Sunday, 31 January 2016

The flame still flickers

Sports is no stranger to comebacks. Both the good ones and the bad ones.

On one end of the spectrum, there is Jordan who came out of his retirement and led the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive titles between 1996 and 1998. There is the near mythical tale of Nikki Lauda, who came back to the racing track a mere 42 days after being pronounced "almost dead" due to the infamous crash at the German Grand Prix. He even went on to win his second world title in 1977.

However, not all comebacks have a fairy tale ending. Schumacher, who had created almost every single record there was on the racing track, came out of retirement in 2010 partnering with Mercedes in a bid to recreate his magic but sadly, it was no happy second coming.

The recently concluded T20 series between India and Australia saw a number of comebacks in both teams, of which the most scrutinized one was that of Yuvraj Singh. 

Yuvraj Singh was literally on top of the world in 2011 following India's world cup triumph where he was adjudged as Man of the Series. He was scoring runs; taking wickets and winning matches for his team. All at the same time. He was a burning inferno at the top of his game, scorching down the opposition at will.

And then it hit him. A disease so deadly, that a complete cure has not yet been found despite the rapid advancements in the field of medical technology. It takes a lot to just lead a normal life after being diagnosed with cancer let alone play again. But he rose like the metaphorical Phoenix and staged a comeback into the Indian team.

He was drafted into the T20 squad for the 2012 world cup held in Sri Lanka and he emerged as the leading wicket taker for India in the tournament but had a poor showing with the bat. Later in the year, it was in the second T20 against Pakistan in Ahmedabad that he showed glimpses of the old Yuvraj with a blistering 72 at a strike rate of 200, knocking Saeed Ajmal, the then best bowler, all over the park. There were a few more knocks against Australia in the shortest format but consistent failures and lack of fitness plagued his comeback. The 2014 T20 final seemed like the final nail in the coffin.

Not one to bow out easily, he trained hard and harder in the domestic circuit and scored runs heavily. 341 runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy at an average of 85.25 helped him in his comeback to the T20 team. He was supposedly the "balancing act of the team". He brought in vast amounts of experience, the ability to roll his arm over for a few overs and above, all the "big-tournament player" tag.

Irrespective of all the ups and downs in his career, there can be no bigger "big-tournament player" than Yuvraj. Batting for the first time in his career, he scored a match-winning 84 against world champions Australia in the quarterfinal of the 2000 ICC Knockout trophy. India's triumph in the maiden T20 World Cup in South Africa rode largely on his exploits where sixes rained out of his bat like the July monsoon. The best of them all was the 2011 World Cup where he was adjudged 'Player of the Tournament' turning in crucial performances for his team both with the bat and the ball. 

This T20 tour was effectively to be a dress-rehearsal to get the right team combination before the marquee tournament in India in a few months time. Though he did not get to bat in the first two matches, he showed glimpses of what he can do with the ball. Dhoni had been strongly advocating for the need of players in the top 6 who are also able to bowl. He likes his team with players who are able to not just bat or bowl. And that's what Yuvraj has to offer. In the second T20, he effectively derailed Australia's chase when they were cruising along. By the time his two overs ended, he had picked up a wicket for just 7 runs. 

Yet, the large question of his batting remained. The team and the management had to know if he still had the ability to bring back Yuvraj of the yester-year. The first T20s saw him sitting in the dug out without facing a single ball and though the series was decided already, he was pushed into a pressure cooker situation in the final match with India needing more than 10 an over with 5 overs to go. A perfect situation to cement his position in the team. Except, things did not start well.

He struggled to get bat on ball, especially against Watson, who had him in a tangle with a judicious mix of full-length and short balls. He was on 5 off 9 balls with 17 more needed of the final over. The ghosts of the 2014 final had come to haunt him. A painstaking 11 from 21 balls  had  then shut India out of the game and Yuvraj out of the team. There was every possibility of that happening again. A poor last over would have effectively closed the doors on Yuvraj but a four and a six off the first two balls in the last over and an ensuing victory exorcised the demons of the past and has given him one more lease of life. One more chance at redemption for a swansong.

Yuvraj is not the burning inferno that he once was. But the flame in him still flickers. It will bode India well if it burns brightly. 

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