India have been on a roll of late in Twenty20 Internationals. Most cogs in the wheel have been spinning smoothly, resulting in an encouraging sequence of wins in the lead-up to the World T20 beginning later this month. Yuvraj Singh’s position has raised a question or two, even if not many people have made it a big issue – because (a) it’s Yuvraj, the proven match-winner, and (b) the team has been winning.
He hasn’t always had a lot of time to bat in recent T20Is, has been good with the ball, and though he has hardly been as electric on the field as he was in his prime, he hasn’t faltered in any major way. At the Asia Cup, though, while he hung in there and stuck it out in the games against Bangladesh and Pakistan, he did nothing to suggest he could turn matches the way he once could.
Against Sri Lanka on Tuesday (March 1) at Sher-e-Bangla Stadium, though it wasn’t vintage Yuvraj, it was a Yuvraj that walked out with intent, all aggression, all big swings, and three fours and three sixes full of power and brutality.
There were a fair few swishes and misses in his 18-ball 35. At times, it seemed as though the mind was willing but the arms and legs weren’t, but Rangana Herath, who Yuvraj sent for sixes off two consecutive balls, probably wouldn’t agree.
“I have already said that the more time he gets, the better for him,” reasoned MS Dhoni after the five-wicket win put India in the tournament final. “When you come back into the team, when you return to international cricket, then there is a lot of pressure from yourself, there are people’s expectations as well.
“Then the first few matches go out in just figuring out what to do. Whether you want to go out and play the big shot. The minus being that if you don’t do well in the first couple of innings, then there is more pressure on yourself. I felt that his approach has always been very good. He gives himself two or three balls before playing the big shot. And as you saw today, he can hit sixes at will. So if the same thing continues gradually, he will be in a very good position before the World Cup.”
Even as Yuvraj was turning back the clock, keeping him company was Virat Kohli, India’s best batsman across formats, who has continued his outstanding form into the Asia Cup. Before being rested from the T20I series against Sri Lanka at home, he had scored 90 not out, 59 not out and 50 in Australia, and followed it up with 7, 49 and 56 not out in Mirpur for an average of 103.66 for the year.
“Right from the start, he was always someone who wanted to contribute more. Even if he would get out on 80, he was somebody who wanted to get that 100. If 80 is good enough and the team wins, he is happy with it. But he still wanted to contribute more. He knew the importance of converting those 70s into 100s. You may not score a 50, that’s fair enough. But once you get close to 70, you have to make sure you convert it into a hundred,” said Dhoni of his second-in-command.
“It’s not only good for the individual but it was also very good for the team. He was always somebody who wanted to put that emphasis on his game. Over the years, he has turned into somebody who reads the game very well: who to target, when to target, what are your strengths. That is something very important. All of us have our own strengths. But it is very important to back your strength and not to venture out into areas that are not your strength. He’s looking like a much more mature cricketer. At the same time, he’s backing that with the skill he has. He’s someone who puts in a lot of effort in training. He’s very fit. All of that really contributes. He’s been just fantastic for the side.”
Also fantastic for the side has been Jasprit Bumrah, who was picked after a series of good performances in the Indian Premier League. When he was given a go, his unique action made him difficult to pick and his ability to bowl yorkers worked well for the team. “He has given us some relief when it comes to death bowling. But people will also go for runs. Death bowling is something where you can’t only give away 12 runs in two overs. At times you will give away 20-22 runs also. He’s been very good for us with the new ball as well as the death.”
Dhoni also had words of praise Hardik Pandya, the other youngster who has had a role to play with either bat or ball in all the Asia Cup games so far. “This format is especially better suited to somebody who can bat and bowl. They may not be hitting big sixes in one game but they can still contribute with one wicket or one over. Also they can carry that confidence into the other departments. That’s the reason why the team is looking more balanced. Looking at conditions, you have three fast bowlers and two spinners. Then you include two part-timers if needed. So it looks very good bunch of players, ideally suited for the conditions.”
India are now in the final of the tournament, and Dhoni said the players who have only warmed the bench so far in Bangladesh would get a go in the final league game against UAE before the team reverts to the first-choice XI for the final. “We’ll definitely make a few changes in the coming game. We still want the strength and the composition of the side to be very good,” he said. “Most of the players will definitely get a chance in the next game. Whether all the people who are sitting outside will get a chance, we’re not sure.”
Dhoni, a thinker along with being a high-worth cricketer, also explained why the pitch in use for the Sri Lanka game was the best one he had played on all tournament. “You want at least 140 to be scored, because when you end up scoring 80-100-120, then it is not so exciting for the spectators. The entire thing about playing T20 cricket is that it is for the spectators. I know they love wickets also but I think it’s more of a contest where initially where you fight against the bowlers, and after that it is more in favour of the batsmen. I feel today’s wicket was more ideally suited for T20. But if there was no dew, then you will see the same wicket behave differently and the fast bowlers will bowl close to 12 overs minimum. If you have four seamers at that point, then it can be very useful.”
Dhoni has won most things that are there to be won in limited-overs cricket – the World T20 (2007), the World Cup (2011) and the Champions Trophy (2013). But the pain of losing the 2014 World T20 final to the team that India beat on Tuesday night still rankles, even if he didn’t say it in as many words. “I’m somebody who lives in the present. Revenge is something that we should keep away from the sport. I’ve talked about it in the past also where you talk about it being a gentleman’s game and then you talk about revenge,” he said in reply to a question about beating Sri Lanka, India’s conquerors, at the same venue as that game.
“You win 10-12 games like these but that one game in the World Cup will always matter more, because you have to play eight or nine very good games to get into the final of a World Cup. It is like taking a hat-trick: you always bowl very good deliveries to get batsmen out but to have three back-to-back deliveries, they may not be the best of deliveries, but to get a hat-trick you have to bowl that way.”