Hrishikesh Kanitkar. Robin Singh. Ajay Jadeja.
Indian cricket fans of a certain vintage will immediately recognise these names. At different points in the late ’90s, they were all part of an Indian middle order in One-Day International cricket.
They were all fine players and each had their moments. In their own ways, whether it was by scoring runs, taking catches or breaking stubborn partnerships, they improved the teams they were part of.
But they all lacked a single something. It wasn’t their fault, really – this was still a team that carried over the staidness of the preceding eras. Eras of conservatism and passivity. An era where Indian cricket simply didn’t know what it could achieve.
In simple words, none of them was Yuvraj Singh.
Oh, Yuvi. That young, impetuous devil. In the mind’s eye, he is still playing in those faraway shores of Nairobi. Where he strutted on to a cricket field for the first time in international cricket in the 2000 ICC Knock Out. Boyish, charming, disarmingly aggressive.
That was New India.
An injection of belief, courtesy Yuvi
We rubbed our eyes in disbelief. Here he was, a fresh-faced youngster taking Australia apart. The greatest team of their generation. A team of players whose mere names made us quake in our boots. But, but...he didn’t seem to care. There he was putting the great Glenn McGrath to the sword. There he was, oodles of self-belief, staring up Steve Waugh and his bunch of merry men, the very epitome of mental disintegration.
He didn’t seem to care about reputations. He didn’t seem to care about niceties. We thought we’d never defeat them, let alone, dominate them like he was doing. But there he was. A teenager dispatching Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie to all parts of a stadium in a knock that resonated for the ages.
Sure, when it comes to Yuvraj Singh, there are thousands of other memories that can often take priority. The highlights reel is long and storied – take your pick from that superhuman 2011 World Cup, the gladiatorial six sixes off Stuart Broad, his starring role in the 2007 World Twenty20 or even his heroic return from cancer, the disease which threatened to end it all. Yuvraj Singh is a bonafide hero of Indian cricket – there will be few like him.
But it is that Nairobi knock which I hold close, every time I think of him, especially on a day as momentous as this when he has announced his retirement. In history books, eras are easily defined whereas in reality, they are difficult to comprehend. One era slips into another while you wonder when it started and when it ended. But if cricket historians ever tried to simplify the rise of India from a cricketing backwater to this new aggressive animal we see today, they will surely put that 80-ball 84 in Nairobi as a significant turning point.
From NatWest 2002 to Durban 2007 and World Cup 2011
Through the course of that decade, Yuvraj Singh rewrote the limits of Indian cricket’s belief. We couldn’t really believe that India could be a dynamic, snarling and a strutting cricket team. We possibly couldn’t chase down high totals, right? We couldn’t have fielders pulling off aerodynamic twirls in midair to take fantastic catches, right? We couldn’t take three right under the fielder’s nose, right?
Oh but we could. It wasn’t Yuvraj alone who heralded that revolution – he was joined by an enigmatic group of young brash upstarts, namely Mohammad Kaif, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, backed up the never-say-die captaincy of a certain Sourav Ganguly. But Yuvi was certainly at the forefront of it. Self-belief, a word we didn’t know, existed in our arsenal, was exhibited best by him and Kaif on that fateful July day in 2002 when India chased down 326 in that NatWest final.
In that decade and more, Yuvraj went from strength to strength. He had lows, of course – too many to recall, but his highs were so stratospheric, so wholesome, that you’ll gladly disregard the lows. India was a petrified nation when it came to the chase – the side effect would persist even after the NatWest final, before it was righted by the duo of MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh. That was a time when under Dravid’s captaincy, MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh would finish off matches for fun, forever banishing the dread and the unease of a chase from Indian stomachs.
We could go on and on. What are your thoughts on Kingsmead, Durban 2007? Not in retrospect, but when you watched it. Do you remember that thrill? That disbelief? That awestruck feeling of realizing that Yuvraj Singh, an Indian batsman, was hammering six after six. Did you ever think it would happen? How about 2011? Do you remember that long, aching desire for World Cup glory? Do you remember Yuvraj’s many turns throughout that tournament? That primordial scream of joy as he went down on his haunches, after beating Australia in the quarter-final? His fist pump when Dhoni hit that six?
The cleanest, purest hitter of a cricket ball
But more than anything else, do you remember Yuvraj Singh just batting? That almost casual arrogance with which he walked to the crease? Before Virat Kohli popularised it, he wielded the bat like a sword. All lithe and smooth. In his element, there was no cricketer with a purer bat swing. The arc in which it moved, the parabola it formed, graceful, powerful, thunderous. It was brutal, yes, but it wasn’t brute strength. There was an aesthetic beauty in which he could swing a cricket bat – poise, power, perfection.
Yuvraj pulled off the ultimate comeback when he defeated cancer. His best days were behind him but he still managed to pull off a few star turns. Yes, at times, he seemed a shadow of his earlier self – that 11-ball 21 in the 2014 World Twenty20 comes to mind – but even in that trough, he could still roll back the years, as evidenced just two years back in 2017 against England in Cuttack when Dhoni and him combined for a monster 256-run partnership.
As he steps away, one last time, let us celebrate the revolution he brought to Indian cricket. And in the same cricket, let us not pontificate on regrets. The one regret which may possibly stay attached to his rich legacy is the one he mentioned in his retirement speech himself – what if he had fulfilled more of his potential in Test cricket?
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Yuvraj Singh’s legacy is no less rich because of that. Yes, he couldn’t make that mark in Tests, comparatively. But he won India a World Cup and a World Twenty20. And infused an entire cricketing nation with charisma, oomph and self-belief. That’s more than you can ask plenty of.