When he broke into international cricket with a scintillating knock against Australia in Nairobi (ICC Knock-out tournament) in 2000, Yuvraj Singh gave early indications of his awesome talent. The Indian dressing room celebrated the arrival of a natural stroke-player whose match-winning knock was highlighted by silken drives.
Eleven years later, Yuvraj emerged the key player as India won the World Cup in Mumbai. It was a high point in the career of the gifted all-rounder, who had set aside a life-threatening ailment to pursue his dream of dominating the biggest stage.
Yuvraj, who had battled cancer and overcome many injuries, is in the twilight of his career now. However, his passion for the game has not ebbed. Yuvraj backs himself to play the 2019 World Cup. “I am looking forward to it,” he says, sounding very confident.
Yuvraj’s story is one of remarkable endurance. Speaking to Sportstar , the stylish left-hander sheds light on his life and times in the arena and also shares his thoughts on cricket.
You made your debut under Sourav Ganguly, then played under Rahul Dravid, before M.S. Dhoni became the captain of the Indian team. Dhoni was nowhere in the picture at that time when your were winning games for India. Do you think you got stuck somewhere in between when Indian cricket made the transition to the next generation after the ‘Fab Five’?
I won’t say I got stuck somewhere. At that time I got injured a lot. I had a very serious knee injury that saw me going back and forth. It took a while for me to manage my knee. I was in and out of the Test team because we had such tough competition. I was really focussing on getting a permanent Test slot, but it was tough. In that squad you would get two Test matches and not a long run.
In one-day cricket I was doing well, but I was getting injured a lot. I had fractures in my fingers, and a very serious wrist injury. From 2007 to 2011 I had lots of injuries. It was very difficult for me to manage my body.
But you should have played far more Test matches instead of just being recognised as a limited overs player?
When I was growing up, I played a lot of two-day and three-day cricket. I also looked forward to playing more and more Test matches, because I always felt that everytime I did well in Test cricket, one-day cricket and (later) T20 cricket looked easier. That was the reason I wanted to play more Test matches. But the competition was so high. I was always trying to find a slot in competition with Sourav (Ganguly) and (V.V.S.) Laxman. I opened the innings in one Test against Australia in Chennai in 2004. I got out early in the first innings (for 8), and then in the second innings I was batting on 7 when the game was rained off. So that opportunity too was wasted. Later I was brought into the middle-order. I eventually won a slot only when Sourav retired. And then, unfortunately, I was diagnosed as suffering from cancer at the peak of my career. I was 29. Had I continued I would have played 80 Test matches or more. But I really have no regrets. It’s been a blessing because I played 15 years of international cricket. I have to be positive and move forward.
How is to play under someone who is a lot younger than you, like Virat Kohli? Probably a player who you would have guided when he was making his international debut?
Obviously, he’s very different from MSD, who is calm and composed. Virat is a bit aggressive. The results have shown that he is doing very well as captain. It’s a different generation too. MSD had very experienced players, match-winners. It was a very set team when he got the captaincy. The team has transformed under Virat. Being so fit himself, he emphasises on fitness. The players now are much fitter than the previous generation because the game too has become more demanding. Virat is taking the team in the right direction with his fitness and diet discipline, keeping in mind the 2019 World Cup.
Does the attitude of the team change according to the personality of the skipper? How do you think the personalities of Sourav, Rahul (Dravid), Anil (Kumble), MSD and Virat mirror on their respective teams?
It definitely does. The team moves in the direction the captain wants it to. Every individual approaches cricket differently. It was different with all the captains you have mentioned. With Virat, it is completely different. It is good for Indian cricket because the team is keeping pace with the demands of the game. The personality of the captain is reflecting in the way the team is approaching the game.
A lot of players have been quite vocal about the lack of comfort and financial security with regard to first-class cricketers. Even Harbhajan spoke about it last year. Do you think that is a genuine area of concern? And compared to when you started playing first-class cricket how are things now?
It has changed drastically from the time I started. To begin with, the match fee for the players has gone up, and that is good. Now with the Indian Premier League, good domestic players are paid fabulously — but not all. For example, Cheteshwar Pujara, who is one of our best Test players, does not get picked by any team in the IPL. This kind of situation does not give a sense of security. We must give a sense of security to a player like Pujara. We need to focus on the domestic players and identify them for different categories — India or India ‘A’. It can’t be India, India ‘A’ and then the domestic players. All your best players are going to come from domestic cricket and India under-19. The associations need to nurture them and take care of their needs in terms of financial security. Give them more and more matches to play. This year I thought the Punjab team was not prepared because it did not play many local tournaments. You want the senior team to be professionally prepared when it comes to travel and itinerary. So, why not the same for domestic players? They should get good recovery time when playing domestic cricket. They are our bench strength.
Is it difficult to adjust to the Ranji Trophy grind, where matches are played in empty stadiums, after all the attention and adulation that comes with international cricket?
It is very hard because the motivational levels drop a lot. For someone like me, motivation comes from within and not necessarily from the spectators. I am discovering this because I have had to start my cricket again, literally from scratch; I am going through the grind of domestic cricket. You do like the applause from the galleries but the motivation has to come from within. Let me also tell you that it is not always easy playing in front of some of the spectators we encounter at different venues. I was able to make a comeback only because I did not miss the chance to play domestic cricket.
The relationship of the Indian players with the media is not as open and personal as it used to be. A lot of players feel more comfortable interacting with fans on Twitter and Instagram. What are the reasons for this?
