Yuvraj- a tale of grit and glory

 

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Redemption man: Yuvraj Singh (c) Getty Images

The last time Yuvraj Singh scored a hundred, it was five years back against the West Indies in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011. Mind you, he was not at his fittest best way back then. From throwing up on the field to trying to catch his breath because of the still-to-be-diagnosed cancer, the man struggled, huffed and puffed his way to his century before finally holing out at the deep out of tiredness.

Today was different. Today Yuvraj Singh was in his elements. Today he was the Yuvraj who outscored Bihar’s first innings of 357 alone when he was just 19. Today he batted like a man who owned England just like he did in the Natwest final in 2002. Today he batted with the flair and disdain that earned him the name, ‘Broad basher.’ Today he was at his leanest, fittest and definitely at his strongest best. Today it was Yuvraj who stopped time and space when he cannon-balled the white ball all over the park. Today was Yuvraj who gave the world a sign that he is not done. Not just yet.

Today was not just about Yuvraj, it was also about the man who scored a century after two years. MS Dhoni is now a free man. He batted like a man who is burden-free, who dutifully bench pressed the weight of captaincy and is now flexing his muscles after asking Virat Kohli to pound the next set.

Back to Yuvraj. 150 after five years. 150 that made him the only Indian to score the most number of runs against England. Now, if you want to crunch some numbers, Yuvraj now has 1478 runs in 35 innings against England as opposed to Sachin Tendulkar who previously held the record with 1455 runs. This, is also his career best score in ODIs and also by highest individual runs scored against England in an innings.

India were in a tight situation. Just like the last game. Except that, this time it was Virat Kohli who was back in the hut. Out strode Yuvraj, back straight, a sponsor-less bat which had the ‘YWC’ sticker and a white octopus grip. There was just grim determination. And then there was that stance which we last saw him use when he played for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2013. The same stance that helped him flick the ball and make it disappear into the second tier of the M Chinnaswamy against Rajasthan Royals and the Delhi Daredevils.

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With MS Dhoni at the other end, Yuvraj who spoke about playing ‘fearless cricket’ earlier took that line to a whole new level. For some time, Morgan and Co. would have thought, whose wicket should they really be looking for? At one end was Yuvraj, who was timing the ball and playing some succulent drives taking the aerial route more often than not. The there was another man who unleashed brute force on the hapless English bowlers. Those booming shots were in full display as MS Dhoni took England to the cleaners.

A lot has changed. For those who have read his autobiography, ‘The test of my Life,’ here is an instance when he began chemotherapy. “The first time I watched the liquid drop down into the tube into my arm, I wondered what would happen when it would do its business. And I took just two days to find out. On day one, I just sat doing nothing for five hours waiting for the drugs to kick in. On day two, I felt my face swell. On day three, I was at the hotel room watching TV when I suddenly felt a horror catch hold of my throat. I can’t describe it. It was the feeling in the throat that plunged me to terrifying gloom.” Now he fought this too. For three months. He cried, he whined and he almost gave up. Almost. But he hung in there, just so that he could swing the bat again, to live for cricket and to die another day.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In this case, it made Yuvraj the strongest. He is now immune to failure, to harsh criticism and yes, definitely any bit of sympathy. Personal battles aside, he battled his way back to the Indian side. He maybe 35 now, but today’s knock definitely makes life hard for the Pandeys and the Rainas. For someone as talented as Yuvraj, who is a match winner and is a force to reckon with, numbers must not really be counted. This is about a man whose grit and determination was in full display apart from his rampaging innings.

A closer look when he reached his hundred, there was just a prayer, and a touch of the bat handle to the India crest on his chest. Moisture-filled eyes that fought back the tears welling up, but held back because the idea was to make the opposition cry.

Yuvraj is not done, by any means, this is a man who has played three World Cups and is definitely hungry for more. He is ageing like fine wine. The older, the better.

Before winding up this piece, it’s time to end with a line from the movie, MS Dhoni, where a young Dhoni said this about his first close encounter with Yuvraj: “Phir batting karne aata hai Yuvraj Singh. Bahut maara, dhaaga khol diya ekdum..!!

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Can Pandey make it this time?

