the Champions Trophy in June.
For the better part of two years, the Indian team management has experimented with different players to bat around Dhoni, thus allowing him to move higher up the order. Gurkeerat Mann and Rishi Dhawan failed the test in Australia (2016), but Manish Pandey made a case for himself with a maiden ODI hundred in Sydney.
Indian cricket doesn’t easily fix what isn’t broken, and Pandey got a prolonged opportunity in the five ODIs against New Zealand in October. However, his scores—76 runs in five matches—weren’t enough as Dhoni finished with a narrow 3-2 win in his last series in charge. As such, when the team for this recently concluded ODI series against England (which India won 2-1) was announced, Yuvraj Singh was the surprising inclusion.
“We should appreciate the way he (Yuvraj Singh) has played in domestic cricket,” said chief selector M.S.K. Prasad, without explaining whether this was a short-term move or not.
Singh had notched up 672 runs in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy season, inclusive of a double hundred against Baroda. But it had been three years since the southpaw last played ODI cricket. His century in the second match in Cuttack on 19 January—a career-best score of 150—bolstered the case for his selection, even if only for the moment.
“It is down to his improved fitness. The selectors had told him he was in the reckoning and he has followed a strict regime. His dedication earned him this recall,” said former selector Saba Karim.
The impact of Singh’s return could be seen in the definitive shape it provided to the batting line-up. Earlier, it bore an inexperienced look, with Pandey, Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya batting around Dhoni. There was fluidity to the order, with Dhoni moving up and down as the situation demanded.
But it was tough for him to hold the middle order together while guiding them to the finish. The New Zealand series win is a prime example—India’s batting was hardly convincing.
Batting at No.4 then, Singh provides additional cover to Dhoni, who now has a fixed spot in the line-up. Due to the openers’ poor form, India were two down for 24, 22 and 37 in Pune, Cuttack and Kolkata, respectively.
Each time, Singh came out to bat ahead of Dhoni, and twice played pivotal roles—a 256-run partnership between Singh and Dhoni in the second ODI that seduced cricket tragics, and 65 runs with Kohli in the third match even as India faltered in a 322-run chase.
With 210 runs, Singh was the third highest scorer in this series, and seems to have assured himself a spot for the Champions Trophy.
“My theory is never giving up. I had to prove a point to myself, and nobody else, that I am still good enough for international cricket,” he said after his 14th ODI hundred in Cuttack.
Among Indian batsmen, he finished second only to Kedar Jadhav in this record-breaking three-match series for the number of runs scored. Jadhav, 31, finished with 232 runs in three innings, including 120 in the first ODI and 90 in the third. Chasing 351 in Pune, his home ground, he got India across the finish line, and nearly repeated the feat in Kolkata.
Jadhav’s form and, more importantly, his ability to keep a calm head in tough situations, was the real story of this series. For too long, India had been looking for a capable successor to Dhoni, and this search process had begun as far back as October 2015, in the ODI series against South Africa. It ended in January 2017.
“Since the time I have come into the team, I have spent a lot of time with Dhoni and it has helped me deal with situations calmly,” Jadhav said after the Kolkata game.
Kohli added: “He is a brilliant find for us. We’ve backed him over the last year. He is coming into his own and gives Yuvraj-Dhoni the chance to bat higher. He reads the game well. It’s priceless.”
The captain’s words provide a key insight into India’s plans. Jadhav’s rise in stature, coupled with Pandya’s growing composure at No.7 (115 runs in three matches), is an investment of time and opportunity. Could it have been the case for Pandey as well? He was discarded after one poor series as the selectors/management, in a knee-jerk reaction, recalled Singh.
The more important question is if this move—for short-term gains—has delayed India’s progress towards the team for the 2019 50-over World Cup, for it is anybody’s guess if either Singh or Dhoni, or both, will make it that far.
“The 2019 World Cup is still some time away. At present, it looks to be a short-term solution,” Karim says. He was part of the panel that dropped Singh from the 2015 World Cup plans in December 2013, a full 15 months ahead.
“We dropped him because he didn’t fare well, either in fitness or form, and the need of the hour was to build a fitter side for the World Cup in Australia-New Zealand,” Karim said.
“We did eventually get him back for T20s last year, and were considering him for ODIs as well. Yuvraj is the right fit in the middle order, especially considering the Champions Trophy.”
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.