Getting his feet right, he's looking for great feats

S. DINAKAR

YUVRAJ SINGH has undergone a metamorphosis mentally and technically. His transformation into a free-stroking, but judicious batsman in the Indian middle-order has been quite remarkable.

It is the manner in which he is gathering runs rather than the numbers themselves that screams for attention. While he retains his flair, his game is now adorned with a solidity that is the result of a few critical technical adjustments.

The left-hander's feet are now closer in his stance. This has brought about greater balance in his batting; whether in offence or defence. He is rightly seeking to hit the ball straight, and collect his runs in the `V.'

The man who is now playing with the full face of the bat shared the Man of the Series award with Graeme Smith after the ODI series against South Africa. The left-hander aggregated 209 in four innings at 69.66, fielded brilliantly and turned his arm around usefully.

Coach Greg Chappell who has spent quality time with Yuvraj at the nets realises that the Punjab cricketer is someone with great potential.

Chappell says, Yuvraj, to his credit, has worked hard on his game. "We have tried out things in his technique, approach and thought process, but importantly, he understood what needed to be done. Without this, nothing would have been possible. His example is a classic one of someone willing to change," says Chappell.

Sports Scientist Ian Fraser, a key member of Chappell's support staff, shed light on the new-look Yuvraj. "He was trying out different stances at the beginning of the season. We bowled slower balls at him and got him to use his feet against the spinners. We quickly worked out the best starting position for him to allow himself to use the ground forces.

"Earlier, he was looking for backfoot play initially. Now, he is looking for the full ball, looking to go forward. If it is short, he is able to move back. His feet were wide in his stance before, and he was getting planted on his crease. Now his feet are closer. The ball comes straight at you, and the best way is to hit it straight past the bowler. Yuvraj is finding that out."

Over to Yuvraj himself on how his career is shaping in this conversation with The Sportstar in Chennai.

Question: There is an unmistakable solidity and assurance in your ways at the crease these days. You have worked hard on your cricket.

Answer: I have been looking to hit the ball straight, rather than strike it square. This has really helped me. I have gone back to the stance with which I used to bat in my under-19 days. My feet were wide, but I have brought them closer together now. Yes, I am trying to go forward more, so that I can hit them straighter than strike square. My feet are moving well.

Coach Chappell has shown considerable interest in you. He appears to believe in your abilities.

I have been speaking to him and working on my batting. He has been of great help, technically and mentally. You can pick small things everyday. They all add up and end up making a difference to your game.

The Man of the Series award against South Africa, which you shared with Smith, must have given you enormous satisfaction.

It means a lot to me. For the last five years I have been playing for India and this was my first Man of the Series award. This was special.

You have made three ODI hundreds this year. Which of these innings would you pick for special mention?

Yes, I made a hundred in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe before my century in Hyderabad. My century against West Indies in Colombo was important for the team. We were in a tough situation, and I was happy I was able to contribute.

But I would rate my effort against South Africa in Hyderabad as my best. The team was under pressure at 35 for five, the ball was moving around, and South Africa has a good pace attack. I knew if I stayed beyond the 40-over mark, we could accelerate towards the end. We could not afford to lose any more quick wickets and I had to stay at one end. I wanted to hit the ball down the ground. I was happy with the way I batted that day. I knew I had to apply myself for the team. In the end, we made nearly 250. I was proud of the effort of the team that day.

Your 49 in the crunch game in Mumbai was a crucial innings as well when India chased under lights on a pitch where there was some bounce for the bowlers.

Yes, there was some pace and carry on that wicket. It was a match we had to win to square the series. The situation was trying. The South Africans were bowling well, but I am comfortable with bounce. It does not bother me. When I joined Rahul (Dravid) we needed to get a partnership going. That was important. I was happy we could achieve that. I stroked the ball well that night.

That, indeed, was a pressure situation with both sides having plenty to play for...

At this level, it is all about handling pressure. How you cope with the challenges. I just concentrate on my cricket, what I am trying to do. I do not let the other factors affect me. I am focussed.

Your stroke-selection has improved, so has your judgment of length. You are even `leaving' deliveries outside the off-stump these days. Going back to your Hyderabad innings, the ball was moving, both in the air and off the seam.