You would know the reasons best. Over the years, there have been plenty of changes. Social media has come in. There is television. If there is lot of competition among the players then there is greater competition among the media guys too. Most media people are looking for stories. The players know it. They know if they talk positive things they do not interest the media. The media wants to know and report negative aspects more. Players know that saying nice things about the game and colleagues does not interest most of the media. That is the reason players have become more and more wary of interacting with the media.
It is sad that positive things about cricket and the players don’t get highlighted. The media waits for a player to make an error so that it can make stories out of it. The media also does not understand that it is humanly not possible for a player to do well in every match. There is lot of negativity in cricket reporting. The players are convinced that no matter what they do or how they perform, the focus of the media is generally going to be on highlighting negative things and creating controversy. Sometimes one feels that it is best to comment via the Twitter for this reason. It gives us a platform to make our stand clear if the need to counter criticisms arises.
Players have become reserved because their comments are twisted to suit the negative thinking of the media. I am comfortable talking to a senior journalist like you than someone who has come into the profession now and is looking to make a story out of me. This is again a reason why the players have gone on the back-foot, the trust factor is missing. Very few like to speak to the media now.
The Indian team management these days isn’t averse to utilising the experience of Indian veterans such as Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik. What do you make of this change in approach? And does it improve Indian cricket?
I will give lot of credit to the current set of selectors for this. Their focus is on those who are performing in domestic cricket. It does not matter if he has played for India or not. Age is not a factor, performance is. If you perform well throughout the season you will be picked. Parthiv and Dinesh were overlooked in the past even when they were performing exceedingly well in domestic cricket. Now they are getting their chances. Dinesh has been an exceptional performer and needlessly age was held against him. To reward consistency is the best thing, and also please remember that some players perform better after they become 30. Not everyone matures early.
You started playing for India in the pre-T20 era, when the definition of ‘attacking innings’ or ‘defendable target’ was very different. You’ve lived through the transition as a player. How has the ethos changed over the years across formats?
I started my career in an era when Australia dominated the game. Players like (Matthew) Hayden and (Adam) Gilchrist changed the face of batting with their attacking play even in Test cricket. Viru (Sehwag) was a game changer in Test cricket. These players made Test cricket very exciting. I am not saying it was not so in the past. We saw Vivian Richards, who was such an exceptional batsman. In limited overs (50 overs) cricket, 250-260 was a winning total. Now, with the game having changed, even 350 to 400 is not a safe total because of T20. Even T20 was batsman-heavy, but now we have five bowlers in a T20 playing XI. I think the batsmen’s skills have improved drastically. Ten to 15 runs an over is gettable. The game has evolved. The bowlers have also evolved. There has been a revolution. Maybe, in the future, we may have a shorter format.
How has the standard of fielding improved over the years since you started playing? Also, what changes do you see in the fielding drills and training that may have led to the improvement in standards?
I feel since (Mohammad) Kaif and I came into the squad, we focussed on this aspect. We were good in fielding in Under-19 too. And we were batting at 6 and 7, so we had to look to contribute more. Kaif was a good fielder, and I could bowl to add to my fielding. I always looked up to Jonty Rhodes and wanted to field like him. The generation of fielders has changed. Now with the fitness so high the fielding is all the more better. The body responds to the challenge much quicker now. Earlier you would pick someone for just his batting and bowling and say we could somehow manage him on the field. Good fielders would be inside the circle. Now it has gone the other way. The fielding bar has been raised.
You have played in all seasons of the IPL. What are the changes you have seen in the League over the years?
Earlier, teams were batsman-heavy. The franchises would spend more money on batsmen who could also bowl. It has changed now. They want to spend on bowlers as well. The pace of the game has changed and the bowlers are as important as the batsmen. AB de Villiers has taken the game to a new level. Players are playing more dynamic shots. People have got better at their game.
Is it not a worry that more and more youngsters are now wanting to play the IPL more than anything else?
I agree. I tell my team-mates in Punjab that if you are telling yourself to just play the IPL then you are sending out a wrong message. I see lot of guys who don’t want to play four-day cricket. They want to play one-day cricket and the IPL. They can help themselves if they play four-day cricket. I see lot of youngsters focussing on just the IPL. That’s wrong. If you are good at four-day games then one-dayers and T20 become easy. The basics of cricket don’t change. Yes, T20 is glamorous, people like it. But the point is what kind of cricketer you want to become.(Sachin) Tendulkar always told me it is important to play according to the situation than expectations. The expectations will be high but you need to understand the situation of the game.
Who among the current crop of Punjab players is a future India cricketer?
In the current team most guys have played for India. Sandeep Sharma, Barinder Sran... But they are not able to cement their place in the team. Mandeep Singh is there. Manan Vohra is good too. Shubhman Gill is a very promising opener. Abhishek Sharma is a very good all-rounder. Anmolpreet Singh has done very well this season. Some of them will make it to the top side soon.
When do you plan to retire?
I don’t want to leave the game with any regret, thinking I should have played for some more years. I want to go when I feel it is the right time to go, when I feel I have done my best and I could not have done any more than this. I am still playing because I am enjoying playing cricket, not just because I have to play for India or I have to play the IPL. The motivation is definitely to play for India. I feel two or three IPLs are left in me.
The journey has been nice. I have been a fighter, taking on tough situations. I like being a pillar of strength to people, for those suffering from cancer or going through other issues in life. I want to be known as someone who never gave up. Whether I play for India or not, I will give my 100 per cent on the field.
When you decide to stop playing what will be your future role? Coach, commentator, administrator...?
Commentating is not my forte. Cancer (YouWeCan Foundation) is going to be my area of work in the future. I love supporting young kids, I like interacting with the younger generation.
Coaching is in my mind. I would identify underprivileged kids and focus on their sport and education. Education is as important as sport. You need to focus on both. Sport should not come at the cost of education.