Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It makes you overestimate your childhood idols and sporting heroes. It makes you imagine that players who inspired you as a kid must have been invincible champions. It makes you comfortable enough to believe that they had a larger impact on their sport than they actually did. I have had many such heroes in my childhood who I thought were far more powerful than their stats suggest. Think of men like Kaka or Andy Roddick or Yuvraj Singh. So maybe this little piece is just a fan boy trying to glorify one of his cricketing heroes. Yuvraj may or may not be the influential batsman that I imagine him to be. Nevertheless, I still want to explore the notion that Yuvraj Singh left a bigger impact on cricket than many of us realize. To understand his legacy, it is important to look at the context of his life, the team he played for and the sport itself.
Let’s start with something simple: cricket statistics. I fully agree that stats can provide a reasonably good measure of things. They can reveal insights that we might have overlooked otherwise. And they are becoming increasingly relevant with the rise of analytics in cricket. However, as will become clear, statistics sometimes obfuscate the legacy of many cricketers, for better or for worse. This is particularly the case with Yuvraj Singh. His 8701 runs in 304 ODIs with an average of 36.6 and a strike rate of 88 seem acceptable at first glance. These are solid numbers that reflect a decent enough career. Nothing particularly great though. Just par for a man who played in the powerful Indian middle order but very unremarkable compared to giants like Kohli, Sharma or Dhoni. The chances are that many younger batsmen, raised on a doze of IPL and provided with vast coaching resources, will soon exceed his run tally with a higher average and a superior strike rate. Well and good for them. However, the central fact remains, that there is very little possibility of any of these young batsmen changing the game the way Yuvraj Singh did. Why is that? Let’s back up a bit and discuss this because this is related to cricket’s very own recent past.
Now cricket is a very dynamic sport. It is constantly changing, developing, and evolving. The sport looks different than it did a few years ago. And certainly very different from what it did a few decades ago. The entire paradigms and thought processes involved in the game have changed. A batsman in 2019 would seem to be playing a vastly dissimilar game to the batsman playing in 1989.
For our own ease though, we can perhaps divide cricket into two separate eras: the traditional and the modern. The categorization is problematic because transition in cricket is more incremental than we assume. Nonetheless, the division does have its own merits. For instance, it is plain obvious that the sport drastically evolved after the rise of T20. The era before T20 was based on traditional, orthodox, and relatively slow cricket (with the glaring exception of Afridi and his ilk). The era after T20 aka the modern era involves fast, brutal and bombastic cricket. So, there is some sort of divergence occurring after T20’s emergence as a popular format. But how did this form of cricket take hold in the mainstream? There are many potential answers like the IPL, law changes, flatter pitches and bigger bats etc. Nevertheless, a lot of these changes can be traced back to one single event, the origin point for all of this: the 2007 World T20. It was this inaugural tournament that permanently changed cricket. Other big moves such as the IPL and the changes in playing laws only occurred after this impactful tournament.
How this is history relevant? Well, this era-heralding event was itself defined by the heroics of one man. Yuvraj Singh. The Indian great announced the arrival of the new cricketing age long before his contemporaries. Let’s rewind back 12 years to 2007 in South Africa and see how that happens.
Set just a few months after the lackluster 2007 ODI WC, WT20 was a festival of sorts. Though the cricketing community did not exactly know where they were going with this, the tournament and the format was clearly meant for entertainers and showstoppers. Gayle, Jayasuriya and Afridi, three other pioneering modern players, had the time of their life here. Gayle began the tournament with the format’s first international century. Afridi was among both wickets and runs, playing mad cap cricket in general and carrying his team to the finals (along with Misbah and Umar Gul). Jayasuriya seemed like the ideal opener for this format as he plundered his way against Kenya and SA. It was proper fun.
And yet, none of these men played the most pivotal T20I innings in modern cricket history. That task would be undertaken by Yuvraj Singh. Now Yuvraj had already become a very good cricketer before this. He had amassed 5,000 runs in ODIs at a healthy strike rate since his debut. He was a good runner between wickets, could build quick partnerships and had the firepower to finish things off at the end. His contribution to India’s now legendary chase of 325 against England in Natwest series had been monumental. In an Indian batting line-up choke full of star players, he was one of the most trusted men for the captain, Rahul Dravid. He would soon repeat this dynamic with Dhoni as well. However, as with all good stories, our hero started poorly and managed only 6 runs from his first two innings. Indian team was never serious contenders for the title anyway. This was 2007 and they had just come out of a disastrous WC campaign. But all that changed in the next two matches, against England and Australia. The theater for those heroics was the beautiful stadium at Durban.
