I wanted to write this post for a long time. I wanted to write it in April last year, just after he got into a tight embrace with MS Dhoni with tears in his eyes in Wankhede. But I held myself back. I thought it was a team performance and as a lover of the Indian cricket team I should not point one person out. Then I wanted to write it in last February, when he was seriously ill and finally the official news of him being diagnosed with cancer was released in the media. But again I held back. I thought my prayer would be more important than my writing.
The thought again came in July, precisely on 13th of July, the day of the 10th anniversary of the Natwest final win. But Dara Singh passed away on 12th and I felt greater urge to write a tribute for my first hero than celebrating the win.
But today, I will not stop myself. I will write about the champ, one of the greatest characters of Indian cricket, Yuvraj Singh.
I first heard of Yuvraj singh in the year 2000. ICC under-19 world cup was going on. Still there was no television coverage, neither there was internet. But at least for the first time in my memory I could read about the results of under-19 world cup in Ananda Bazar Patrika. And two names were mentioned again and again - captain Md. Kaif and Yuvraj Singh. Yuvraj with his all-round skill won the man-of-the-tournament in India’s victorious campaign.
At the same time, Indian senior team was going through a tough time. The scandal of ‘match-fixing’ was slowly going away from public’s mind. A relative young Indian team with greats like Debang Gandhi, Jacob martin, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and MSK Prasad made a tour to Australia under the 2nd stint of captaincy by Sachin Tendulkar. As expected Indians were thrashed by the Aussies 0-3 in the test series and finished third among three teams in the ODI series with a solitary win in the series. Thanks to a magical 141 by Ganguly!
Indians returned home and were again beaten by South Africa (0-2). Their first home series loss in more than a decade. Everything was amiss in Indian cricket. Sachin Tendulkar resigned from captaincy just before the ODI series, lots of mediocre players were dropped without any suitable replacements, Ganguly was selected captain of the team despite great opposition from Mumbai and South lobby (I still remember, how in Ganguly’s first match as regular captain, against SAF in Kochi, both Ravi Shashtri and Sanjay Manjarekar spent their entire pre-match discussion on how Sachin Tendulkar would thrash the Proteas as he was not bogged down by the pressure of captaincy any more, without spending a single word on India’s new captain!
Note for SG fans: Sachin did score lots of run in that series, 274 in fact but ended the series as the thirst highest run getter below Gary Kirsten (281) and Sourav Ganguly (285))
Anyway, getting back to the point, although India won that series 3-2, lots of unanswered questions still remained and experiments went on to find the right combination for the team. After another short ODI series in Bangladesh India went to Nairobi, to play the inaugural ICC knockout and Indian team unleashed two future greats, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan.
Yuvi, just 20 at that time had a quiet debut match against Kenya though did not get a chance to bat. But in the 2nd match against Australia, he gave the glimpse of his ample talent. Coming at 90/3 Yuvi played a remarkable innings of 84 and got into a partnership of 64 runs with another Singh in the team, Robin. Not only that, Yuvi was exceptional in the field, saved lots of singles to derail Australia’s chase and his direct hit to run out one of the fastest men in the cricket field Michael Bevan was the perfect cherry on the top for a great effort.
Yuvi played another gem of an innings against South Africa in the semis where he scored 41 and showed that unlike other Indian youngsters he actually likes to bat in bouncy tracks, which helps his shot making. Indian cricket fans knew India’s cricket stars for the new millennium have started arriving.
I am not going to talk about Yuvi’s entire career, series by series or year by year. Yes, he did find difficulty in slow-low pitches of the sub-continent but played enough good cameos to hold on to his place in the ODI team. He had a successful Natwest series in England and the way he and his U-19 captain Kaif took India to a famous win in Lords’ after going down 146/5 chasing 325, is a part of the folk-lore of Indian cricket forever. But that was just the beginning. Yuvi would play more such innings to make himself a permanent super hero in India’s modern fairy-tales in the cricket field.
He continued to perform well and played some important innings in the 2003 world cup. The one I remember is his partnership with Rahul Dravid in the difficult chase against Pakistan. Tendulkar gave India a very strong platform with his 98 but when he got out to Akhtar India still needed 97 and Yuvi-Dravid partnership made sure that there was no panic in the lower order in the chase by finishing it themselves.
2003 to 2007 was a mixed period for him. I do remember that he delivered some match winning performances for India especially while chasing in ODIs but he lacked consistency and too many below 20 scores were spread around his 80s and 100s. Also he was drifted into the Indian test team and a few failures there not only made his position in the test team unstable it also affected his ODI performance negatively. The nadir for him and Indian team came during the 2007 world cup. Yuvi scored 47 and 83 in the first 2 matches but only 6 in the all-important match against Sri Lanka. Indians were out of the world cup in the first round and Indian cricketers were the most hated group of human beings in the world for next few months.
Indian cricket found some of his credibility back in September when MS Dhoni’s young Indian team won the first ICC T20 world cup. Yuvi was instrumental in the tournament. We all remember what he did to Stuart Broad in the match against England but I think his 70 of 30 balls in the semi-final against Australia is one of the greatest T-20 innings I have ever seen. Two world cups in bag for Yuvi and he made important contributions in both the time.
