India’s triumph in the Cricket World Cup 2011 was the peak of Yuvraj Singh’s career. He was named Player of the Tournament as a billion people cheered his name. Then, after a cancer diagnosis, the bottom fell out of his life.
“The diagnosis of cancer shortly after the high of the World Cup victory, it took the joy out of everything, it was a very dark moment in my life,” he told CricketNext. “When you win the World Cup, when you are Player of the Tournament, you are on top of the mountain. Suddenly, you fall in the ditch. It’s just life, you don’t expect that -- you are left with no choice. I had to bounce back and I did it in what I thought was the best way I could.”
His recovery since, allowing him not just to receive a clean bill of health but also to resume his international career, has been little short of inspiring. Yuvraj feels the ordeal has helped him gain perspective on what a cricket career and life really means.
“Before cancer, everything was about cricket and performing and worrying about the sport,” he said. “I felt when I came back from cancer that living life in the moment was very important. Having a good meal with friends, being with my family, those became paramount. Cricket has given me great friends, it’s basically given me everything. I appreciate that.
“Cancer has made me very strong as a person. I feel that ‘never giving up’ spirit is very important. It is something that I have because it is a very tough journey. Unless you go through it, you don’t realise it, and I hope people don’t go through it. The journey has made me stronger.”
Yuvraj’s return to the top level hasn’t been without its bumps. He received criticism for his slow innings in the World T20 2012 final, and currently finds himself out of the side. But for him, just returning at all was the biggest achievement of all.
“I wanted to prove a point, that I could come back and play for India,” he said. “That was my biggest motivation. I wanted to prove that point to myself, as much as to anyone else. Everybody said you can’t, and I said I can. It was mind over matter. I had some good games, some bad games, I was in and out of the team.
"But I still managed to play a lot of cricket after that – I played a couple of T20 World Cups and a bit of one-day cricket when everybody said that it won’t be possible. That’s the biggest joy in life, when people say it is not possible and you can make it possible. People thought that my career was over after cancer, and I came back and registered my highest one-day score. That was only self-belief, nothing else.”
That’s not to say that Yuvraj has no pure cricketing goals now. He even took the step of going for a fitness camp in England off his own back to get himself back into form.
“I didn’t have a good domestic season last year, I had a bad IPL,” he said. “I took a break and I thought that if I am looking to play another year or two years, I want to go playing this game happily because this game has given me everything.
“So I went to England for five weeks to a training camp this summer, I worked hard on my fitness. I was in Cirencester, at a habitat centre. I worked with a trainer called James, a former Marine, for five weeks. And when I got back home, I had another three weeks on my own; I had eight weeks of fitness before I started the season. I didn’t have too much good (batting) practice before coming here, I just played one practice game against Madhya Pradesh. But I just felt mentally very good.
“I felt that I was fitter, I was stronger compared to last year, when I was not in a good mental space. The key for me has always been to be in a good mental space, that’s when I have played good cricket. I have just focussed on being in a good space and obviously, the results showed. I have been hitting the ball really well and scored a few consistent scores. Let’s see what happens now.”
A century just missed for Punjab against Railways in the Vijay Hazare Trophy – he made 96 – indicated he was back in form. But while Yuvraj hasn’t given up hopes of playing in next year’s Cricket World Cup, he’s also planning to just take it as it comes.
“Obviously, I am looking to play cricket till 2019, whatever cricket I get to play,” he said. “Obviously, selection is not in my hands. What is in my hands is to work hard and get better at whatever I am doing – whether it’s batting, bowling, fielding or my fitness. From when I was dropped last year, I have been thinking that all I can do is focus on myself and my cricket.
“I was speaking to Sachin (Tendulkar), who has always been my mentor, and he asked me, ‘Why do we play the game? Just for the love of the game. Yes, we do want to play for India, but also, the game has given us everything’. I just want to enjoy the game, to appreciate that it has given me everything; I respect the game. I have cleared my fitness (yo-yo) test, I have bowled, I have got runs. I have done almost everything that is in my control.
“As I said, selection is not in my control. I am sure everyone is looking at the youngsters for building the team for this World Cup and the next World Cup. It’s up to the selectors and the coach/captain to decide, it is entirely their call. I just want to play whatever cricket I get to play till 2019, and then take a call.”
Whatever happens, Yuvraj’s career is surely not far from its end. His thoughts have started to turn to what he might do after, and he plans to use his experience fighting cancer to help others do the same.
“With my YouWeCan Foundation, I am trying to do what I can to help with treatments for people who have been diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “I think my life has taken the right shape. When I stop playing, I will work even harder on something that is very close to my heart, something that’s very close to my journey.
“Lying in my hospital bed, I started to think. I started to see what impact cancer has on a normal human person. At the end of the day, that’s all I am – a normal human person. I realised that so many people back home get diagnosed and don’t have money for treatment. So I said if I survive, I can go back and work on something, work that adds fruitful meaning to my life.”
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