I used to be impulsive earlier on. Now I realise that you cannot score off every delivery. There are times when you have to leave some good balls alone. I have been working on several aspects of my cricket. Now, I am trying to be a better player every day. I am learning to bat in different situations.

Are you are looking forward to the challenge of Test match cricket whenever the opportunity arrives?

Definitely. A player is only rated if he has a good Test record. I am not happy with my Test record at the moment.

You do have a Test hundred on a green-top in Lahore...

That is past. I don't want to dwell on the past. What I do in the future is more important.

Would you change your methods in Tests?

Initially, I will have to be more selective in my shot selection. In one-day cricket there are not too many fielders in catching positions. Otherwise, the basics of hitting the ball are the same. I am essentially an aggressive batsman.

There has been criticism in the past about the way you dealt with quality spin bowling...

I don't have to worry about criticism. Handling that is a part and parcel of a sportsman's career. I have made runs against spinners in the past, but as in every aspect of life, there is always room to improve. I am confident that I can be a better player of spin bowling.

Your thoughts on Rahul Dravid's captaincy...

He is very committed as a captain. There is a lot of discipline among the players. He has been a terrific leader so far. I hope he carries on and makes us proud. Captaincy is not easy. There is so much responsibility on you. He has played around 10 years of international cricket. He is mature, he has a very steady head. He is the best man to be the captain now.

The Indian team-spirit was evident in the ODI series against Sri Lanka and South Africa.

Team spirit is what takes the side forward. We enjoy each other's successes. We are a happy bunch and we enjoy our cricket.

What has cricket taught you about life?

A lot of things. I have seen ups and downs. I have seen people in good times and bad times. I saw who were the people who were with me during all times.

Your left-arm spin has proved handy for the side on occasions in limited overs cricket. Do you seek tips from your good friend Bhajji (Harbhajan Singh)?

I keep working on my bowling in the nets whenever I get a chance. Whenever I ask Bhajji, he says `I don't know anything about spin. You do whatever you have to do!' Whenever I want some advice I ask Anil (Kumble). He is a senior player. He has been a great bowler for India. He has been a great fighter. Everybody looks up to him.

Whom do you look up to as a batsman?

My favourite batsman has always been Sachin Tendulkar, since I was a kid. The way he plays, the way he thinks, and changes his game according to the different situations. It is quite amazing to be sitting in the same dressing room with him. I am also a big fan of Ricky Ponting. He is an all-time great batsman. His approach to the game and the way he bats, his confidence when he comes on to the field, are simply amazing.

How would you define aggressive batting?

Aggressive batting is looking to score runs off every ball. To be on top of the bowler every time. To be attacking.

Do you gauge a bowler's body language, work on his mind?

Everybody has a different way of looking at the bowler. Some look at the expression. Some look at the hand. I want to keep my method to myself. But it is important that you win the psychological battle with the bowler.

The bowler you rate high?

Glenn McGrath is a great bowler. Whenever I played him, I found him to be a challenge. He is very difficult to handle. Very good line and length and bounce.

The Indian fielding has been outstanding in the ODIs. You have been brilliant too.

Ian (Fraser) looks at every aspect. He gives us different things to do on different days, like match situation catching and fielding, and reflex action practice. Throwing the ball again and again at one stump, getting into different positions, catching something like five balls in a second. When a match is going on, he looks at every aspect of the game. Greg (fitness trainer Gregory King) has kept us fit. It is showing on the field.

How do you unwind after a day's cricket?

I listen to a lot of music. I listen to Bhangra a lot. I listen to pop music. Remixes, everything. Anything new will do. I watch a lot of movies. Any movie, whether it is English or Hindi.

Your favourite actors?

My favourite actors have been Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. Lately, I have begun to like Abhishek Bachchan a lot. He is doing really well.

My favourite heroine has always been Kajol. It's sad that we don't get to see her often these days.

The person who has inspired you during difficult times.

My mother. She has always been there for me. You also read books from time to time.

Right now I am reading Lance Armstrong's book. The way he has fought cancer. He has been such a huge success in life. It's amazing.