Yuvraj Singh’s is clearly a journey less travelled. Teenaged destroyer of Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee in Nairobi in 2000. The poster boy of Indian cricket after his exploits in the final of the NatWest Trophy at Lord’s in 2002. Test star in the making following his wonderful century on a green-top in Lahore in 2004. A career-threatening knee injury playing kho-kho at a warm-up session in Mohali during the Champions Trophy in 2006. The six-sixes man at the World T20, the player of the tournament and the toast of a nation during the 2011 World Cup. Struck down by cancer. Fighting back to not just full recovery but also a place in the national side. A 21-ball 11 in the final of the World T20 against Sri Lanka in Mirpur in 2014. Then one international comeback after another, first in the T20 format, then in the 50-over game.
Every time life dealt an unkind cut, the charismatic Yuvraj found a counter. He found a silver lining where others would have seen the cloud, refusing to give up when fighting on might have seemed pointless. And, remarkably, it was time outside of cricket focussing on happiness, as he tells Wisden India, that helped him rediscover a second – or third, or fourth, he himself has lost count – wind. A wonderful first-class season with Punjab (692 runs in five games at 84 and a career-best of 260) prompted his return to the One-Day International side after three and a half years, and Yuvraj celebrated his comeback with a career-best 150 in Cuttack against England in January.
Now, a title defence of the Indian Premier League looms with Sunrisers Hyderabad, followed by the Champions Trophy defence in England in June. As Yuvraj reveals, he now is able to put things in perspective and not take anything for granted; while cricket was the driving force during the darkest days of cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery, his life is no longer just cricket. Excerpts from an engrossing chat:
It looks like it was only the other day that you were laying into McGrath and Lee, but you are now into your 17th year of international cricket. It has been one crazy journey full of ups and downs, hasn’t it?
I know! Actually, time has gone by so quickly, it’s amazing. I was talking to the Punjab Ranji Trophy team the other day also about how quickly time goes. I was telling them that you should make the most of it today and work as hard as you can because tomorrow, when you wake up, you realise that ten years have quickly gone by.
It (the ride) has been a great learning curve. It has had a lot of highs and lows of cricket, of life. I think cricket has given me everything but it has also — with stuff that has gone on off the field and with health issues and injuries — it may have taught me how to bounce back in life. Those experiences with the game and with life have made me very strong personally and so yes, it’s been a great learning. Cricket has been a great teacher for me.
Finding happiness in my life was a very big reason for me to come back and play for India again. When you are playing for India, you always feel that you belong there. And suddenly I was not there. I needed to find my life without playing for India, without playing cricket because eventually, after a few years, I am going to stop doing that.
What is the biggest lesson cricket has taught you?
The biggest lesson I have learnt is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. I think that’s what I have learnt — to appreciate what cricket has given me. Appreciation is very important. You must not regret that ‘oh, this could have happened, that could have happened’. You should also look at the positives that have come out of it. Bringing out what is new in you in terms of learning, travelling, learning the game, playing in different conditions, from the lows of losing to the highs of winning. It has been a great character-building for me over the years.
Also not to take things for granted when the going is good?
Yeah, I think it happens. When you are on a high and you are on a roll, you feel that nothing can go wrong. But I think you actually realise your true character. Your true potential will get out when things are not going well for you. That’s when the actual learning curve kicks in, when you fail in life. And how you learn to bounce back from it. If you are able to bounce back from your first mistake, I am sure then the next couple of times when you fall down, it makes you much stronger and stronger.
You have had your fair share of injuries. Through all those non-cricketing lows, how did you maintain your equanimity, your balance?
Yes, there have been many injuries, it’s not only me who has got injured. Everybody who plays sport gets injured, it’s part and parcel of sport. Unfortunately for me, I got a knee injury when I was really doing well in my career. I was actually getting a permanent Test place at that time. I think the knee injury (in 2006) made me fall behind by 6-8 months. Every time my career was taking a high, I was unfortunate with either picking up an injury or being diagnosed with cancer. It has been always been that high, and quickly that low coming. It has always been up and down, it has never been stable for me. It has always been the case, that is how it has been for me. So, no regrets.
I think when nothing is going right for you, you’ve got to believe in yourself. You have to believe that if you have done it in the past, there is no reason why you cannot do it in the future. And you just got to keep that belief in yourself and keep telling yourself that if you keep on doing the same things that you have been doing – working hard, practising, motivating yourself – then definitely when the time changes, good times will surely come back.
Did cancer put cricket in perspective, so to say?
Obviously when I was diagnosed with cancer, I was always thinking about how I was going to come back and play. People, heavyweights, kept saying you should be thinking about how you are going to come back to life. And I always kept thinking about the game. I think because of the game, I came back to life, that’s what I always keep telling myself. Because I always wanted to come back and play for India, that’s what kept me motivated in my recovery from cancer. That would have to be the motivation for me.
This time there was no doubt, there was a lot of backing. The selectors showed a lot of faith in me, specially MSK Prasad always kept talking to me in domestic matches and said that if you score runs, you will surely be back. That was a good motivation because in India when you cross 35, people start talking about your age, rather than… Even if you have the ability, everything sort of gets related to the age.
