Yuvraj’s Final Cricket Chapter?

Pic Courtesy: Mailer Report
On the warm summer evening of April 2 2011, history was rewritten at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, when Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni hoisted Nuwan Kulasaekara over mid-on for a huge six. It has become an indelible image in cricket annals. As Dhoni held the pose for the shutterbugs to confirm that India had lifted the 50-over World Cup for a second time in their history, the man at the other end, Yuvraj Singh, was relatively unnoticed on account of the hysterical celebrations the shot triggered. He must have felt a range of emotions surging through him. The man who virtually carried India through the tournament by racking up 362 runs and 15 wickets during the marquee event, in between bouts of blood mingled vomiting, insomnia and lack of hunger, had made a deal with God the night before the final, that if the Almighty gave him the Cup, he could take anything in return. With the elegant all-rounder being diagnosed with mediastinal seminoma, a rare form of cancer, soon after, it may have seemed that Yuvraj looked set to keep his end of the bargain. However, after undergoing treatment at the Cancer Research Institute in Boston, the spirited southpaw was not only declared cancer-free, but also made a return to the game.
Yuvraj is in contention to make India’s World Cup squad. If he does, it will surely go down in cricketing annals as one of the most inspiring stories in the sport’s rich history.
The formative years
Born to alpha male and one-Test careered Yograj Singh and Shabnam on December 12 1982, Yuvraj was not particularly attracted to the gentleman’s game initially. Rather, he had his heart set on skating. His dad, however, did not share his enthusiasm, and when the barely-into-teens Yuvraj proudly brought home a skating gold medal, the senior Singh threw it out and laid out the ground rules imposingly: “From now on, you play cricket, not this girls’ sport. If you don’t play cricket, I will break your legs.”
Without daring to venture into the humanitarian and sexist angles of the statement, I can confirm that this particular moment was indeed, the turning point in Yuvraj’s life, and the beginning of his association with the game, which was to introduce him to fame and glory.To get an expert opinion on his cricketing skills, Yograj presented his son before friend and then Test cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, who quickly dismissed him as low on talent and will power. This incident probably escalated the obsession in Yograj to see his son succeed at the game he himself did not, having played only one Test for his country, despite touted as being more talented than Kapil Dev, easily the greatest all-rounder ever produced by India.What followed was a gruelling training routine for Yuvraj, which ranged from demanding to outright inhuman at times, but one that saw him steadily improve as a cricketer and begin representing home-state Punjab in various under 16 and 19 tournaments, before earning a Ranji Trophy debut during the 1997-98 season. His first performance of note on the international stage came during the semi-finals of the ICC’s Under 19s World Cup in 1999-00, when he smashed 58 off 25 balls against an Australian attack, which included young tearaway quick Mitchell Johnson and future stalwarts Shane Watson and Nathan Hauritz. India went on to win the tournament, and selectors acknowledged Yuvraj’s talent as special, fast tracking his induction into the senior team during the ICC Mini World at Nairobi in 2000-01.

International debut, and initial years of inconsistency
After making his debut against Kenya, where he did not get to bat, Yuvraj made an impact in his very first innings. Against an imposing Australia in the quarter-finals, Yuvraj made an 80-ball 84 facing Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie, and followed it up with a spectacular run-out of Michael Bevan to win the player-of-the-match award. The southpaw’s all-round performance against South Africa in the semi-finals, combined with more flashes of brilliant fielding, led to his quick elevation in the eyes of local media and cricket-fans as the Crown Prince (incidentally, this is what his name translates to) of Indian cricket. Tall and upright, Yuvraj, with his languid elegance and high back-lift, drew comparisons to Brian Lara during his heyday, and that was reason enough to sit up and take notice of the dashing youngster.

The ‘Prince’ however, did not really stake his claim to the throne during the next five years. The strapping Punjabi was regularly in the news, but apart from customarily gracing sports pages, Yuvraj was also featured in Page 3 gossip columns, being projected by the media as a Casanova. The man himself seemed to enjoy the attention, and did his image no harm by regularly being clicked at late-night parties, often in the company of wannabe models or Bollywood starlets. His on-field exploits were relatively tepid, with the odd brilliant innings every now and then which reminded audiences of his immense potential, the most famous among which was his counter-attacking knock of 69 against England in the final of the 2002 NatWest Trophy. Yuvraj also made his Test debut in October 2003, against New Zealand, but despite a couple of good knocks while touring Pakistan in April 2004, the left-hander was dropped after failures in the first two Tests of the 2004 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, and never quite cemented a Test berth despite his obvious talents.