It all started with the tag, ‘The first Indian to score an IPL century,’ and since then much has been said and written about Manish Pandey. ‘Mani’ or ‘Pandu’ as he is called in the cricketing circles can aptly be called a sphinx. While one cannot help but notice the audacity, the unorthodox batting style plus the athleticism that he brings on to the field, Pandey has also been known to be consistent in patches and a batsmen highly unpredictable- a trait that has contributed to his downfall along with his success. Today I want to write about the gifted talent who was my senior at the cricket club where I trained. He is one of those heroes who adorns the walls of the Karnataka Institute of Cricket (KIOC) along with Robin Uthappa, Mayank Agarwal and Karuna Jain.

KIOC was celebrating when Pandey was selected to represent India in the ICC U-19 World Cup 2008 at Kuala Lumpur. When critics said that he flopped miserably in the tournament. I felt that they were a tad unfair and a bit too harsh on the youngster as he usually came to bat at the fag end of the innings, and his highest score of 24 against Papua New Guinea in the six games he played was not the reason to strike him off the gifted list.

But all it took was one innings to make history and Pandey did just that.His first IPL game for the Royal Challengers Bangalore and he blitzed his way to an  unbeaten 114 of 73 deliveries against the now defunct Deccan Chargers in 2009 at the Wanderers. And it was the perfect platform to get noticed. Mind you, it wasn’t a flawless innings. He looked out of sorts with edges and he was all, but at sea when Manpreet Gony charged in as he nervously shuffled around the crease. He survived when RP Singh dropped a sitter and it proved too costly as the boy went on to become the first IPL centurion. I vividly remember Harsha Bhogle and Danny Morrison commentating animatedly about the edges and the mistimed sweeps that Pandey had played to bring up maiden his half-century with twin shots off Pragyan Ojha. The trademark half slog-half sweep was on full display that day.

While he was a bit off balance while going down on one knee to hoick the first six, the second one was latched on to in a flash and this time he got hold of the shot better  when Ojha bowled an identical delivery. It was his maiden half-century and he kept his celebrations simple; just a fist pump with Ross Taylor. All this and RCB were still going at a modest seven runs an over.

However, this didn’t deter the 20-year old as he just flashed away. One slap off the back foot towards long-on was more like a a gardener chopping  grass with a sickle. Crude, but fetched him four valuable runs. Sixteenth over and Pandey was looking ominous. Gilchrist couldn’t help but have a sheepish smile on his face as he watched a young batsmen club the Chargers all over the park with disdain. Just when it looked like he was tiring, and a shot that seemed to suggest the same- as he skied it high enough, the expression on Herschelle Gibbs’s face was of pure joy. But Pandey had the luck of the devil as  the ball fell five yards behind Gibbs and all he could do was just roll it back to play.

By this time Pandey had moved on to the nineties and the over read 2,4,6, the same skied six. A double to end the over and when he got back on strike, the hundred came up when he nudged the ball towards covers for an easy couple. And there was no Viratesque celebrations. Just a calm wave of the bat and a relaxed feeling that was evident.Post that innings, I still remember what he said, “It’s a lovely feeling altogether…getting a chance after so long…looked to make the most of it…a hundred odd not out…It feels good,” all this while gasping for breath.

No, he definitely wasn’t a one-match wonder as he followed it up with a better and a crisp, stroke-filled 48 off 35 balls in the semifinal against the Chennai Super Kings. His partnership with Dravid ensured that RCB would again face Deccan Chargers in the final where he was dismissed for a dismal eight of just three deliveries. But the mark had been made. Pandey was the new poster boy for the Challengers.

Come the Ranji 2009-10 season, Pandey seemed more comfortable playing the longer format too as he amassed 884 runs in nine games. One cannot forget the cliffhanger in Mysore when Pandey almost pulled it off for Karnataka. His defense wasn’t exactly watertight, but he made it up by those unorthodox shots that you see in tennis ball cricket. Somehow that day, Pandey didn’t seem to care if the four that came off his bat was a cover drive or a cut. All that mattered was taking the team home. Even after scoring the century, there was this eerie calmness on his face and well, the same wasn’t on Wasim Jaffer’s though.

