Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh were the poster boys of India’s glorious run chases in the mid-2000s. Against England in Pune on Sunday, when India pulled off one of their most stunning run chases (joint fourth biggest in One Day International, or ODI, history), neither Yuvraj nor Dhoni played a significant role.
More than Dhoni, however, it is Yuvraj who will feel the heat in remaining two ODI matches against England—the second one is in Cuttack today. After all, his last two comebacks in ODI formats (and in T20s) have been flops—the reason why the selection of the 35-year-old for the England series (both the ODIs and T20s) has been so polarizing.
Espncricinfo.com ran a poll on this selection and over 57% believed that the left-handed batsman merited a return after his superb outing in the Ranji Trophy season while close to 43% argued that India should have looked to the future. It was a small sample (close to 1,20,000) but good enough to reflect the contrasting opinions of cricket fans in India.
The selectors had been clear in their opinion. “He has done extremely well in domestic cricket and, hence, was given a due chance,” chief selector M.S.K. Prasad said at his customary press briefing in Mumbai.
Selecting a player for limited-overs cricket on the basis of his form in four-day matches is a bit odd—the selectors did not pick him for the recently concluded Test series against England.
Yuvraj was, at one point, the leading scorer in this Ranji Trophy season. He missed the last leg of matches for his state Punjab (owing to his wedding), yet his 672 runs in five matches, including scores of 260 and 177, at an average of 84.00, topped the list for his state. But he is 28th overall among leading run scorers, fourth in averages.
Did his selection signal a lack of talent in India or a fallback on familiarity?
Critics argue that perhaps the selectors were just waiting for him to score runs in India’s premier domestic tournament so that they could pick him once again.
“I feel coach Anil Kumble is flexible and open to experienced players, especially those he has played with. His opinion can’t be completely ignored by either the captain or the selection committee, which is, of course, not a bad thing,” says former India player and commentator Aakash Chopra.
Yuvraj’s resurgence in domestic cricket has given him the belief that he can turn back the clock again. “It will be like the old days playing with him (Dhoni) when we had started. Obviously, I started much before him (Yuvraj made his India debut in 2000 and Dhoni in 2004) but back then we were fearless when we used to play together. We can do the same this time, in the upcoming series,” Yuvraj told Bcci.tv after his selection.
“Yuvi is not 45 or 55. He is just 35 and good enough to win games and that is why he has been picked,” argues Harbhajan Singh, one of Yuvraj’s close friends and a teammate at both the state and national levels for over a decade.
In the 2014 Indian Premier League, Yuvraj finished 15th among run scorers while in 2015, he was 23rd. In the last edition (he missed seven matches due to fitness problems), he was 27th.
In the 2015-16 Vijay Hazare Trophy (the domestic 50-over competition), he was only among the top 5 scorers. Yet his name crops up in discussions before every international tournament.
Like many of his contemporaries, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, for example, Yuvraj too struggled (post the 2011 World Cup win). While Dhoni (who has played almost the same number of ODIs) has a career average of over 50 notwithstanding the recent dip in form, Yuvraj’s average is still in the mid-30s. Dhoni also has a better strike rate.
So why the myth surrounding Yuvraj?
“When he was dropped, tab bhi koi tagda player toh paida nahi ho gaya tha (it’s not as if a strong player emerged). I don’t think the scenario has changed much. Few players are born with such a match-winning ability and that is why he is getting another chance,” argues Harbhajan.
“He shouldn’t be judged on this series alone. If you have picked him, give him a long run and he will win you more matches,” adds India’s most successful off-spinner.
Others disagree. “There is some merit to this debate but I believe this is his last chance and he deserved this opportunity because of his service in the past. But if he fails again, the selectors will say thank you very much and move on to the younger players,” says former India player and former chief selector Syed Kirmani.
Contrast Manish Pandey’s story with Yuvraj’s. He scored a century against Australia in Sydney almost at this time in 2016. He might feel a bit unlucky that after just one ordinary series against New Zealand, he is out of the playing XI. Ironically, after scoring an 84 in his debut innings, Yuvraj didn’t score a 50 in his next 15 matches. He was persisted with because the selectors believed in his potential.
What makes Yuvraj interesting to selectors and fans? It’s not his recent comebacks—an average of 18.53 in his last 19 ODIs with just two half-centuries before the ongoing series.
It is his big match and tournament credentials, like helping win the 2007 World T20 and 2011 World Cup, that have given another lifeline to his ODI career.
“If the top order doesn’t fire, you are left with MS (Dhoni) alone and he is guiding the youngsters more often than not,” Virat Kohli said in Pune before the first ODI. “When you have only three games, you need to make sure the guys who have been picked are in good form. That’s why 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.”
Kohli has always spoken highly of Yuvraj as somebody who has influenced him a lot during his formative years.
Chopra adds: “Strangely, fans will always love, miss and demand someone more who is not part of the team. Undeniably, his story is inspiring (his much publicized battles with illness) and he has got a tremendous amount of goodwill but I don’t think that can influence someone’s selection in the team.”
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.