Late on a warm April Sunday night freshened by a summer shower, eleven of India’s best cricketers lost a game under the bright lights of the Sher-e-Bangla stadium in Mirpur. A little over 2000 kilometres away, back home in Chandigarh, a group of alleged Indian cricket fans disgraced themselves, pelting stones at the house of a man who had endured his toughest outing on a cricket field.
India’s loss in the ICC World Twenty20 2014 was disappointing, certainly, for they had played immaculate cricket leading into the biggest game of the tournament, brushing aside all those who came before them. India’s fans power the game, their energy, involvement and eyeballs are the engine room of India’s emergence as a financial superpower in cricket. And most of these fans are also supporters, backing their team to do well in good times and bad, but a few – and that number itself is too many — are merely fair-weather friends.
To be invested in sport, or a sporting team, is to understand that there will be tough times that have to be endured, to accept that heartbreak is inevitable. How you react at these times is as important as, if not more so than, how you enjoy the ride when the going is good. Any Indian supporter who watched Yuvraj Singh – player of the tournament at the 2011 World Cup – would be forgiven for feeling let down.
Yuvraj knows in his heart that his 21-ball 11 is the kind of innings nightmares are made of. He knows that the standards he has set, the feats he has pulled off – six sixes off one Stuart Broad over in particular – have set the bar so high, that viewers will not be able to comprehend what just happened. India had built a base, Virat Kohli had purred like a mountain lion and was clearing his throat to roar, when something unimaginable happened.
The first ball Yuvraj received, from Rangana Herath, he flicked away easily enough for a comfortable single. The next, from Sachithra Senanayake, was dabbed to short third-man for another single. A couple of dot balls and two further glides to third-man later, Yuvraj had faced the equivalent of an over, as much time as anyone gets to settle in, in a Twenty20 match.
Where he would normally have teed off, clearing that front leg, engaging those long levers and belting the ball with a brutal combination of muscle and timing, Yuvraj came unstuck. While it was true that the Sri Lankans landed every ball exactly where they wanted to, this was the sort of detail that would not have mattered in the least to the Yuvraj of old. Here was a man who made a name for himself putting good balls 15 rows back in the stands, unable to either turn the strike over quickly enough or hit the high notes.
The longest half hour in Yuvraj’s cricketing life came to an end when he holed out, and he walked off leaving behind an irate partner to an impatient dressing-room. At that moment, the posterboy of a generation, the man whose mobile number more young women wanted than most Bollywood heartthrobs, was the loneliest man in the world.
Yuvraj does not like to make a big show of talking cricket technique or strategy, but he understands the limited-overs game like few others. His instinct for cricket, with bat, ball or on the field, is God-given, fearsomely nurtured and painstakingly learnt. There was no need for any sugarcoating. Yuvraj would have known, more acutely than any preening pundit or passionate punter, just what he had done.
From a cricketing perspective, if a postmortem was to be done, few can argue with the fact that even in a team game, it was that one passage of play that had made the difference between a stiff target and a comfortable one. There are eleven men in the mix, but the game can and often does turn on one performance, and just as we celebrate the positive ones, it is possible to acknowledge the negative ones without looking for a scapegoat.
That Yuvraj has endured the kind of tough times that most of us are fortunate not to have to go through, is an undeniable fact. The callous will insinuate that some part of Yuvraj’s many recent comebacks were down to sympathy over his successful battle with cancer, but they could not be more wrong. Yuvraj was brought back time and again not because a selector or captain felt pity, but rather because he had – and hopefully still has – something to offer to Indian cricket. To forget what he is capable of, and has proven over and over, because of one passage of play, is revealing not of the fallibility of one man. It is not merely beauty that is in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, before this tournament, Yuvraj’s last two T20I innings were 72 off 36 against Pakistan followed by 77 not out off 35 against Australia. It’s not like he earned a free pass to the World T20 squad.
What Yuvraj needed, as he walked off the field by himself after Thisara Perera had cracked the winning run, a scything left-handed power blast that Yuvraj would have struck in his sleep on most days, was not our sympathy, but some empathy.
There is not one of us who has not endured a bad day at work, or at home, who cannot understand what he might have felt like. But there are few who have had to live these moments out in the full glare of the public eye.
As for those gentlemen who acted so swiftly, flinging rocks at Yuvraj’s house in Chandigarh even before the Indian team could negotiate the traffic from Mirpur to Dhaka, Yuvraj Singh did not fail you, for you were never Indian cricket fans in the first place.