Resurgence

The 2005-09 seasons were probably the best of Yuvraj’s One Day International (ODI) career, when he piled up more than 4000 runs at an average in excess of 46, about 10 more than his career average. His resurgence coincided with the debut and rise of Dhoni, and the two regularly combined to form one of the deadliest finishing pairs in ODI cricket at that time.

The year 2007 was a tumultuous one for Indian cricket, having witnessed the extreme low of a first round exit during the 50-over World Cup, as well as the unexpected high of emerging champions of the inaugural T20 World Cup. Probably at the peak of his batting prowess during the year, Yuvraj was ignored as captaincy material, in favour of a relatively inexperienced Dhoni, both during the T20 World Cup and aftermath of Rahul Dravid’s resignation. The southpaw however put this disappointment aside to play a couple of brilliant match-winning knocks during the T20 World Cup – 58 of 16 balls against England, including six sixes off an over by Stuart Broad, and 70 off 30 balls against Australia in the semi-finals. Yuvraj’s scintillating form in the shortest format of the game earned him a recall for the 2007 home Test series against Pakistan, and he did not disappoint, slamming a career best 169 during the Third Test at Bangalore.

He was solid, if not spectacular, over the next two years, often playing second fiddle to India’s next generation of rising superstars like Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, but continued to be an indispensable cog in the country’s ODI side, while resuming his dalliance with Test cricket. His form dipped in the lead up to the 2011 World Cup, marred by several injuries and bouts of illness, a possible prelude to the Big C waiting in the wings. His position in the World Cup squad was not warranted, and when he ultimately made it, not many would have expected the man to make the impact he did.

The Cup of his life
“Play the tournament for someone you love or respect or for someone who is special and has played a huge role in your life. Play it for someone you think you owe something to. Make the World Cup part of the debt you have to fulfil.”

Sachin Tendulkar gave these words of advice to Yuvraj at the beginning of the tournament. The Little Master was revealed as the special person to whom the southpaw kept dedicating his Cup performances. They gave a whole new direction to Yuvraj, who, like many others in the team, was desperate to win for his idol, whose only piece of silverware missing from his overflowing trophy cabinet was a prized World Cup. Yuvraj channelized his dwindling energies towards paying off the debt he owed the man who played that huge role in his life – Tendulkar himself.

Showing no signs of indifferent form, Yuvraj began the tournament with half centuries against England, Ireland and the Netherlands, before failing the only time with both bat and ball, against South Africa, as the Proteas inflicted India’s only defeat in the Cup after a tense contest.

Yuvraj roared back to form in the very next game, against the West Indies, at Chennai, in India’s final group-stage match. After winning the toss, India batted and lost openers Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir relatively early. Yuvraj walked in and essayed a dominating innings on a difficult pitch, punctuated however by multiple stoppages on account of the southpaw’s visible discomfort, where he threw up several times, in what was then attributed to dehydration, but in hindsight was a manifestation of the dreaded disease growing within. Such was his peril, that umpire Simon Taufel asked him if he would like to go off, but Yuvraj was in no mood to comply. As captured in his autobiography, The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back:

I told Simon, “No boss, I ain’t going out. I am nearing 100 after two years so if I fall and collapse you can take me to the hospital. But until then, I am not going out or going off.”

Yuvraj scored 113 out of 268, and snared two crucial wickets to ensure India finished second in their group, setting up a quarter-final clash against reigning three-time 50-over World Cup champions Australia.

The ‘Prince’ lived up to his name in the all-important quarter-final, by snaring the wickets of Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke, and his 2-44 were the best bowling figures on either side that day. With willow, Yuvraj helmed a difficult chase of 261 with an unbeaten 57 to take India to the semi-final, against archrivals Pakistan.

In that important match, Yuvraj was bowled first ball by a searing yorker from Wahab Riaz but he once again showcased his all-round prowess when he picked up two wickets in two overs to derail Pakistan’s chase. India won by 29 runs to reach the grand stage of ODI cricket.