You are on course for the record for the most comebacks by an Indian cricketer. Those periods out of the game and the route back, the uncertainty over selection, how did you deal with all that?
It was pretty tough in those moments because coming back from cancer, the body wasn’t the same as it used to be. Just to get the body back, it took about 2-3 years, maybe even six months more than that. Eventually I knew that if I kept working hard and if I kept believing in myself, times will change again. But also, I lost the most important years of my life as a batsman because as a batsman, you peak from say 28-29 to 33-34. I lost those years but also it was a blessing that I was able to come back and play again. I think it’s heads on both sides of the coin. I have to just take is as a blessing and be thankful to God that I am able to live again and inspire a lot of people and come back and represent my country again.
Perhaps the most scrutinised comeback had to be this January, during the England ODIs…
I had been batting well in domestic cricket, I had been getting a lot of runs. Before the one-day series, I had a very good domestic season. I knew I had been working hard on my fitness and I had been hitting the ball well. When I was practicing, I worked a lot with Sanjay Bangar (the Indian batting coach) and Raghu (the throwdown specialist) in the nets. And I told Sanjay that I have been hitting the ball really well and hopefully on my day, I can score big. I had that feeling. When you are batting well, you have a good feeling in your system. I just feel that when you are not batting well and when you are not scoring a lot of runs, you always have that doubt whether I am going to score or not. But I feel that this time there was no doubt, there was a lot of backing. The selectors showed a lot of faith in me, specially MSK Prasad (the chairman of selectors) always kept talking to me in domestic matches and said that if you score runs, you will surely be back. That was a good motivation because in India when you cross 35, people start talking about your age, rather than… Even if you have the ability, everything sort of gets related to the age, unfortunately that’s the case in our country. But I think with the experience I have, the selectors thought that I was batting well in domestic cricket and deserved a chance to play for India again. That lifted me.
How much did you need that hundred in Cuttack? There was no grand celebration, almost a quiet acceptance.
I needed to prove it to myself, rather than to prove it to the world, you know. I needed to prove to myself that I still have it in me, I still can deliver in the way I used to deliver in the past. It was more proving it to myself and the battle within — that I can still do the impossible. That was the belief I had and it actually came true with all the hard work I put in and the belief I had maintained over the last three years.
It was more of an inner battle in terms of doing it again in life — coming a long way with my health issues and when people thought my cricket is over. It was a very real sense of calmness that I felt — that this is a feeling that I really wanted to experience for a while, actually believing in myself for so many years. It was relief, a vindication that I still had it in me. I really wanted to prove it to myself.
Virat Kohli is someone who has always raised the bar. He is the next generation player in raising the bar higher. He is definitely the most exceptional batsman we have in the times now. He is someone who changed very quickly and adapted to Test cricket quicker than me. What we learnt in a span of 10 years, he learnt in a span of 3-4 years.
How did this calmness come about?
After the T20 World Cup final (in Mirpur), nothing was going right for me. I was not getting too many runs in domestic cricket also and I was out of the side. I just focussed, I took some time away from the game. I was seeing Hazel (Keech, to whom he got married last November) at that time and I focussed on the other side of my life. Just spending time with her, enjoying life, got engaged at that time. After six months, I came back to cricket again and started practising again. I just focussed on myself, my life, not thinking about the outcome of what happened in the last year and a half. I think focussing on my life brought me back into the rhythm of playing. You are being disciplined, training hard, eating the right food and having happiness. Finding happiness in my life was a very big reason for me to come back and play for India again. When you are playing for India, you always feel that you belong there. And suddenly I was not there. I needed to find my life without playing for India, without playing cricket because eventually, after a few years, I am going to stop doing that. And you have to move on and you have to live your life. I focussed on that — leading my life, having a life of my own outside of cricket. It helped me in getting back to the game.
A big few months coming up with the IPL, then the Champions Trophy. Your thoughts?
Yeah, definitely an important couple of months. The IPL obviously is a big tournament in India and then we have got the Champions Trophy, I have got to be fitter. I am getting better at fitness, that’s what my goal is — work hard on my fitness and deliver what the situation demands from me. We have a lot of one-day cricket coming up in the year. I am just looking to play whatever cricket I get to play, and let’s see where I finish.
Is the Yuvraj Singh of today a contented, happy man who is at peace with himself?
Yes, definitely. It has been so many years, if I am not going to mature and learn now, when am I going to do that?! I started playing when I was 18-19 and at the age of 35, a few years left in me, I have to look forward to life, not only think about cricket. Because cricket is only going to be for 15-17 years but after that, it’s your life, it’s your family, so you got to look forward to that.
When Virat Kohli broke through, you sort of took him under your wing. Did you see in him shades of a young Yuvraj at all?
No, I don’t think there was ever a comparison between me and him because we are very different personalities. He is someone who changed very quickly and adapted to Test cricket quicker. What we learnt in a span of 10 years, he learnt in a span of 3-4 years. And he is just a different individual from me. A very successful one-day, Test player. Someone averaging 57 in T20s cricket is remarkable. He is someone who has always raised the bar. He is the next generation player in raising the bar higher. He is definitely the most exceptional batsman we have in the times now. He has been a top-order batsman and I have been a middle-order batsman, and he has been a really successful player. Very few players have had the success that he has had in international cricket.