Even as wickets around him tumbled, he kept attacking Mumbai relentlessly. The partnership with Ganesh Satish proved crucial, but somehow the win was not to be as Karnataka lost by a heart-wrenching six runs. His 144 studded with  18 fours and one towering six off Ajit Agarkar and the stunning catch titled ‘Catch of the Century’ on YouTube are just glimpses of brilliance that defined young Pandey.

2010 and the IPL was back again and  the Royal Challengers looked formidable than the rest of the teams. For Pandey though, this was a start of the next three forgettable IPLs. He barely lasted more than five overs even as the Kallis-Pandey duo made headlines for their opening partnerships that helped RCB have a solid foundation for the other batsmen  to press the pedal hard and up the ante at the later part of the innings.

Somehow, it wasn’t just Kumble who seemed to have a perplexed expression on his face each time Pandey came back after giving away his wicket, taking a quick walk with his head bowed down. He seemed to do well in the nets. The timing and the strokeplay was seen, so was the dedication on the field. But then Ray Jennings pointed out that he was playing a lot of cross-batted shots in the games that resulted in him getting out. While Dravid too expressed concern about him being actively involved at IPL Nights. Pandey could be seen at wee hours in the morning  at the glitzy parties and maybe, just maybe the influence slowly crept in.

Things went on till Kumble decided to drop him when RCB played against Deccan Chargers for third place. Good enough to take them into the CLT20 in September. And luckily for Pandey, he was still in the 15-member squad that traveled to South Africa for the tournament.

Game one: Royal Challengers Bangalore vs the South Australian Redbacks. A bicep-pumped Pandey took guard against Shaun Tait who hurtled a straight delivery that was just nudged for a four straight down the ground. All that Pandey did was plonk the bat straight and the ball raced away to the fence. Next ball was no different, Pandey reacted a split-second late and the result: Mid stump uprooted. So much for the star batsmen who had given an interview just the previous day telling that he would love to open the innings and make a mark in CLT20.

Game two: Pandey was dropped in the game against Wayamba Elevens. He was seen sitting in the dugout with a morose expression in his face.

Game three: Pandey was dropped again when they faced Mumbai Indians. Virat Kohli’s heroics couldn’t steer the team home though as they lost by two runs.

Game four: Pandey back in the squad against Highveld Lions in a must win game to keep their semis hopes alive. Kallis was down with a stomach bug and Pandey was the only choice. Chasing 164, he came out to bat with Rahul Dravid. Dressed in full sleeves which he had never done and wearing the same red and white gloves he wore when he made his debut, it was homecoming for Pandey at the Wanderers as he stroked his way to a sublime 44 that laid foundation for another Kohli special at the end of the day’s play.

Game five: Semifinal clash against CSK. A rain-hit game that reduced the match to 17-overs a side and thanks to Murali Vijay’s brilliance, RCB were chasing a daunting 175 to win. RCB faltered spectacularly and folded to a meek 123/9. Pandey though was the lone beacon of light as he lit up Durban with a 44-ball 52. It was a counterattack which did not help as he ran out of partners at the other end.

By then, Pandey  seemed to embrace a different lifestyle. If he was at the nets in the morning, followed by pounding weights dutifully in the gym, he was also seen as an active at Bangalore’s party circuits driving around his two-seater Mercedes. That though didn’t affect his game as much as he made merry in the domestic season. Things though went awry with the contract deal involving the Royal Challengers and the Pune Warriors during the IPL and he was banned for four games before he finally took guard against Chennai.

Dressed in black and carrying a new Nike bat that looked a lot like the Grey Nicolls Evo. He strode out at No.3  and announced himself with a boundary off his first ball by Albie Morkel. Banged short and Pandey smoked it for a four towards long on. But his attacking game play didn’t last long after he was bowled for a mere 12 runs. The rest of the season was saw Pandey slump down to his worst ever average. The dry run continued as he averaged just 22.36.

But he did begin his Ranji season on a strong note. Pandey scored his second first-class double-century in Karnataka’s third-round match against Mumbai at the Brabourne Stadium but felt pain during the innings, as well as while fielding later in the drawn match. He consulted doctors on his return to Bangalore, was advised an immediate hernia surgery and was sidelined for six weeks. Pandey wasn’t his fittest best when he returned. He scored 163 runs of nine games for the Pune Warriors and his highest score was a scratchy 66 against Kolkata.

