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THE TALE OF A CONQUEROR

Cover Story February 2018 Health and Wellness

THE TALE OF A CONQUEROR

The Tale of A Conqueror

Walking up to the turf, the screams of thousands of fans resounding in his ears, placards that read nothing but pure devotion to the warrior prince of Indian cricket… this is just another snippet from the life of Yuvraj Singh, one of the greatest cricketers millennials have seen. An eventful career spanning almost 17 years, with 8,701 runs, and 304 ODIs to his credit, Yuvraj Singh, or Yuvi, as he is lovingly called, stands as resolute and poised as he was as a 19-year-old making his presence evident on the world stage with a magnificent 84 against Australia, giving India a fiery win.

Having had his fair share of failures and some strapping successes, Yuvraj is remembered for his steadfast comebacks and unflagging grit in the face of uncertainty and adversity. In 2011, at the twilight of a remarkable career, misfortune crept in, unsolicited. Diagnosed with a rare germ-cell cancer, the cricketer battled both the disease and his on-field opponents in no less form. He was not going to let a disease conquer his spirit, or let the world reduce his identity to just that of a cancer patient. The compelling story of his fight against the dreaded disease and victory at the 2011 World Cup is a reassuring tale that will defy time.

“I WANT TO RAISE AWARENESS ABOUT THE FACT THAT CANCER IS NOT A DEATH SENTENCE. EARLY DETECTION IS HALF THE CURE, AND BY GETTING SIMPLE TESTS DONE, WE CAN IMPROVE THE SURVIVAL RATES BY LEAPS.”

Yuvraj Singh

The iconic player’s illustrious career was flagged off at the ICC KnockOut Trophy in Kenya. Yuvraj’s performance declared the arrival of an energetic bowler and fielder, bowling four overs conceding 16 runs, and scoring a memorable 84 runs from 80 balls against the Australian pace attack of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, and Brett Lee in a crucial quarterfinal match against Australia. “India reached the final in Nairobi, and we did not win, but a group of us went on to become great friends and earned ourselves a name in the game,” the cricket heartthrob recalls his initial days in the game. “The Nairobi success became my ticket to the big life.”

Son of renowned cricketer-turned-actor Yograj Singh, and Shabnam Singh, he says the performance made his parents really proud, especially his father. Yograj had always wanted Yuvraj to become a cricketer, but as a teenager, his inclination was towards tennis and skating. It was his father’s intense rebukes and strict training regimen that put Yuvraj on the path to cricket. The only way, he realized, to make his father happy was through his performance. And so there has been no turning back for him since the day he was handed the bat.

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His beginnings were rough and bumpy, trying to earn a place in the vast world of cricket. Accompanied by his father, Yuvraj underwent strenuous training at the Elf-Vengsarkar Cricket Academy. His hard work saw meaning when he made it to Punjab’s U-19 team and made a stylish debut against Orissa in the 1997-98 Ranji Trophy. However, his breakthrough performance was at the Cooch Behar Trophy final of 1997 against Bihar, where he scored a mindblowing 358 runs. An all-rounder, his brilliant performance in the U-19 World Cup in 2000 under the captaincy of Mohammad Kaif, where he was announced ‘Player of the Tournament,’ secured him a spot in the national squad. “What I knew as a teenager was how to bat when the team needed runs,” says Yuvraj, describing the long-form game that he played in his younger days. And he is grateful for those matches he played as a teenager, which made him realize what he really liked about the game. “I liked scoring big and I liked winning,” he says. The young prodigy did indeed live up to his likes and strengths.

Having grabbed the limelight, Yuvraj’s journey found consistency, yet disappointment peeked in, in the form of a failed World Cup against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But marking the watershed moment in his career the same year was the debut ICC T20 World Cup in 2007, where he led India to a memorable victory, chasing down targets in full form and ease. In a nail-biting match against England in the knockout stage, Yuvraj hit six winning sixes off Stuart Broad in an over, making way into history as the fastest T20 fifty scored. Ravi Shastri’s commentary—“He came in like thunder, goes like lightning”— gave voice to Yuvraj’s winning sixes, and the memory still thrills every ardent cricket fan. The fire was evidently still ablaze in the momentous semi-finals against a strong Australian team where he scored a stunning 70 off 30 balls, shooting India to a massive score of 188. His unbelievably powerful performance at this match reiterated his presence in the pantheon of India’s greatest batsmen.

