Look into the eyes of Yuvraj and if you find a deranged glint, it can mean only one thing. That manic gleam would not look out of place in the eyes of a tiger about to pounce on his prey or a cold-blooded psychopath, and there is no surer sign that a special innings is about to come. Opposition bowlers who find that fire in his eyes may as well lay down their arms, for the alternative is a hapless slaughter.
He had it when he hit Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over in the 2007 World T20. He had it when he smashed 70 off 30 deliveries in the semifinal of the same event. He had it when he beat Australia in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal. And he certainly had it as he announced his return with a fine T20 international innings ever by an Indian of 77 from just 35 balls.
Batsmen often talk about being ‘in the zone’ when they are at their best. Ordinary folks like us can only wonder what this zone they talk about is. Watch Yuvraj at his best and this zone business starts to make sense. No one is more obviously ‘in the zone’ than a Yuvraj in full flow.
You just know every single ball will fly off the centre of the middle of the sweet spot of his bat. He assumes this indefinable air of invincibility that renders him unstoppable and that is almost unique to him. You could bowl a hundred overs at him without half a chance of getting him out. Hand him a golf club and he will drive 500 yards. Hand him a baseball bat and he will rattle off 30 consecutive home runs. Put him in a 100m dash and he will beat Usain Bolt. Hand him a spade and he will move a mountain.
It’s not all timing; that would be the domain of Sachin and Lara. It’s not pure muscle, on which Hayden and Sehwag built their careers. It’s not effortless either, the way Chris Gayle can make it look. The only words that come closest to describing his brand of exhilarating hitting are that the bat looks like a natural extension of his arms. Shoulders, elbows and wrists all snap at the exact same instant as the ball meets the thickest part of his bat, delivering immense power that sends the ball soaring. That beautiful, clean hitting arc of his with the huge backlift and exaggerated follow-through has to be one of the most beautiful sights in cricket.
Very, very few players seem to play with that perfect combination of power and timing that Yuvraj has. Only one other batsman, Ricky Ponting, in my eyes, occupies that same space of invincibility as Yuvraj. More recently, Virat Kohli has displayed a similar aura, such as in the innings in the CB Series in Australia early last year when he chased down 321 runs in under 37 overs against Sri Lanka. In these kinds of innings, the overriding sense is one of absolute dominance.
Tendulkar’s and Lara’s best innings exude joy; they play to delight. Dravid plays to save humanity from oblivion. Gilchrist, Sehwag and Gayle are like heavyweight boxers delivering a joyless hammering to an opponent long since knocked out. De Villiers and Pietersen stun you with their talent and audacity. Brendon McCullum or Aaron Finch or Kieron Pollard of the T20 era can play quicker innings, but rely on an obscene use of power. In donning that cloak of invincibility, Ponting, Yuvraj and perhaps Kohli, stand alone.
Yuvraj has just overcome a horrific illness. That, in itself, is a cause for celebration. Very few top sportsmen have returned to their former level from a disease as debilitating as cancer. And he has fought back on merit, having worked himself to full fitness and proved himself at the domestic level. His return deserves far more attention than it is getting. But then, Sach is life in the shadows of giants.