With his retirement from international cricket, Yuvraj Singh has brought the curtains down not only on a career full of highs, lows and fighting comebacks, but also an era of resurgent Indian cricketers out to redefine themselves on international stage. He was perhaps the last of the time when a group of young cricketers, with their sheer perseverance, had emerged out of the dark shadows of a match-fixing scandal that had left the India cricket team in tatters in late 1990s. They had built for themselves a moniker that meant more than the words themselves — ‘Men in Blue’.
In his international career of about 19 years, Singh delivered many match-winning performances, and some firsts that will forever remain etched in the annals of cricket. He was a perfect blend of deep-rooted sentimental passion for the game and brawny aggression. How Yuvraj Singh matured as a cricketer over years can be summarised by two very poignant images that come to mind when you think of the man: The first is that of a young Yuvraj, almost teary-eyed, after failing to see his team through in the final match of the NatWest trophy against England in 2002 — India went on to win the match and the series. And the second is that of a Yuvraj who was aggression himself when he hit England’s Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over in the 2007 T20 World Cup — India not only won this match but also the trophy.
When Yuvraj Singh made his debut against Australia in 2000, he announced his arrival on the world stage quite emphatically. He scored 84 off 80 balls against a lethal Australian bowling attack of Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie, on a day when India’s top order had failed to show any resistance to the pace trio. This reinforced the country’s belief that it had finally found a match winner. Though he missed his maiden century by 16 runs, his innings helped knock the then world champions Australia out of the tournament. A star was born.
Singh, along with Mohd Kaif, is also credited with reinventing India’s fielding and running between the wickets — neither was counted among the team’s strengths before him. He also showed the team how they could back themselves up to convert half chances. If jaw-dropping catches at point or covers and stunning run-outs are a common feature with the Indian team of today, it has the early grit of Yuvraj and a few others to thank.
The NatWest Trophy final of 2002 would always be a fond memory for every Indian cricket lover. Chasing mammoth targets on foreign soil was not what India were known for; crumbling under pressure was their hallmark. This match changed the notion to a large extent. His 63-ball 69 runs and a crucial partnership with Kaif not only won India the match but him the tag of a ‘finisher’ — that was before MS Dhoni arrived on the scene and established himself in that role.
Yuvraj Singh played a key role in middle order for India during the 2003 World Cup, played in South Africa. Among other things, his valuable all-round contribution helped India reach the finals of the tournament. He continued his stellar show in 2004, when India visited Pakistan for a five-match bilateral series. Even as India were 2-1 down in the series and their top order had struggled, Yuvraj Singh’s gutsy resilience against the deadly pace attack of Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami and Abdul Razzaq helped India win the historic series 3-2.
He also showed his bowling skills and proved a handy part-time spinner for the team. Little had India known back then that this part-time spin would in fact spin the World Cup around for the team six years later in 2011.
In 2007, India had a rather forgettable outing in the 50-over World Cup. Even as the team were knocked out of tournament after playing just three matches, Yuvraj’s performance had in a way foreshadowed the time to come. He had smashed the ball all around the park in India’s match against Bermuda, and stitched a good partnership with Sourav Ganguly against Bangladesh.
A few months later, when all cricket-playing nations geared up for the first ever ICC World Cup in the shortest form of the game, none imagined Yuvraj Singh would achieve a feat that he later did. Yes, it is about six sixes in an over — the first time in any format of international cricket. He also played crucial innings against Australia and scored 70 runs off 30 balls. India went on to win the World Cup.
If these knocks showed the quality of Yuvraj Singh as a player, what followed were his reflection as resilient fighter. He was diagnosed with cancer, but he did not make this public at the time. He played the 2011 World Cup, in which he added several other feathers to his cap. This was a tournament that mattered the most to any Indian cricketer playing at the time. "We will win this one for Sachin" — that was the spirit in the team, and Yuvraj embodied that spirit. Not only was he among runs in the all-important tournament, but he also picked 15 wickets; and he was a live wire on the field. He anchored the innings against Australia and helped India reach the semi-finals. Yuvraj was all sentiment when he hit a cover drive for four, won India the match, and got down on his knees, punching the air.
After the World Cup win, he went for cancer treatment and the entire nation prayed for him. He fought back and returned to the field after a year, though he could never scale the heights he had done previously.
As he hangs up his boots, his ardent fans and every follower of the game will remember Yuvraj Singh for his high back-lift cover drives, and passionate celebrations shining in those big wide eyes as he took stunning catches. Yuvraj Singh will always be remembered as the man of big moments, the fail-safe, the prince of Indian cricket who ruled the field and hearts.