Roller coaster ride

For Yuvraj, no victory came easy and no laurels were earned without a grim slump preceding it. The second half of 2010 saw the player being dropped from the Asia Cup and eventually, the Test squad. But the fighter in him never rested, and his defining innings came in India’s second match against Australia in the 2011 World Cup in Mumbai. The heat still on from the century he scored in the previous game against West Indies, Yuvraj did not look like he was going to settle for anything less. Partnering with Suresh Raina, the runs began flowing in and Yuvraj stood jubilant at an unbeaten 57, an innings one can only describe as powerful and emotional. Rightfully earning him the epithet ‘Prince of Cricket’ with his easy 352 runs and 15 wickets, Yuvraj led India to a massive victory and owned the hearts of millions of loyal cricket fans for a lifetime. “We did not want to be third, fourth, or even second. We wanted to be world champions. We would have to beat the world champions to be the world champion. That’s the way the dice had rolled, and so it was,” the ace cricketer recollects, memories of a glorious match still afresh.

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Like most things in life, the media’s grip on the 2011 World Cup win was ephemeral. When all was said and done, another story played out against the backdrop of a somber setting: the story of his cancer. Citing an abnormal tumor in his left lung, Yuvraj pulled out of the ODI series against West Indies in November 2011. What began as mild breathing difficulty and cough had escalated to occasional nausea and bouts of vomiting blood even before his successful run through the glorious World Cup India won. “The way I see it, for the longest time, far too much had been going on in my life to pay attention to the signals being sent to me by my body. There were cricket, busy calendars, and the mental reconditioning for the World Cup. Every time something new popped up, my response would be to deal with it,” the cricketer says about the time he discovered the tumor. After having found alternative therapy futile and confirming the results of his malignant tumor with a few hospitals, Yuvraj and his mother flew to Indianapolis in the US for further treatment under the renowned Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, at the behest of Dr. Nitesh Rohatgi, a key member of Yuvraj’s medical team.

In July 2012, Yuvraj Singh founded YouWeCan, a non-profit organization that seeks to educate children who survive cancer and spread awareness about the debilitating disease.

Very few sportspersons in our country have ever done what Yuvraj dared to do: battling the disease as publicly as he could, sharing his struggle through his book, The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back. The bold player documented his entire journey, starting from his chemotherapy sessions in Indianapolis to his return to India, and cricket, without any qualms about judgment. The days spent in the US were slow and pain-ridden. “Chemotherapy may feel like death but it is the only way through to life again for many people when they have cancer,” he says. As is the case of most patients who undergo chemo, the offshoot of his chemo sessions began taking a toll on Yuvraj as well. There were nights when he would writhe in pain and wonder why things had gone wrong, and there were times his health would completely give way so much that he would have to lean into his mother, who was always by his side.

What began on the 25th of January, 2012, ended on the 18th of March that year. 57 torturous days is what it took to finish the sessions. The days he spent away from his country, and cricket were the days he reflected on the meaning and purpose of life, the days he found beauty in the mundane and in the seemingly insignificant things in life. Talking about his book, Yuvraj sounds passionate. He shares how he would videotape his days in the apartment to record his mood and swinging thoughts. Through his book, Yuvraj beautifully weaves two stories together within a single narrative—that of his victory at one of the most life-changing matches of his lifetime, and his battle against a disease that had the potential to consume him wholly.

But what makes his fearlessly documented journey stand out is his vigor for life and the determination with which he stared death back in its face. He knew fully well that another innings awaited him in his homeland, and he was determined to give it his best shot. Yuvraj Singh’s return to Indian cricket is best described as emotional. The loud cheers and ovation he received at Chennai’s Chepauk Stadium when he walked out onto the field to bat against New Zealand is a memory that will remain vivid in every cricket fan’s memory. “The welcome back into cricket was as if all of India was giving me a giant hug,” Yuvraj says.

His words are drenched in gratitude as he recollects his first game after the big comeback. “As I stepped into the lights at Chepauk, I was hit in the gut by the sound of the crowd. It was thunderous and tremendous and the stadium was filled with whistles. No crowd in cricket can give an Indian cricketer such a loud, long, and high-pitched whistle of approval as Chepauk did on that day. That sound is Indian cricket’s seeti symphony, performed by an orchestra of around 50,000 people,” he says. Although the statistics of the match was unrewarding, the cricketer’s sheer willpower and persistence were going to remain a source of inspiration for millions of people across age and time. His return did not just mean a return to the game, but the beginning of newer possibilities for all those who were in the struggle to fight against cancer.