2008 to 2011 was crazy time in Indian cricket. Seniors like Ganguly and Dravid were slowly faded away from ODI and test teams. IPL made his grand entry in the world cricket landscape and Yuvraj Singh stayed as the maverick in Indian cricket. His life style outside cricket became more of a gossip than ever. New girlfriends, new nightclubs, new fashion statement, new controversies- Yuvraj singh became a regular name in page 3. He kept performing in the field though but mostly in limited over version and despite multiple comebacks could not cement his place in the Indian test team due to low scores and injuries.
And then came the ‘Mother of any sporting tournament’, a cricket world cup in India. The amount of hype, excitement and buzz were nerve-racking. And a cricket-crazy (mostly cricketer-crazy) nation was holding its breath for more than a month to see their team victorious in the biggest of stages in cricket, an honour which last came 28 years before and was not observed by more than half of the Indian population as they were not even born in 1983.
I remember what I wrote about Yuvraj Singh on one of my FB friend’s wall just before the world cup. My point was that, ‘ knowing Yuvraj Singh, he will either have a great world cup or very poor world cup. He is Yuvraj Singh, he does not believe in mediocrity, he will be in news, all the time, for good reason or may be for the bad.’
India started slowly as usual, their batting was good but bowling remained a worry. They tied their match against England after scoring 338 and lost to South Africa by giving away 13 runs in the last over. Yuvi managed a hundred against West Indies but it was his slow left arm bowling which took all the lime light especially after his 5 wicket haul against the Ireland.
In the Quarter final India faced Australia and Yuvi continued his tradition of playing well against the Aussies. He took 2 wickets while bowling and scored unbeaten 57 to successfully guide India’s chase. His expression after hitting the winning boundary is one of the many memorable images of the world cup 2011.
In the semi-final, Yuvi missed a first ball full toss from Wahab Riaz and got bowled but continued his good show with the ball to get a couple of wickets.
Then came the final. India was playing in the world cup final against neighbour Sri Lanka in Mumbai, the home of Indian cricket. Nothing can get bigger than this. Sri Lanka batted first, got to a challenging total of 274 thanks to a ton from Mahela. Yuvi got his customary two wickets.
But bigger drama was waiting to happen during India’s chase. After the fall of Virat Kohli, India’s third wicket, the entire crowd was expecting to see Yuvraj Singh coming out of the pavilion, but MS Dhoni again made a mockery of cricket pundits to send himself instead and played a crucial knock of 91 to bring the world cup glory to India. Yuvraj did come to bat after the fall of 4th wicket and remained not out when his captain and successful partner of many a chases in last 6 year hit that Kulasekhara delivery for a huge Six. And then the madness took its place in the ground. The crowd became crazy, the players became over whelmed and I have already mentioned about the hug and tears of Yuvraj Singh. I realized how strongly he had dreamt of that moment that he could not hold his emotion to himself.
The world cup celebrations dried down slowly and then I read an article where Yuvraj Singh talked about how much pressure he used to have during the world cup and how that impacted his health with regular bout of nausea and vomiting. I told myself, it is not easy to be an international sportsman, specially a cricketer from India and Pakistan. The constant scrutiny, the constant hype by the press do take their toll in one’s mental and physical health. I did not realize the bigger reason for that sickness then, I don’t think anyone could. Not even Yuvi.
Then slowly the news of Yuvi’s illness started making round. He did not play a single ODI after that world cup final and also played his last test in November.
After that it was only the news of his illness, the rare germ cell cancer which threatened to take India’s best limited over batsman away from the game and the treatments. The chemotherapy, the twitter update, the letter from Lance Armstrong, a bald and over-weight Yuvraj making appearance during an IPL match; it’s all what we heard about him.
Finally the news of Yuvi starting practice sessions was out and then Indian selectors made another most controversial call by including him the squad for 2 T-20s against New Zealand and World T-20 in Sri Lanka.
Today, Yuvi will make his comeback to the international cricket. Now it’s less than 3 hours to go for the match to be started. Will Yuvi be successful? Will he be able to take those catches, make those flying saves which only he could do? Will his shot power and foot movement be just like old? Time will give those answers but we will celebrate a great comeback of genius. A real man of character who knows the meaning of never give up and has become the role model for thousands of human being like me who need to face tough situations many times every other day In life.
10 years ago, when Yuvi and Kaif were taking India close to that target of 325 in the Natwest final, I remember Harsha Bhogle’s commentary, who urged every Indian to switch on their television sets as something wonderful was happening for Indian cricket.
Yesterday Harsha came up with this. It is a wonderful article written straight from heart. And I quote:
I hope Yuvraj looks at the rest of his playing career as a celebration, as a lifeline thrown his way. I don't know if he will ever be as good as he was, if he can get your heart racing again by the majesty of his strokeplay. But if he can play like he belongs, that's all he needs - he will tell the world a great story.
I have the exactly same feelings for him. All the best champion!! Have a blast!! Hope my article does not jinx your performance on the field.