New Delhi:Cast your mind back nearly four years, to a New Year Test in Cape Town. After being thrashed in the one-day series preceding the Tests, few had expected India to win convincingly in Johannesburg. South Africa, with Makhaya Ntini bowling an inspired spell, evened it up in Durban and there was everything to play for in the shadow of Table Mountain.
On the eve of the game, much of the discussion focused on Munaf Patel. Having injured his ankle early on in the one-day series, he had watched the first two Tests from the sidelines. VRV Singh, who replaced him, had been a liability, especially in Durban where 10 overs in the second innings had gone for 64 at a time when the game was in the balance. The team management faced a straightforward choice - either gamble on Munaf's fitness or play Harbhajan Singh, with a dry, subcontinent-like pitch expected to take turn.
They went for Munaf. He bowled 20 overs in the first innings, taking the crucial wicket of Mark Boucher as India established a slender 41-run lead. But then, after the batsmen had lost their nerve and the plot, leaving South Africa a tricky 211 to win, he bowled just one over with the game on the line. "Not fit" was the word from the dressing room.
After South Africa clinched the series, the inquests began in earnest. Board officials labelled Munaf "less than honest" and he has played only five Tests for India since. There are still players in the team who shake their heads when they talk of the game, insisting that the man who was just 23 at the time had let the side down.
Vince Lombardi, one of the great coaches in the history of sport, once said: "The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall. For Munaf, that challenge came at the World Cup a few months later. In the ultimately decisive loss to Bangladesh, a game where very few of his team-mates distinguished themselves, he made 15 and took 2 for 39. It didn't really help. Since then, he has fought frequent battles with injury, and when fit, has been looked at suspiciously by the establishment.
Even if he was in the wrong in Cape Town, it's time that things moved on. In the three games that he's played against New Zealand, Munaf has shown how he can be the ideal third seamer for India's World Cup XI. As canny as Praveen Kumar, he can be a whole lot quicker on his day. And though he may currently lack the pace that Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth can operate at, he bowls with far more discipline and control. When you think back to that astonishing debut in Mohali nearly five years ago, what sticks in the mind isn't so much the pace but the fact that he looked like he'd been doing it for years.
The unreliable tag should be binned. Recall Matthew Hayden in his first avatar, deer in the headlights against West Indian pace. He averaged 21.75 in his first seven Tests and had no complaints when he was dropped. He came back six years later and in a second innings that lasted nearly a decade, he scored 29 of his 30 Test hundreds and averaged well over 50.
Think too of Damien Martyn, another dumped after seven Tests. In his penultimate innings, he scored 59, but the fact that he holed out to cover off Allan Donald with a Sydney Test in the balance was to be held against him for years. He too returned only in the new millennium, playing 60 more Tests with a grace and economy of movement that few batsmen in the history of the game have matched.
The same examples are valid when we talk of Yuvraj Singh. He scored a half-century in the last Test that he played in Galle, but hasn't even been able to find a place in the squad since, thwarted first by injury and then the emergence of Suresh Raina and Cheteshwar Pujara. Yuvraj's Test average of 35.63 is disappointing, but it's also undeniable that he's never enjoyed the kind of steady run in the team that others have had. Before Kolkata 2001, VVS Laxman averaged 27 from 20 Tests, many of those innings having been played as a makeshift opener. If the selectors had closed the book on him then, Indian cricket wouldn't have enjoyed a smidgen of the success that it has since.
Yuvraj may well struggle to reclaim a spot in the Test side, but it's ludicrous to mix up his performance in whites with his value to the one-day side. If India are to have any chance of winning the World Cup in a few months time, they will need to play seven specialist batsmen, at least two of whom will also bowl regularly. Would Yuvraj make that list of seven? Of course he would.
If the choice comes down to playing him or the faux allrounders that India possess, Yusuf Pathan and Ravindra Jadeja, it's really no choice at all. In home conditions, Yuvraj averages nearly 42 with a strike-rate of 91.48. In the last five years, he's had one bad one (2009). Add in his bowling, with an economy-rate of 5.04 after 258 games, and you're looking at the best left-handed option that India has by some distance.
There are two factors to think of while choosing a World Cup squad. You don't want too many scarred by repeated failures or defeat. But you do wish for a core of men with something to prove, those who have experienced soul-destroying disappointments and come back from them.
Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and Harbhajan all played alongside Yuvraj when India were brushed aside in the 2003 final. Nehra apart, the other five were also on duty when Bangladesh pushed India towards the exit four years later. In Freedom From Fear, the recently released Aung Sang Suu Kyi wrote: It is his capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes man from the mere brute. If the selectors remember that, then Indian cricket has a lot to look forward to.