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New beginnings

In July 2012, Yuvraj Singh founded YouWeCan, a non-profit organization that seeks to educate children who survive cancer and spread awareness about the debilitating disease. Drawing inspiration from cycling legend and cancer warrior Lance Armstrong’s not-for-profit initiative Livestrong Foundation, Yuvraj hopes to spread a clear message about the need to put up a good fight against cancer. YouWeCan seeks to remove the stigma associated with the disease and makes early detection and cure a reality by helping set up more detection centers. Talking about his unique initiative, the cheerful cricketer says, “I want to raise awareness about the fact that cancer is not a death sentence. Early detection is half the cure, and by getting simple tests done, we can improve the survival rates by leaps.”

The NGO’s activities are captained by CEO Shazmeen Kara and are supported by Yuvraj and his mother. Yuvraj also has his own line of casual clothing, named YWC, which aims to support the initiatives of his NGO. A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of his products go towards funding the activities of YouWeCan. Last year, the first retail store of YWC was launched in Varanasi. The brand hopes to expand to other cities in India soon. “We plan to open 4 stores across Hyderabad, Varanasi, Delhi, and Chandigarh. Ultimately we plan to expand pan India,” says Shazmeen.

“YWC PLANS TO OPEN FOUR STORES, ACROSS HYDERABAD, VARANASI, DELHI AND CHANDIGARH. ULTIMATELY, WE PLAN TO EXPAND PAN-INDIA.”

Shazmeen Kara CEO,
YouWeCan foundation

There were nights when he would writhe in pain and wonder why things had gone wrong, and there were times his health would completely give way so much that he would lean into his mother who was always by his side.

Ever since his return to the game in 2012, the cricketer has been training rigorously to stage his best performance. “The first two to three years after my return to the game were very hard. I had to work strenuously on my fitness and there were times when I was in and out of the team despite it all. At one point I even had second thoughts about continuing,” he said, about his years after the return. Although the initial performances after his return saw less spunk, the southpaw paved his way back to the national side early last January, announcing critics of his comeback with a career-high ODI score of 150 runs. Yuvraj also underwent intensive fitness training at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru later last year, at the expense of Ranji Trophy matches, all of which paid back when the all-rounder cleared the challenging Yo-Yo test. Nothing takes cricket away from the pedestal Yuvraj has placed it on, and he keeps proving to the world that he is a phoenix rising out of its ashes to newer, better beginnings. “I am still playing. I don’t know what format I am going to play. But I am pushing every day as hard as I used to, maybe harder than before because I am getting older. And I see myself playing cricket till 2019,” Yuvraj said at a public event. Another crowning achievement in his book of firsts was the news of Yuvraj being chosen as the ambassador for Laureus Sport For Good in October 2017.

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“I AM STILL PLAYING. I DON’T KNOW WHAT FORMAT I AM GOING TO PLAY. BUT I AM PUSHING EVERY DAY AS HARD AS I USED TO, MAY BE HARDER THAN BEFORE BECAUSE I AM GETTING OLDER. AND I SEE MYSELF PLAYING CRICKET TILL 2019.”

Yuvraj Singh

A global movement that celebrates the power of sport to bring people together as a force for good, Laureus has been supporting underprivileged children to overcome violence, disadvantage, and discrimination using the power of sports, proving its ability to make the world a better place. The global organization has its presence in over 35 countries, supporting over 100 programmes. Having witnessed the game change his life in myriad ways, the cricketer and humanitarian hopes to spread cheer and hope in the lives of those who deserve it the most.

The future

The days he spent in the US under treatment was dull, solitary times. Like any other human, those dreary times made him long for a soul connection. He longed for a partner, someone to share his feelings and dreary nights with. In British-Mauritian actress and model Hazel Keech, Yuvraj found what he had been looking for, love and warmth. Not the ones to hide their relationship, the couple made several public appearances since their engagement in 2015 and tied the knot in December 2016. Hazel has been actively involved with the initiatives of YouWeCan and the proud Punjabi Munda looks complete around her.

Looking dapper in his YWC outfit, Yuvraj does not look like someone who has undergone a turbulent and eventful past. His smile is contagious and his undying spirit is rejuvenating. He is an entrepreneur, humanitarian, son, and husband. But first and foremost, he will forever be a cricketer. Not just another cricketer, but a luminary who changed the landscape of the game in India. With more dreams and ambitions up his sleeve, Yuvraj is pacing forward with the same determination that gave us the six big sixes to cherish for eternity. His courage glows like a flame lighting him from within. “How was it like fighting cancer? Well, honestly, it was like facing the toughest bowling of my life in the worst possible conditions. Losing the fight, giving up the wicket was entirely up to me. I decided I could not and I would not succumb to it. I would put up a fight,” are the words of a revolutionary.

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