The year was 2000, the summer of betrayal. Y2K may not have ended up crashing computers and hastening the end of the world, but it sure signalled the end of cricket’s age of innocence. First Hansie Cronje confessed to selling his soul, and then the rot came tumbling out of the core of Indian cricket, leaving the side devoid of a middle order, and the fan bereft of trust and joy.
It was in this setting that Sourav Ganguly’s young, inexperienced India found themselves against one of the best ODI sides of all-time in the ICC Knockout at Nairobi. Batting first, India had got off to a brisk start, before three quick wickets put one in mind of the all-too-familiar post-Tendulkar slump.
Out walked this 18-year old kid - lean, tall, slouching, scowling and brooding, much like the man he was replacing in the side. Unlike him though, he didn’t have his collar turned up. But his wrists had the same touch of magic, and like him, he also happened to be the fittest Indian in the park.
In about two hours of raucous, glorious strokeplay, Yuvraj Singh yanked our collective attention back to the cricket. With cracking cover drives off Lee and Gillespie, and lofted whipper-snapper flicks off McGrath. Heck - who knew we could bat this way against Australia’s finest fast men!
There was more in the evening - a leaping lemming at covers to pluck a catch off Ian Harvey. A charge, a swoop, a pick-up and a hurl down of the stumps to run out Michael Bevan - that’s right, Michael Bevan. In the next game, against South Africa, he’d treat Allan Donald like a net bowler. I remember watching, agape - since when was it legal to loft McGrath, to run out Bevan, and to smash Donald around the park? Here was this team, making a clean break from a murky past, and here was this golden kid, ushering in the new dawn with a swagger we could get behind.
Our school days were spent studiously adulating Sachin’s batting, and our work-lives are spent alt-tabbing between work and streams of Virat’s batting. But the most special time of our lives came in between, when the brashness of our adolescence resonated with the gang that bridged those two generations: Yuvi, Viru, Zaheer, MSD, Bhajji. What a time it was to grow up! All of them would play starring roles, but Yuvi, without doubt, was our First Avenger.
After Nairobi, there was the Natwest final at Lord’s. Then there was a jail-break against South Africa on a slow, humid Champions Trophy night at Colombo in 2002. There was Centurion, where Tendulkar’s Shoaib upper-cut that was heard around the world was followed by Yuvi’s pristine cover drives off Wasim and Waqar to close the game. There were countless cool-cat chases, largely in the company of Dravid and Dhoni, all leading up to the grinding disappointment of the 2007 World Cup.
That reversal, memorably placated by some sensational hitting to lead India to victory in the inaugural World T20. Some of those six Stuart Broad sixes are still travelling the lower stratosphere around Durban. How often do you score the fastest ever 50 in international cricket, and then follow that up by playing an even better innings in your next outing? During the course of the 70 off 30 against Australia in the semi-final, Yuvraj became the first ever T20 superstar; A new-age player, trained to hit sixes, in a new-age format where sixes meant success.
In hindsight, you could say Yuvi’s entire career had been leading up to 2011. Yet, his performance in the World Cup couldn’t have come in more unusual circumstances. Overweight, ponderous, slow, mostly unrecognisable from the kid that stormed Nairobi 11 years earlier, and unknown to anyone, with a cancerous tumour in his lung - here he was, willing his way through a fairytale he had no business being a part of.
You could write books about Yuvi’s batting in that World Cup - yet another big-game taming of Australia, a fine 100 against West Indies and a couple of crucial 50s during India’s diffident league phase. But how do you even begin to explain his bowling? For 2 months in 2011, out of nowhere, Yuvraj went from being Dhoni’s sixth bowler, to middle-overs controller, container and wicket-taker all rolled into one. India would not have won the World Cup without Yuvraj’s splendid spells in the semi and the final, and we don’t realise this even in hindsight. That’s how quietly effective he was.
Sure, there were disappointments; the Test career never took off, and not for lack of opportunities. There was genuine weakness, against quality pace, bounce and spin, that bothered him right through. And then, there was the long-drawn out denouement; Yuvraj has been past his prime for long, and it has been difficult to witness him plod through mediocre IPL seasons, and the terrible innings in the 2014 World T20 final.
Now as he finally exits stage, 19 years after walking on water in Nairobi, it would be silly to dwell on the what-ifs. Here was a kid who didn’t even like cricket very much, who was moulded by a controlling father into a six-hitting machine. That machine would go on to slam sixes at will around the world, against the best bowlers in the world. Yuvraj’s batting meant that, after nearly a decade, hope didn’t die when Sachin got out in a one-dayer. He came into Indian cricket at a time when it needed swagger and skill in the right doses. He walks out a certified legend, an automatic shoo-in for any Indian limited-overs all-time XI.
During that famous Natwest final, as Yuvraj and Kaif gradually batted India back into an impossible chase, Harsha Bhogle could barely contain his excitement on air: “Call your friends, ask them to turn their televisions back on. These young men are in the middle of something special here!”
It was special indeed. Yuvi - so long and thanks for all the sixes.
(Nitin Sundar is a full-time cricket tragic who yearns for the return of the wonderful ODI jerseys of the 90s. He is stuck in a Bangalore traffic jam and tweets @knittins)