Yuvraj was sleepless on the eve of the big final, against familiar rivals Sri Lanka, tortured by pain, nausea and an uncertain future. None of that showed on field, once India was asked to field by Sri Lanka captain, Kumar Sangakkara, after quite some confusion during the toss. The ‘pie-chucker’ yet again proved to be the best among Indian bowlers, with a spell of 2-49, which included the crucial wicket of Sangakkara to restrict Sri Lanka to 274, which was a very respectable total in a tournament final. After India lost Sehwag and Tendulkar early, the chase was steadied by an 83-run third wicket partnership between Gambhir and Kohli. After the latter’s dismissal, the stage was set for Yuvraj to guide India home on the lines of his quarter-final effort against the Aussies. However, in an unexpected move, skipper Dhoni promoted himself above the southpaw, and in a way, stole some of his thunder with a perfect display of clinical batting. Yuvraj finally entered the arena once Gambhir got out, tantalizingly close to a century, with 50-odd runs still needed. With the required run-rate well under control, and Dhoni dazzling at the other end, Yuvraj was content to operate in second gear, and he ensured that no further hiccups were experienced en-route to Dhoni’s spectacular finale, which brought delirium to India’s cricket loving populace.

World Cup 2015 prospects

Back on the field after a one-year gap, which included multiple chemotherapy sessions as well as recuperation post cancer remission, Yuvraj, while showing glimpses of his former self, is still largely untested in the 50-over format, and has not played a single ODI in 2014. His highs and lows in recent times have been mostly restricted to T20 cricket, from being the most expensive buy at IPL 2014 to his embarrassing helplessness against Kulasekara’s and Lasith Malinga’s wide, full deliveries at the World Cup T20 final earlier this year.

In a recent interview with Wisden, Yuvraj remained positive on his World Cup prospects, while simultaneously bracing himself to accept the possibility that he may never again play for India. While the situation is much bleaker than the similar period prior to the 2011 edition, I still believe that Yuvraj has an outside chance of making it to the Indian World Cup squad, given his experience and proven ability of raising his game when required the most. With Rohit fit and almost a certainty in the playing XI, I envision the following positive scenarios for Yuvraj being drafted into the squad assuming no regular players are injured:

  • A three-way race for one spot in the middle-order: In spite of Ajinkya Rahane’s consistency at the top, he is likely to vacate that position once Rohit re-enters the playing XI. With Kohli and Suresh Raina having cemented their places, and India showing a preference for five specialist bowlers of late, this leaves a single spot at number 5 open. Yuvraj could be in a three-way race with Rahane and Ambati Rayudu for it. Let me stick my neck out further and state that Rayudu will not make that cut, and it could eventually boil down to a face-off between Yuvraj and Rahane for that opening.
  • Shikhar Dhawan’s form: While Dhawan has been rampant on flat pitches in India, in the past, his technique has been found wanting on tracks with pace and bounce. His position in the World Cup XI would depend largely on his performances during the tri-series Down Under in January 2015. If he fails, Rahane will be promoted as the designated opener along with Rohit, and the middle-order race will suddenly revolve predominantly around Yuvraj and Rayudu, one that the left-handed stalwart is likely to win, in what is perhaps the best-case scenario for him.
  • As fifth bowler: Given his prowess with the ball in the previous edition, Yuvraj could compete with Ravindra Jadeja for the fifth bowler’s role, though the scenario is unlikely, given Dhoni’s penchant for backing certain players to the hilt, a category in which Jadeja currently finds himself. However, in case the think-tank reverts to India’s time-tested strategy of seven specialist batsmen, some of whom can combine to become the fifth bowler, Yuvraj’s chances will considerably increase.

None of these scenarios stands a chance unless the authorities take the risk of considering a player absent from the format for close to a year now. That consideration, if it does happen, would certainly defy logic, but then, the man’s story seems to evolve from the heart, as opposed to a more logical origin. Aged 32, Yuvraj’s life has been akin to a movie script, containing several elements any sports-drama genre fans would crave. Going by the script revealed to us thus far, it would be quite disappointing if the climax is anything less than a befitting tribute to one of the greatest legends Indian cricket has ever produced.

Yuvraj deserves, both emotionally and realistically, a final shot at defending the trophy he won four years ago, almost paying the ultimate price in the process, before bringing the curtains down on a mercurial and glorious career.

This article was first published in Mailer Report: http://www.mailerreport.com/#!about1/c12br