Somehow, there was a silver lining when he was lapped up by the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014. When he took guard against Mumbai coming in to bat at No.3, he stroked his way to a fluent 64. And somehow there was a change in the way he looked. He had beefed up a little, his attacking instinct was back and he looked more focused. A string of consistent performances caught the eye and he topped it off with a 50-ball 94 in the final at the M Chinnaswamy. RCB had a forgettable season and the home crowd poured in to see the Karnataka trio of Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey and Vinay Kumar- who represented Kolkata that season. Uthappa who had hit a purple patch right from the middle of the season faltered in the big final, but then Pandey rose to the occasion.

It may have not been a century, but it definitely overshadowed Wriddhiman Saha’s brilliance who had scored his maiden century in that game. The daunting total seemed to diminish in size as Pandey fired all cylinders that day. Just when it looked like Kolkata were crossing the finish line, he miscued one straight to Bailey who had already dropped Pandey once, but this time pouched it cleanly. Piyush Chawla’s cameo saw the Knights home and Pandey was the hero of the final.

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His Ranji run in 2014-15 too was fairly decent  as he stacked up 570 runs in 11 games with an average of 35.62 as Karnataka were crowned champions. Pandey, again showcased his class as he scored an unbeaten century in the second innings to give Karnataka a massive 246 run win against ROI in the Irani Trophy that year. That innings was an example that he could shift gears at will. The last session of the third day, Pandey  was seen prodding about and managed to hot six runs in those 25 balls he played before close of play. The following day, as he realised that he was  running out of partners at the other end, he took an errant Varun Aaron and smashed him for 26 runs in six balls to bring up his century.

The team India call-up did finally materialise, but unfortunately, the Windies cancelling the series midway meant Pandey had to cool his heels again, and when the debut did come, he scored a match-winning 71 against Zimbabwe. This, followed by an unbeaten century in the fifth ODI against Australia. While the wickets tumbled, Pandey kept the scoreboard ticking and the century meant, he would not be sidelined.

Pandey is a big-match player. The recent quadrangular series against Australia A is a perfect example where he shouldered the responsibility of leading the side and produce match-winning knocks. Another example was when he led his side Mysore Warriors in the KPL to win the tournament.

And now, hopefully after all that I have explained about Pandey, its also a wish to see Pandey be a regular feature for the Men In Blue. Come this New Zealand series, Pandey would look to be a part of the side. Of course, he would fancy his chances thanks to the recent performances down under, and look to cash in on the opportunity to become India’s next finisher, but again hopefully, just hopefully, there won’t be any ‘pandeymonium’ like the earlier season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bumrah decoded?

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 Before we talk about the lad with the uncanny action, a quick recap- cut to IPL 2013, and Virat Kohli was at his consistent best. He was coming off a career best unbeaten 93, his highest score then in the T20 format (he now has four centuries to his name) against the Sunrisers Hyderabad and had just taken guard against Mumbai. A nervous looking Bumrah who had donned his blue and gold jersey for the first time for the Mumbai outfit was a picture of concentration. Ball one:  Short and wide and a slam over covers for four Welcome to the IPL Mr Bumrah! Ball two: An exact replay of ball one. The third ball was a consolatory dot and the fourth one was smashed for another boundary.

The scoreboard flashed one-liners that outlined Kohli’s sheer brilliance with the bat and Bumrah was sweating. It was a nightmarish first over and he wasn’t finished yet. Rohit Sharma and Kieron Pollard were trying their best to console the kid who was thrashed all over the park. The fifth ball though, saw the ball angle inward and strike the pads. A gut-wrenching appeal, and the raised finger from umpire C Shamshuddin meant Kohli’s brief Blitzkrieg at the crease had come to an end. What followed was a cocky send-off and all that Kohli could do was glare and take a slow trudge back to the dugout.

The Royal Challengers may have won that match, but Bumrah had his victory after scalping the prize wicket of the country’s best batsman. He went on to claim Mayank Agarwal and Karun Nair as well. His final figures read 3-0-32-3. While Kohli had dented his economy rate, the wickets showed his comeback. Bumrah played only two games that IPL, but a successful Ranji season with Gujarat earned him a Team India call-up. A tight bowling performance in Australia ensured his place in the ICC World T20 as well.  Come IPL 2016, Bumrah was the second highest wicket-taker for Mumbai with 15 wickets from 14 games. His nippy pace and the accurate Yorkers made him the obvious choice to bowl at the death.

