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By Navroze Dhondy
Six, six, six, six, six. As Stuart Broad ran in to deliver the final ball of his over, the Kingsmead crowd was roaring, baying for blood, wanting the last ball to also soar into the crowd. And Yuvraj Singh obliged with a six. September 19, 2007, got etched in cricketing history.
The roar was deafening and the huge grin on Yuvraj’s face said it all. Six sixes against quality bowling on a world stage, without batting an eyelid, without breaking a sweat...
Yuvraj had come a long way. Not just the crowd, but elsewhere too people were glued to television, watching a rare miracle on a cricket ground. Over the years, more than 5 million hits on YouTube have ensured that these five minutes of cricketing history are watched again and again by generations.
Mohammad Kaif, Yuvi’s buddy since their junior cricket days, said his friend hasn’t changed. When they first met as 16-year-olds — Yuvraj was playing for North Zone and Kaif for Central — they immediately struck a warm friendship that has lasted nearly a decade and a half. Along the way, Kaif captained the India U-19 team and Yuvraj played a stellar role in the under-19 World Cup in 1999-2000 which India won by defeating Sri Lanka in the final.
Kaif remembers that off the field it was tough to find Yuvi sitting quietly in a corner, reading a book. Here was a true star that had arrived on the Indian cricketing firmament, one who had the most fan-following. Moving up to play for India from the junior cricket ranks was at times as exciting as terrifying. “Dada (Sourav Ganguly) was always encouraging Yuvi to play his normal game,” said Kaif. Yuvraj was told not to model himself on any player, but to become a role model himself. The transition was quite natural for the flamboyant left-hander, who made the shine of the red-cherry disappear when he made a sparkling 84 the first time he batted for India in an ODI (in Nairobi).
The excitement began when he was called up for national duty to play in Kenya. In a hurry, the young Yuvi forgot to carry his bat sponsors’ logo stickers.
Vishnu Bhagat, COO, Reebok India, who spotted Yuvi when he was just 19, met him at the team hotel in Ahmedabad. When he mentioned to Yuvraj that Reebok was keen to sign him on as a brand ambassador, Yuvi was beaming and wanted to sign off a long-term association with a brand that also reflected his personality. But the fair-dealing Vishnu was clear; he explained to the eager lad that he would be better off signing a one-year deal. “Wait to become an even bigger star and then sign a long-term contract Yuvi,” said Vishnu. “You should have seen his boyish delight,” Vishnu added. “We knew we had a star in the making, but also wanted to play fair with him.”
Since then Yuvraj remained with Reebok for nearly 12 years, only recently signing up with Puma. The ‘animal’ in both the brand and the star should hopefully connect well with the audiences. Vishnu narrated how in a hurry the bat-stickers for Yuvraj’s bat had been misplaced and a whole new set was ordered at the last minute.
“I stood on the road at 2am to hand over a packet of bat stickers to the photographer, Kamal, who was leaving for Kenya. I requested him to make sure these were properly stuck on Yuvi’s bat,” recalled Vishnu. The rest is history as Yuvraj scored a fluent sparkling 84 in his very first ODI innings, slamming the likes of Glenn McGrath all over the park.
His ‘power-hitting’ is something even opponents have acclaimed. A few months ago, Desmond Haynes, the famous West Indian opener, was in India with the Caribbean team. In his hotel room, he happened to watch a replay of one of the matches that featured Yuvraj. Haynes said, “Navroze, this guy Yooovraaj is not an Indian, he’s almost West Indian, maaan! Look at him bat, he is enjoying himself.” Coming from a batsman of Haynes’s reputation, this was a top compliment for Yuvi.
Just batting in the middle wasn’t the only thing that Yuvraj loved. He, along with Kaif, brought a sea change in Indian fielding standards. “Yuvi and I used to improvise all the time, trying out new methods to sharpen our fielding,” said Kaif. While at practice, Yuvi didn’t even spare skipper Sourav who, at times, would miss a catch or let a ball go past him.
