There are some images that stay etched in the mind. The passage of time and the overload of images do not seem erode them. In fact, they appear to become a huge part of our lives and it is no surprise that sport gives us many such memories to cherish forever. And the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 threw up many such moments.
And when I sit down to think of game changers, my favourite image is of Yuvraj Singh going down on his padded knees, his left hand holding the bat aloft, a clenched right fist rising up and letting a guttural scream at the end of the quarterfinal against Australia. The screaming drive through covers signalled the end of the glittering trophy’s stay in an Australian shelf since 1999.
It is a fact that Yuvraj Singh has not played in any of the 20 one-day internationals that India has competed in after the World Cup final on April 2 and featured in two Tests against the West Indies when it became known that he had a tumor in his lung and needed rest and 55 tablets a day to recover from the ailment.
He is battling on a different pitch right now but with similar discipline and determination that he showed during the World Cup. The left-handed batsman held the middle-order together when necessary and provided the thrust at the finish. He showed he could deliver 10 economical overs, giving skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni the luxury of picking just four specialist bowlers.
Let us revisit the World Cup games and get some numbers out of the way. He not only scored 362 runs, including a hundred against the West Indies and four half-centuries, but also claimed 15 wickets, including a five-for against against Ireland and two wickets each in the last four games against the West Indies, Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. He topped the team’s batting averages though Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag scored more runs than him. And among the bowlers, only Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan sent down more overs than Yuvraj Singh did in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011.
His performances against Ireland, Netherlands, the West Indies and Australia helped him pick up four Man of the Match awards. Inevitably, he also edged out Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara, TM Dilshan and Muttiah Muralitharan, joint-top wicket-takers Shahid Afridi (Pakistan) and Zaheer Khan (India) as well AB de Villiers (South Africa) as the Man of the Series.
Yuvraj Singh is the kind of talent that made one stick the neck out a long way and pick him as the most valuable player in a squad that boasted of players like Tendulkar and Sehwag, Gambhir and Suresh Raina, Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan. And there was so much personal delight at the manner in which he justified the favouritism!
So what is it about Yuvraj Singh that makes him a game changer in 2011 ahead of men like Dhoni, Sehwag, Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and Test cricket’s most prolific batsman of the year Rahul Dravid? Oodles of talent, the right amount of self-confidence and a maturity that came because of time spent away from the Indian team.
Yet, above all this, Yuvraj Singh nursed a hunger to perform on the biggest stage. For years, he had been criticised for his flamboyance, for his life in the fast lane. And here was his best chance to show to himself, more than to anyone else, that he could aspire to be among the biggest contributors to Team India’s cause.
There was not much insight into his talents in the opening game against Bangladesh in Dhaka but the breezy half century against England in Bangalore was but a glimpse into what he could mean to the team. A five wicket haul and a workmanlike halfcentury against Ireland showed that he could adapt. A similar half-century against the Netherlands in Delhi came when the top order faltered.
Small wonder skipper Dhoni said he was a great fan of Yuvraj Singh for the way he batted according to the situation. In some ways, he defined Yuvraj Singh as a gamechanger. “I always believed he is a big match player and performs well in the big tournaments and in the highly-rated bilateral series. It is good to see him scoring runs, getting wickets and put that extra effort in the fielding department also,” he said.
It is not as if such praise went to his head but Yuvraj Singh contributed precious little in India’s next game against South Africa in Nagpur. He made up with a century against the West Indies in Chennai and there was no looking back after that. He claimed the wickets of Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke and a half century in the quarterfinal and in the high-voltage semifinal in Mohali, he picked up the wickets of Asad Shafiq and Younis Khan in successive overs to scuttle Pakistan’s dreams of upsetting India’s applecart.
The final saw him dismiss Kumar Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera and it was fitting that he was in the thick of things, watching Dhoni from 20 yards or so away when the Indian captain launched a delivery from Nuwan Kulasekhara for six to seal a famous victory. Well before the ball settled in the stands, Yuvraj was sprinting down the track to envelop his captain in a bear hug. And that is the other freeze frame from the World Cup that has not faded away.
Come to think of it, some years ago, he was reduced to a bundle of doubts at the batting crease by Ajantha Mendis. He managed just 72 runs in six innings in Sri Lanka, being dismissed by Mendis as many as four times. But an hour-long conversation with Tendulkar ensured that the self-confidence would not be eroded.
“When the time comes, you’ll matter the most,” Tendulkar told him. And in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011,Yuvraj Singh’s performances as a gamechanger mattered the most. Didn’t they? And along the way, he gave us one moment that will stay etched in the mind for time to come.
(This piece was written for Prabhat Khabar)