He is not just a cricketer, he’s more.
There have been times, quite a few of them, when he seemed to be done. Times when things fell apart, his prowess became miniscule, and his weaknesses glaring. His natural reflexes withered with age, he became a slow mover in the mover in the field when he was once quicker than lightning, and lost his knack of breaking partnerships with his slow left armers.
It was staggering the way one of the most naturally gifted players the world has seen fell apart after the World Cup in 2011. And what made it worse is that it didn’t unravel all at once, making the struggle shorter and easier. Rather, the different elements that made him the genius he was gave way one by one, making the struggle longer and much harder.
Despite this, for some reason, even after being dropped in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016, Yuvraj Singh carried on.
While others may have taken the easier route of retiring from the international game and playing only the IPL, Yuvraj continued the grind. In front of empty stands at the PCA stadium in Mohali, or wherever Punjab were playing, he was there. Always.
Most, even the die-hard Yuvi loyalists, had lost hope of him making a return to the Indian colours again after the 2016 World T20.
Maybe that was it after all. He was nearly 35, his batting was quite evidently on the wane and his bowling and fielding also were no longer valuable components that he could bring onto the table.
When he had smashed 15 runs off the last over to help India win a T20I against Australia in January last year, just before the World T20, I had written that if a biopic was ever made on him, this match would be the perfect climax. For as much as I, like many others, wanted a resurrection of the prince of Indian cricket, it seemed too far-fetched and absolutely improbable. There was no way he could possibly do it again, be the old Yuvi again, with his unique pomp and grace.
We lost faith and gave in to rationality. Yuvraj didn’t.
For, to kick cancer in the backside and get back into international cricket within a year of your diagnosis, to win your country a World Cup almost single-handedly while vomiting blood daily, to have gotten up after what appeared to be multiple knockout punches, you need to be irrational. You need to be a believer, you need to be a fighter. You need to be Yuvraj.
Yuvraj was leading Punjab in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy season. Regular captain Harbhajan Singh was away judging a reality show and spending time with his wife and newly born daughter. Maybe it was the captaincy, the added responsibility that kicked off something in Yuvraj, or maybe something else. But some thing certainly.
Right from the very start of the season, he looked in imperious touch and ended with 724 runs from 8 matches at an average of a touch above 60, his second highest ever when he’s played 5 or more matches.
The axe he had received at the end of the World T20 2016 seemed to be the final one and this claim could be backed up by a lot of reason. He had been recalled thrice in the past four years and failed each time. The recalls, except 2013, when he had last played ODI cricket, had all been prior to T20 World Cups. And there was no World T20 now until 2020, which was enough time to groom a youngster or two.
But sometimes in life, things just fall in place and make the unexpected a reality. This was just what happened during the last couple of months of 2016. Yuvraj hit a purple patch, the selectors changed and from the outset showed a keen interest in recalling long lost players. And finally MS Dhoni handed over the baton of the limited overs captaincy to Virat Kohli, who has for eternity been a vociferous backer of Yuvraj.
All these factors combined and conspired to bring Yuvraj back into the fold for the ODI and T20I series against England in the January earlier this year.
But something was different this time. He looked more confident, secure and generally relaxed than in his previous comebacks. It was because the skipper and the selectors had told him that they’d be taking him to the Champions Trophy regardless of how he played.
They gave Yuvraj what he needed most to succeed – trust and backing – something which he had lacked for quite some time now. And once he had that, the pomp was back. It was our ‘Yuvi’ from yore, the forgotten genius who was back at work, mesmerising the ordinary with his serene genius, ever so pleasing to our thirsty eyes.
In his second game back, he made a century and a half, his highest score in limited overs cricket.
There were breathtakingly blazing and effortlessly glorious cameos in the other games.
It was Yuvraj and it was beautiful and it was magic.
The withered man had risen, once again.
Before the Champions Trophy began, there were still questions about Yuvraj’s place. About how those ageing reflexes and the diminishing coordination between his hands and eyes will tackle the pace, bounce and swing.
Legitimate concerns, too. Reasonable and rational.
To top it all, Yuvraj missed the two warm up games as well, down with an illness.
We later came to know that he had been hospitalised. But on Sunday, where other players may have excused themselves from a match so soon after coming out of a hospital, Yuvraj Singh was positioned at number four on India’s team sheet to play Pakistan in their opening game of the tournament.
Playing cricket in England for the first time in six years, playing his first ODI abroad in nearly four years, without any match practice and having gotten out of the hospital just a couple of days back, Yuvraj seemed to be at war with reason and rationality again.
And he won, again. Coming in with less than fifteen overs to go and with India having slowed down considerably, he arrived at the crease and he did what he was always famous for – wreaking havoc on opposition bowlers in a manner so grand and pretty that Michelangelo would be proud.
When he had finished, he had got 53 of 29 balls, effectively batting the thin Pakistani lineup out of the game.
He was player of the match.
Reason and rationality, common sense, logic all suggests that this can just be a one-off, a freak show against a deflated attack on an absolute featherbed and that he will struggle against better attacks, like those of South Africa or Australia.
It may very well turn out to be true.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Yuvraj, it’s that when it comes to a battle between him and ostensible reality, he always wins.
This man defeated cancer and got back to playing international sport within a year of that and won our country a World Cup almost single-handedly after cancer had gripped his body. His attitude and temperament off the field have always been under massive clouds of doubt. He has had to deal with a father who regularly embarrasses himself and his son in public. He has been dropped and come back into the Indian team multiple times through sheer will.
He, a man who apart from his cricketing achievements, has started a foundation for cancer patients that has helped thousands who couldn’t afford treatment, recover and live healthy lives, has had stones thrown at his house and effigies burnt in public just because he played a bad innings in one match, which happened to be the final of the World T20 in 2014. He has been thrown around by IPL teams almost each year.
He has suffered and he has endured and that, not his skills on the field, is his greatest trait.
Those who say that he’s a spoilt brat, a boy who had everything put to him on a platter, resources and natural skills, who didn’t have to work half as hard as the others are people who are living in a fool’s paradise.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for him. It never will be.
But he will plough through, find the strength, the conviction somehow.
Because Yuvraj Singh is not just a cricketer. He’s a lot more.