The Cuttack ODI played between India and England on Thursday was different. That too, in more ways than one. No, England did not finally manage to win a match of significance in the ongoing tour, nor did their bowlers escape the customary spanking. India did manage to put up a ‘Virat’ score on the board, but not riding on the shoulders of Captain Kohli, as has become the norm. What, however, stood out the most and made an ordinary match of an ordinary bilateral series special, was that the country got its heroes back in their truest avatar.
Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni served up a sumptuous treat at the Barabati stadium on Thursday, that had the whole of India asking for more. The two veterans took us on a ride back in time and on a trip of sheer nostalgia, producing a ‘jugalbandi’ that is hard to forget, even long after the strains of music die down.
It took you back to Kingsmead, Durban on a September evening in 2007, when Yuvraj decided to give Stuart Broad a lesson in golf, teeing off big time, carting the hapless England bowler for six sixes in an over in a crucial match of the T20 World Cup. And who was at the other end, watching the carnage, by his own admission, from the best seat in the ground? It was Dhoni; witnessing the making of history. It took you back to the final of the biggest stage of all – the World Cup, in 2011. When the ball sailed into the stands at the Wankhede Stadium off Dhoni’s bat, ending the long 28-year wait, Yuvraj was there at the other end, witnessing the making of history.
The ecstatic fist bump between the two after Yuvraj’s six sixes is as iconic an image as that of their tight embrace after India’s World Cup triumph nearly four years later, a night when emotions just went out of control. Both those images came rushing back as both Yuvraj and Dhoni struck hundreds, and Yuvraj going a step further to score a 150 – his highest ODI score in the 17 years that he has been playing in Indian colours.
What the stand also did was to tempt you to make comparisons. There have been partnerships in cricket that have become part of folklore. Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar. Are Yuvraj and Dhoni any less? You can bet your bottom dollar that they are right up there with the great pairs that this great game has seen.
The numbers bear this out. Yuvraj and Dhoni have played 65 innings together in ODIs, scoring 3,053 runs at a robust average of 52.63. They have strung together 10 century and 13 half-century stands, but none better than the one at Cuttack. The pair put on 256 runs for the fourth wicket at the Barabati stadium on Thursday, which is now the fifth in the list of all-time highest partnerships for India in the 50-over format.
For both Yuvraj and Dhoni, the centuries at Cuttack would have been soaked in emotion. This was Yuvraj’s first international century after the 2011 World Cup. A lot had changed since he strode like a colossus in the showpiece tournament six years ago, playing a large part in India winning the title. He was diagnosed with cancer, which threatened to derail a phenomenal career. He defeated the deadly disease, but the fight clearly had taken its toll, and India seemed to have lost the Yuvraj it knew and loved.
He lost his place first in the Test team and then in the ODI team, after a string of mediocre performances. He scored a measly 278 runs in 16 innings since the World Cup final in April 2011 to the third ODI against South Africa in Centurion in December 2013, after which he had lost favour with the selectors in ODIs.
And then came what was perceived to be a killer blow to his career. The man who used to hit the best of international bowlers for sixes as if it was the easiest thing to do in the world played an innings that couldn’t have been more disastrous. A 21-ball 11, that too in the final of the World T20 in 2014, not only put paid to India’s chances in that match, but seemed to be the end of the road for Yuvraj’s international career. It was simply painful to watch.
After almost two years in the wilderness, he was back in the Indian T20 team for the tour of Australia early last year. He showed flashes of his old self in the last match at Sydney, hitting some lusty blows in the end, and taking India home along with Suresh Raina. He was part of the Indian team for the Asia Cup and World T20 as well, but could not achieve anything significant.
His selection for the ongoing limited-overs series against England, therefore, had raised some eyebrows, but it was possibly a chance given to him by the selectors before the all-important Champions Trophy later this year. But after another low score in the first ODI at Pune, people started to doubt if it was the right decision. With the knock at Cuttack, Yuvraj has surely vindicated his selection and silenced the nay-sayers, at least for the time being.
Dhoni has also had a lot to deal with both on and off the field since the euphoria of the World Cup triumph. India were whitewashed 4-0 in Tests, first by England and then by Australia, and lost the number one ranking in the longest format. Dhoni’s team then lost two more Test series to England – 1-2 at home and 1-3 away. There were away losses to South Africa and New Zealand as well. Dhoni shocked everybody in late 2014 by announcing his retirement from Tests, midway through the tour of Australia.
He was still the captain in limited-overs, but India started to slide in ODIs since the series win over Sri Lanka in 2014-15. Dhoni’s team lost a series to Bangladesh, and then to South Africa and Australia. If you leave aside the two series wins over the lowly Zimbabwe, which should make nobody too happy, the only win of any significance was a hard-earned one against New Zealand last year. All this was at a time when Virat Kohli had been taking India to great heights in Tests.
A normally calm and composed Dhoni lost his cool during the World T20, when India’s performance against Bangladesh was questioned, choosing to launch an acerbic counter-attack, and when he was asked about his retirement plans (perhaps for the umpteenth time), he doused the interviewer in sarcasm.
And then, he shocked the world again by giving up limited-overs captaincy of India early this year, choosing to play as only a wicketkeeper-batsman, something his ardent supporters were not ready to accept.
Yuvraj, however, stood strongly behind Dhoni, and said, with Dhoni giving up captaincy, they can now play “fearless cricket” again as in the older days. “We always have been batting together since he started his career. Obviously, I started much earlier. Mahi (Dhoni) and I have played a lot of games for India. The camaraderie is always there. I think we have a lot of understanding when we bat together. Running between the wickets is always good. I hope it works in the future as well,” Yuvraj said after their twin hundreds in Cuttack.
Both players showed they were in good touch in the first warm up match against England in Mumbai earlier this month. It was Dhoni’s last match as captain of an Indian side and while he smashed 68 off 40 balls, Yuvraj hit a 48-ball 56.
For Dhoni, the 134 in Cuttack was evidence that he has now rediscovered his carefree, aggressive batting style, which bowlers used to dread. The knock would also be special because it was his first international century for a very long time – he had last scored one way back in October 2013, in an ODI against Australia.
Indian captain Kohli said before the start of the series that Yuvraj was brought in to ease the pressure on Dhoni and the inexperienced middle order, as the team prepares for the Champions Trophy in June, and Yuvraj has responded well. Yuvraj and Dhoni playing with such freedom and disdain ensures that even if the mighty Kohli has a rare failure, there would be no respite for the opposition bowlers.
“If Dhoni and Yuvraj do well at number four and five in this series, India will stand a better chance of defending the Champions Trophy,” former captain Kapil Dev told a leading daily recently. And he is absolutely right.
“Two of the greats stood up, that is what the team management envisioned (the prospect of both Yuvraj and Dhoni in the playing eleven),” said Kohli, after India won the series at Cuttack.
“What an amazing partnership between a superstar and a rockstar!! We enjoyed the show,” tweeted Tendulkar. Could there have been a bigger tribute to the dashing duo of Yuvraj and Dhoni? They deserve every bit of the plaudits they are getting and have proved once again that they are one of the greatest pairs cricket has ever seen.