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By Suresh Menon
It can’t be easy being Yuvraj Singh. Like the girl in the nursery rhyme, when he is good, he is very good indeed, but when he is bad, he is horrid. The loose-limbed, almost casual style suddenly converts into a batting version of curling up into a ball and hoping no one notices you. In the inaugural T20 World Cup, Yuvraj struck Stuart Broad for six sixes in a single over and earned one crore rupees for the feat when the team returned home. On Sunday he curled up into a ball. Sadly, millions noticed.
When he lofted a Kulasekera full toss to Tissara Pereira, the fielder might have wondered if it was a good idea to drop the catch and keep the batsman on strike. For the longer Yuvraj hung on, the faster receded India’s chances of a final thrust. The one-day great had been reduced to a journeyman, the lines no longer rhymed naturally, the notes no longer followed inevitably.
Was this the player who only three years ago was the hero of India’s World Cup campaign, the official man of the tournament? Soon after, the cancer was revealed, the treatment got underway, and the illness was defeated. Yuvraj was young, determined, and had access to the best treatment. The fight also shone a light on the sheer toughness of the young man.
In the T20 final, as he struggled against a superbly focused Sri Lankan attack, with both the off spinner and the medium pacers bottling him up, India lost momentum, and with it, the match. His movements suddenly were ponderous; the man who danced out to spinners suddenly had two left feet. This was an off day of stunning proportions. It happens to all of us occasionally, but seldom in public and seldom with the emotions of so many millions riding on it. It can’t be easy being Yuvraj.
This is a professional sportsman who has packed a lot into his career. And he is only 32. The expression on his face as he struggled to put bat to ball and denied the fluent Virat Kohli the strike said it all. There was a profound melancholy and perhaps a realization that his international career might be over. Such is the ethos of T20 cricket that a couple of ugly heaves, a top-edged boundary, a dropped catch, a streaky squirt past square leg while attempting a cover drive or a combination of any of these pathetic shots might have made the difference between keeping his place in the team and having his house stoned by ‘supporters’.
This last is the Asian cricketer’s eternal worry. Wasim Akram feared for his family when Pakistan lost to India in the 1996 World Cup in Bangalore. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s under-construction house was stoned when India lost in 2007. Fans express themselves in strange ways. The sense of entitlement the fans feel is gross. For Indian fans of a particular type, the opposition does not exist. India lose only because they lose, not because the other side might have played better. And there’s always a fall guy.
Poor Yuvraj walked into that role on Sunday. Gone was the arrogance of his batsmanship, the power of his strokeplay, the cheekiness of his shot-making. It was like listening to a Beatles melody being played at the wrong speed. With every attempt, the batsman was saying, love, love me do. Don’t you remember how I played those cover drives, how I lofted the fast bowler to midwicket? Have you forgotten that on my day I am the best in the world?
But this was not his day. Perhaps it was foolish to have picked him. But Dhoni was loath to change a winning combination, and Yuvraj’s experience had to count for something in a final. Sometimes you just don’t want to read the signs. The game-changing performance is always around the corner. You have to believe that, or you cannot take the field.
It is a truism in cricket that when a batsman is struggling, his fielding goes southwards too. Yuvraj dropped catches, allowed the ball to get past him, looked out of sorts, even out of place. But he had been the first choice for years in the shorter formats, the man who could turn a game in moments, with a brilliant run out or an innocuous delivery that bowled a batsman or, more often, with a sustained bout of boundary-hitting that shook the game by its throat.
Yuvraj’s real fans must be hoping that Bangladesh was an aberration, that the 50-over World Cup in Australia and New Zealand will change everything. But by then, Yuvraj will have turned 33, and his problems against pace might not have disappeared. In India’s all-time teams in the shorter formats, Yuvraj has a place in the middle order. It is not eternity that he will be worrying about. But tomorrow. And the next week, next month, next World Cup. It is always embarrassing for an automatic choice in an all-time eleven to worry about the next match.