India were 146/5. Sachin had just been dismissed. And as the saying went then, “Sachin out toh match over.” Reaching the target of 326 was deemed impossible, and it seemed certain that the 2002 NatWest Series would soon be lifted by Nasser Hussain and his men.
As a 21-year-old Mohammad Kaif walked out to join 20-year-old Yuvraj Singh in the middle, many a television set across the country was switched off.
“Sachin out. Match over. Ab kaun maarega? ” But even all the skepticism around me could not dent the unwavering optimism of my 9-year-old self.
Over the next 26 overs, as a new generation of Indian cricket announced their arrival on the international stage, I realised that no optimism is ever too foolish.
The NatWest Night
India were known to often lose matches from the cusp of victory. But on 13 July 2002, two young men barely out of their teens had snatched a win from the very jaws of defeat. Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif had immortalised themselves at Lord’s by achieving “the impossible.”
As I watched Yuvi announce his retirement from international cricket today, I was sitting in the same living room, in front of that same television on which we had watched the NatWest final 17 years ago.
It is an evening etched almost photographically in my memory. I remember everyone’s sense of hope rising ever so gradually, our nervous excitement being dialled up over by over, boundary by boundary.
I remember Yuvraj playing a glorious pull shot that day, and my father saying, “The elegance of his strokeplay reminds me of the South African legend Graeme Pollock. He used to play the pull shot just as beautifully.”
Over the years, I too have wondered that there is something mysteriously beautiful about the strokeplay of left-handed batsmen such as Lara, Yuvraj and as I was reminded often at home, Graeme Pollock. But, I digress. Back to the NatWest final.
Yuvi’s 69 off 63 (nine fours and a six) might appear unremarkable to a 9-year-old perusing the NatWest scorecard today, but the T20 generation should remember (and I know I sound old when I say that) that at the time, the highest total ever in a successful ODI chase was 330 and the second highest was 316.
He was only 20 then, but Yuvraj Singh was already making more than just a mark for himself, he was making history.
Fan on Debut (Almost)
But as iconic as the 2002 NatWest final was, it wasn’t the first time I had been wonderstruck by Yuvi’s batting. Believe it or not, 7-year-old me had loved every bit of his first-ever ODI innings. And what a splendid innings it was.
Though Yuvraj had made his international debut against Kenya on 3 October 2000, in the pre-quarterfinal of the ICC Knockout Trophy, he hadn’t got a chance to bat that day. So, it was only in his second ODI, against Australia in the quarterfinal, that the world got its first glimpse of Yuvraj Singh’s batting prowess.
It was his first ODI innings. He was only 18 years old. It was an ICC tournament. And India were up against world champions Australia. The result? Yuvraj Singh produced a match-winning knock, scoring a magnificent 84 off 80 deliveries. The next top scorer for India was Sachin with 38.
India won by 20 runs, and Yuvraj was declared the Player of the Match. He’d dominated an attack that consisted of Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie. You wouldn’t have wanted to jinx it, but seeing the strokeplay on display that day, you just knew – this was someone special.
As you can see, I took my cricket very seriously right from a very young age. And that day against Australia, I loved watching Yuvraj bat. His strokeplay was so graceful it was almost poetic. And through the course of the 12 boundaries en route his 84, the newcomer in the Indian side had made many a new fan. As I look back nineteen years later, I’m just proud to say that I was one of them.
The Comeback King and Prince
Over the years, Yuvraj Singh had a comeback for every occasion. Much like his firebrand captain Sourav Ganguly, under whom he made his debut and grew from a youngster to a star.
It was Yuvi and Kaif’s heroics that led to Dada’s shirtless celebration at Lord’s, a response to Andrew Flintoff having done the same in India. And then it was the same Andrew Flintoff who managed to get on Yuvi’s nerves during the 2007 T20 World Cup clash, which was promptly followed by Stuart Broad being dispatched for those six unforgettable sixes in one over!
The parallels between Dada and Yuvi don’t stop there. Both of them made gritty comebacks to the national side after losing their place. Both of them relied on performing so well in domestic cricket that the selectors could not overlook them any longer.
Ganguly’s epic return to the team after his spat with then coach Greg Chappell is the stuff of legend. His subsequent successes lent him the epithet of ‘The Comeback King’. Yuvraj, who made several comebacks in his career too, seemingly followed in his former captain’s footsteps. In a way, Yuvi was Indian cricket’s Comeback Prince.
Yuvraj means prince in Hindi.
Just like he had proved the skeptics wrong during the NatWest final and reinforced my faith in being an optimist, Yuvi’s determination to always get back into the team was a lesson in self-belief for all his fans. But of all his comebacks, there was one that was like none other.
The Greatest Comeback of All
Yuvi was always a big match player. He saved his best for the biggest stages of them all. His invaluable contributions to India’s 2007 T20 World Cup win and as Player of the Tournament during the World Cup-winning campaign in 2011 sealed his credentials as a limited overs legend.
Yet Yuvraj Singh’s greatest victory arguably came against an opponent off the field. Cancer.
When news of his cancer broke, I was heartbroken, along with millions of fans across the world. As Yuvraj left the cricket field and began intensive therapy, the chances of him donning the India blues again seemed bleak. At the time, what mattered though was that he be okay, and our prayers went out to him. There is a strong connection we have with our sporting heroes, and Yuvraj’s condition pained us.
As both rumours and reports flew around, speculation was rife that Yuvraj would never be able to play cricket again, let alone for India. But if there was something that Yuvraj had taught me, right from that July night in 2002 all through his career till then, it was to never give up hope.
Incredibly enough, Yuvraj Singh fought a painful battle against cancer and came out triumphant, worked on his fitness, picked up the cricket bat again and before you knew it, had made another comeback. His greatest ever.
When he returned in the India colours, the cheers at every stadium he walked into were deafening. India was relieved. India was celebrating. His greatest moments with the bat and ball may have come and gone by then, but it didn’t matter.
Yuvraj had hit it out of the park.
And like on the night of the NatWest final, he’d shown us once again. That no optimism is ever too foolish.
Thank you for all the magic, Yuvraj Singh. You may have retired today, but your legacy will stay not out.
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