Not many elite sportsmen struck down in their prime by cancer recover sufficiently to return to the highest level, but Yuvraj Singh is one of them, rejoining India’s Test team just eight months after finishing his treatment in the United States.
It is an incredible story. Eighteen months ago Yuvraj’s life was about as good as it gets even in the glittering world of Indian cricket. Player of the tournament in the 2011 World Cup, a trophy India won at home in front of its adoring fans, and with Bollywood starlets queuing to be squired by him, he appeared to have it all and then some, all before the age of 30.
Then cancer struck and that world came crashing down to be replaced by one where even fundamental things like drinking and breathing could not be taken for granted as he embarked upon the rough, uncertain road of recovery.
“There was a time where I couldn’t drink a basic thing like water,” Yuvraj said. “For almost three months during my chemo I couldn’t drink water. My body used to crave it and the moment I used to drink it I would throw up. So coming back from there I know the value of small things like breathing with both the lungs, because for a very long time I didn’t do that.”Being talented at cricket can prepare you for many of life’s trials but this was on a primal level with survival at stake. When that happens, old perspectives cannot hope to remain in place as pain signifies both good and bad.
“It was really tough,” Yuvraj said. “After getting the World Cup man of the series I was really confident of taking the next step in my career. But then life had something else stored for me. When you hear the word cancer for the first time you really get scared. Cancer. It is like a death sentence. You become really unsure where your life will take you.
“Obviously, it started with a state of panic, though I was more concerned about my family, my mother and my friends as I could see how this affected them. So I had to stop the panic and take control of the situation.
There were some good days and some really bad days with the bad outnumbering the good to start with. But I tried to fight it while the people around me tried their best to keep things as normal and positive as possible, which helped.”
Apart from his fine array of languid strokes, Yuvraj’s forte as a cricketer is his fearlessness in the face of the mounting pressure a one-day run chase can bring. But is a mind adept at coping with that challenge necessarily an asset when dealing with something as potentially fatal as germ cell carcinoma, the rare cancer he suffered from?
“Cricket is a great game, it teaches you so much about life. I drew lot of inspiration from my cricketing career. I treated it as one bad session or one bad day in Test cricket where you have to fight hard to recover. While going through the treatment I used to watch my old videos and that really used to inspire me.
“I always believed that if I get my life back I would get my cricket back because that is deep-rooted in me. There were times I got depressed with the pain and what all my body was going through but I was determined to wear that jersey once again. The side effects of chemo made me reel on my knees some days. But I was determined to come back and play for my country. That’s the one thing which always motivated me.”
Yuvraj has already paid tribute to all the friends and team-mates that supported him through his treatment but singled out his mother, Shabnam Singh, for special praise. Shabnam moved to America to be near to her son, her love and care crucial during his lengthy treatment. She even taught him to cook peas pulao, a major feat given most Punjabi men steer well clear of the kitchen.
“My mother is like solid rock. She never cried and felt sorry about my state,” he said. “She stood by me and literally gave me a second birth. My friends never pitied me, either. At times they believed more in me than I did. Not to forget the immense support of the BCCI. All this has helped me to be where I am today.”
His return to the Test team, with a camp in Mumbai, has been seamless following a programme set up by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. When in treatment, Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble visited him, but apart from a new nickname it has been business as usual, albeit with the recognition from Yuvraj – given his Test batting average is just 34.8 – that this may be his final chance to crack Test cricket.
“Apart from some jokes that I have a chemo brain, my team-mates have stood behind me and for them I’m still the same. This is my second life and it is same with Test cricket. I know there is this one big box of Test cricket which I need to tick and hopefully this time around I’ll be able to do so. But it will be more for myself and the cancer community at large than for the critics.”
The gratitude of getting a second chance has persuaded Yuvraj to set up a cancer foundation called YouWeCan aimed at reducing the stigma of cancer and its early detection. “The one thing I really wanted to do was help people with this disease. I started this charity and our goal is to open detection centres all across the country as 60 per cent of lives can be saved if it is discovered early.
“In India, cancer is treated as a death sentence and people fight this battle very privately. I want to give the message that at certain stages cancer is curable and after the treatment everyone can live a normal life. We are trying to raise funds for our first centre and would like my friends and fans in UK to support my cause. Our website, www.youwecan.com, has all the details.”
England’s players will surely make a donation though their charity will not extended once they cross the boundary rope. The last time the teams met in England, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side were hammered 4-0, a result that all of India are hoping will be reversed this time. “Those were two very tough months for Indian cricket and I was part of it. This series will be a very good contest and a lot will depend on how England play our spinners. I’m looking forward to some exciting cricket.”
As for Yuvraj many have already made him man of the series just for being there.
“What I have gone through changes your perspective about a lot. I’m much calmer and patient about things. I know the value of life and understand beyond a point your destiny is not in your hands. I would like to control as much as I can by preparing well and giving my best, but I won’t worry too much about the result.”