In his chuckle-laden voice, he would rib Dada: “Come on captain, you can’t let the fielding standards drop!” Ganguly took it in his stride, laughed it off, and never held a grudge against him. In 2002, India’s choicest cricketers gathered at the Wembley Centre to crown the Electrolux Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century.
The gala function had the entire team led by skipper Ganguly (there were no snafus like on some other tours). Manager Amrit Mathur ensured they were dressed in smart India blazers. Then they watched a chapter of Indian cricket history being enacted. The legendary octogenarian, Mushtaq Ali, strode upright to address the audience and hand over Sachin Tendulkar the people’s choice award. The humble Tendulkar bent to touch the legend’s feet as the crowd stood to applaud such a fine gesture.
While I was helping make the Indian team settle down to their respective places, it so happened that Kaif and Yuvi sat close to Tiger (Nawab Pataudi). Towards the end of the evening, Yuvi and Kaif were enthralled and said, “Navroze, we were wondering why we were being asked to attend this function. Thank God we came. This is one evening that no one here will ever forget. We are lucky to be part of such a proud history of the game in India.”
It’s something I reminded him when he walked up the stage along with Kaif to be with Rahul Dravid who was crowned the Wisden Indian Cricketer of the year in 2003. On stage this time, and asked to comment on Dravid’s fluent cricket, Yuvraj regaled the audiences with his tongue-in-cheek comments.
While getting off the stage he whispered to Dravid (dressed in a churidaar-kurta) “you look like our batting neta Rahulji”, making Rahul and us smile.
Humbled by the situation, the moment and the greats around, but not humbled so easily on the field.
On the 13th of July, 2002, just a few days before the Wisden event, India were battling it out with England in the final of the Natwest Trophy. England had amassed 325; Marcus Trescothick hit 109, while Nasser Hussain struck 115. The cricket world wasn’t used to 300-plus targets 10 years ago, not at least the hapless Indian bowlers who had been carted all over the park.
India came in to challenge the total and see if a new record could be set and 326 achieved. The start was electrifying, with Virender Sehwag and Ganguly firing on all cylinders. Then came the collapse and the big guns fell. It was left to Kaif and Yuvraj, who strolled in nonchalantly, to see if they could restore pride and make a fight of it.
“Yuvraj started hitting the ball so hard and so cleanly that it just rattled the Englishmen,” said Kaif. “We were clear that we had to have fun, play hard, and see how close we got to the target” he continued. This allowed Kaif to play a solid innings; and he and Yuvraj took India to that famous victory with two wickets in hand. Ganguly pulled off his shirt and waved it for all to see his six-pack and his ‘never-say-die’ determination to provide Indian cricket with that mettle which made the team winners overseas.
In the last few days, the media has had stories and stories abounding about Yuvraj and what he is going through. It is a tough phase, not only for Indian cricket’s super hero, who made the World Cup dream a reality, but also for his family and numerous fans who are all praying for his quick and complete recovery.
After his stupendous performance during the ICC World Cup last year, Yuvi had raised the bar, not just for Indian cricket but for himself. On flight from Delhi to Mumbai, he was sitting next to Sehwag, ribbing him all the time about his sprouting crop of new hair, smiling and joking, while ruffling his own curly locks. “Arrey yaar, this is one category where I won’t get a brand to endorse,” he remarked, making most passengers around him smile.
Smashing six sixes, keeping India in the hunt and winning matches single handedly, or being the Most Valuable Player of the World Cup — all are part of a day at the office for Yuvi.
During a recent chat, legendary all-rounder Kapil Dev said, “Yuvi is a Punjabi, he is a fighter and he has the determination to fight back.” Yes, we all look forward to the second innings of Yuvi, where Yuvraj, the prince of Indian cricket, graduates to being the king of the turf. God bless…
[The author is the founder and managing director of Creatigies Communications and an avid cricket nut. Mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. The article was first published in the DNA and appears here with that newspaper's permission.]