Mahendra Singh Dhoni Fansite

The artist formerly known as the prince

Gary Kirsten thinks its about belief, Mahendra Singh Dhoni attributes it to pressure, Kapil Dev has called for more time, Michael Clarke feels a comeback is imminent, and some experts have said a break is the best option. A Bollywood actress’ name keeps cropping up. With every match, every new failure, the Yuvraj Singh conundrum is dissected further.

Yuvraj’s slide has been one of the themes of the Australian summer, one where he has found new ways to get himself out. At the MCG last Sunday, with the game on a knife edge, he swung hard at a slow offcutter from Stuart Clark. The ball popped straight to Michael Hussey at short cover, who had been stationed in the position expressly for the purpose. A fielder was brought in and Yuvraj played straight into his hands.

It was déjà vu all over again. Yuvraj arrived in Australia a proud prince, fresh off a scintillating century against Pakistan in the Bangalore Test. The swagger remains but the bat is no more the flashing blade that cut bowlers to pieces. Adding to the frustration is the fact that the bowlers have often been peripheral to Yuvraj’s downfall.

Kirsten, a left-hand batsman who based his game more on graft rather than dazzling shots, talks of “high expectations and a fear of failure”. Few would be more qualified to talk about ploughing one’s way out of a rough patch, so diligently did Kirsten approach every single innings. “It usually requires a scratchy but determined innings to get the confidence and belief back,” he told Cricinfo. “And it also requires a bit of luck. I believe this comes from a really good attitude in training and in one’s preparation. Work as hard as one can in one’s physical and mental preparation and more times than not, things will turn.”

There’s no doubt that Yuvraj himself has been dissecting his technique to bits, trying to figure out where the flaw lies. There has been talk of his vulnerability against the moving ball, his tentativeness against spin, his lack of footwork against both, and his faulty head position. Surely Yuvraj, on the cusp of his 200th ODI, has had enough time to find out what works best for him?

The slump has called on Mahendra Singh Dhoni to field a barrage of questions at the end of every match. At Canberra, where Yuvraj came in as late as the penultimate over, he scowled when asked about Yuvraj’s form. Dhoni is doing his bit to curb his own flamboyance, in keeping with the need to achieve his vision for a brave, adaptable team. He has knuckled down, brought out a more guarded front, and thrived on the responsibility. The ability to do likewise has often eluded Yuvraj.

“Yuvraj is key and whether he is scoring or not doesn’t matter. At times when you are desperate to perform, the pressure mounts,” Dhoni said. “Personally, I feel Yuvi should come after the 20th over because the field opens up and that’s the main time when you build up your innings. The main emphasis for a team has always been on how you start the innings and how you finish in the final overs, but for me it is how you set up and how you perform in the middle overs – 20-39 overs is more important and that’s the key moment for your best batsman to be out there.

“Last year he was our main middle-order batsman, who handled pressure and gave good stability to the side. He also contributes with the ball when we play an extra batsman, so he is an asset to the side.”

Yuvraj, too, has cited his phenomenal run last year, where he came into his own as a one-day batsman and was unstoppable in the World Twenty20. After India’s World Cup debacle, he rattled up 1025 runs in 29 games up until the start of the CB Series. In 2007 he was the most successful Indian batsman in run-chases, ended with the best average, and was India’s second most prolific run-scorer after Sachin Tendulkar.

Before the CB Series, Yuvraj spoke of his disastrous run in the Tests in Australia – he totalled 23 runs in five innings – and argued that it was only a minor blip that was being blown out of proportion. “It’s just two games, not like some ten-odd games.”

Yet, ever since his debut in 2000, there has been a question mark over his consistency. Those who have played the game at his level point to his frequent inability to lean into a stroke completely – which various bowlers have exploited by placing an extra fielder at short cover or silly mid-off.

The demons of self-doubt may have surfaced after his latest injury as well. It took a while for Yuvraj to rebound from the knee injury he sustained in 2006, and he was lucky to get away with a minor twinge this time around. Whispers that his frail knee has been playing on his mind are yet to be confirmed, but these are hard to ignore when he is seen at mid-on or languishing in the outfield instead of at his favourite position, point.

It’s not so much the lack of runs that is worrying. Yuvraj has displayed little vitality in the field, and a distinct lack of leadership of the sort that one expects from the vice-captain. Harbhajan Singh, a long-time friend, reckons Yuvraj is one of the “top ten” batsmen at the moment. Yuvraj knows he has the resources to justify the claim. With other players one might have asked, “Will he, won’t he?” but this man, supposedly India’s next great batsman, has no option. He simply must.

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