What sets Bumrah apart is the fact that he can hold his own when situations pointed South. Be it Tamim Iqbal’s sitter that he dropped and was later bludgeoned for four consecutive boundaries or during the time when AB de Villiers berserk innings lit up Wankehede to bring up his second IPL ton, Bumrah was always looking to execute what was on his dossier.

But with enough technology to crack any code, just like the TRANSLATR from Dan Brown’s bestseller, ‘The Digital Fortress,’ Bumrah too was a code that could be cracked. The best example was the way West Indian openers Evin Lewis and Johnson Charles picked him apart at Lauderhill on Saturday. Bumrah leaked 47 runs in his stipulated four overs. While the pitch ensured that the match would be a high-scoring affair, Bumrah wasn’t a victim of edges from meaty bats or raw brawn that catapulted the ball over the park, in fact, they were clean hits that were timed to near perfection.

Now it is only a matter of time before the Aussies, the English and the Proteas, who have always relied on technology to help them counter attacks set about simplifying the Bumrah conundrum. England, in particular would relish decoding Bumrah since they are the ones who claim to pay attention to detail when compared to the other cricketing nations. Be it Anderson’s secret to troubling Kohli which they claimed was a master stroke to curb India’s leading run machine from scoring or their meticulously planned diet chart during the Ashes, they have always tried to live up to what Liam Neeson said in A-Team- “Staying one step ahead of the enemy, that’s the thought behind a well-oiled plan kid.”

But on the flip side, Bumrah has time on his side. The tough temperament and the guile that he has shown in glimpses can be his biggest allies when he faces off against the Roots, the du Plessis’ and the Smiths.  The biggest question though still remains. Can Bumrah hold his own or will the latest gizmos get to him before the pressure does? It is an open secret that people will come after him if he finds himself on rough waters, just like bowlers of the past who were seen as wonders and later turned to villains, thanks to one bad day at the office. Hopefully, Bumrah can conjure up some more tricks up his sleeve and stay consistent.

 

 

Indian Test Captain No.32

He had never tried playing the sweep. But on that eventful day he swept. He swept almost every bowler over mid- on  with such disdain that a fielder placed there really didn’t matter anymore. It just kept vanishing above their heads. But now he added another shot to his arsenal. Virat Kohli had learnt the art of batting in Australia.

The Indian test team were taking on a mourning Australia. There was nothing to worry about sans the Australians who had plenty to worry about. One of their talented batsman had passed away after a vicious bouncer from Sean Abbott caused him to collapse and eventually led to his demise. Michael Clarke was facing stiff opposition from a fellow- teammates and his tussles with New South Wales mate- Simon Katich were making headlines. This along with his poor run with the willow wasn’t a pleasant sight. Team Australia were in dire straits

The Men in Blue, however were a new unit. They had a new captain. Someone who is the exact opposite of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He wasn’t cool. He redefined what ‘cool’ meant. He believed in taking the fight to the opposition; he wouldn’t compromise. He was Virat Kohli. He had made it very evident before the tour- Its a win or nothing. There would not be a draw. There would not be a compensation.

First Test, Day One. Shikhar Dhawan was back in the hut. Pujara and Vijay made merry. But the Aussies had to face their biggest challenge yet. Virat stepped in after Vijay. Haddin sledged at his best, so did Warner, but the glare stayed. The runs came by. Sweep after sweep till Nathan Lyon at mid- on became a mere spectator. India’s next ‘Wall’ was on the other end. Rahane kept the scoreboard ticking while Kohli went berserk. Call it getting even or probably Australian pitches being his backyard practice ground, Virat was at his destructive best.

Day 5, and India pushed for a win. No. Virat pushed for a win. The pitch was doing its bit assisting the pacers, but the defiant Kohli batted. He went on to score another century taking India one- step closer to victory, despite the others crumbling. Virat still swept his way through the Aussie attack. And just when India sniffed victory, Virat fell. A mis- timed sweep brought the curtains down for India. A ten- man Australian team did go on to win. But Kohli had made his intentions clear.

The new Indian Test Captain Number 32 is here.