First, against England in the group match, Yuvraj Singh did something beyond belief. Something every batsman dreams of and thinks about pulling off at least once in their life but knows that it is impossible. Six hits in six balls. No matter what the context, it is an herculean task. Only three men had ever managed this, one of them being Sir Garfield Sobers. Only one man had done so at the international level. Yuvraj Singh was the first and the last to do it in T20I. And he did it on a fast pitch against Stuart Broad; a fast bowler who would go on to become one of England’s greatest. However, even Broad himself must have had nightmares about the 19th over at Durban on September 19, 2007. Yuvraj scored 58 of 16 and hit 7 consecutive sixes in that innings. These weren’t small sixes either that barely squeak past boundaries. These were gigantic monstrosities smacked on both sides of the wicket by Yuvraj in his typical effortless style. The bowler seemed as helpless and hapless throughout and that innings decisively tilted the match in India’s favor. However, it is interesting that this wasn’t his biggest or best innings. In many ways, this match was just an exciting warm-up. The real show was for the big knock-out game: India vs. Australia in the semi-final.
Before we discuss Yuvraj’s contribution though, it is worth remembering that 2007 was a vastly different time. That Australia was nothing like today’s Australia. Under Ponting, they were the undisputed hegemon of cricket. They had won consecutive global tournaments and had dominated the cricket scenario for a very long time. Even after losing many players to retirements, Australia was still the favorites. And in this important game, they showed why. Having chosen to bat first, India struggled to quickly score against the relentless bowling of Lee and Johnson. By the eighth over, they were reduced to 41/2 with both their in-form openers gone. It wasn’t surprising though. Australia could be counted on to wrap things up here and then overpower Pakistan in the final. It was business as usual. Tradition, as it was until then…
Then everything changed when Yuvraj Singh walked in. He had already played a magnificent innings against England. But that was 2000’s England and this was Australia. A separate league altogether. Copper vs. gold comparison. So, first up, Yuvraj received a vicious shorter ball from Stuart Clarke. He tried to feel for the bounce but failed and his bat was left hanging out. It was pure luck that the ball didn’t catch the nick of his bat. Yuvraj seemed tentative at best and awkwardly vulnerable at worst. It was very typical for a sub-continental middle-order batsman against quality pace. The pitch was quick and the Aussies were in a mood for destruction. Clarke ran in again and decided to bowl another short ball to bully the batsman. Tradition demanded that Yuvraj show some respect. Duck out of the way. Bide his time. Survive as much as he can. After all, common sense dictates that you can’t blast your way through a supreme bowling attack on a fast pitch like this. Yuvraj…refused to accept. He said NO and broke tradition. He swiveled a little, pulled hard and then BOOM. Before the Australians could even react, the ball had landed deep into the midwicket stand. Yuvraj had smacked his first six. The battle had begun. Carnage ensued. Describing this innings would take a whole article by itself. I’ll just share one moment with you. A closer look will make you realize that it was at this moment that Yuvraj heralded the arrival of a new era.
(Video Courtesy World Sports on Youtube)
India was 54–2 at 9.5 overs. Brett Lee was running in for the last ball of the 10th. Lee, as older fans will recall, was one of the most ruthless and fastest bowlers of his generation. He was a very important contributor to Australia’s dominant period in cricket. Regular 90 mph deliveries were his day-job. Sending deliveries at batsmen’s bodies to make them feel uncomfortable was as easy for him as anything. He did just that to Yuvraj with a sharp bullet of a delivery that was meant to crash into his abdomen. By now, you should know how this turns out though. BOOM again. His wrists moved just a little, the bat moved a touch slower and his balance remained perfect as he sent the ball to the midwicket stand almost 119m back. It wasn’t that Yuvraj had just hit one of the best pacers of his generation for a six in the middle-overs in an important match. It was about how he had hit it. He never smacked that ball. He just flicked it to 119m. This would be a mega-six anywhere in the world. Yuvraj had just hit THAT with a level of disdain and casualness that cricket had rarely seen. So much so that once it was hit, the shot seemed almost inevitable in retrospect –an effortless act that was merely an afterthought for this man. It was as if he was out for a walk in the park. Lee’s terrifying pace and reputation meant nothing here. It was Yuvraj’s class, aggression and lazy elegance all packed into a few special seconds.
Yuvraj scored 70 of 30 balls in that match. His inning lasted a total of 38 minutes. By the time he got out, the scoreboard stood at 155–4 with less than three overs to go with an in-form Dhoni already batting well. I am sure many other innings would be just as important but these 38 minutes changed cricket for many fans in the world. T20 cricket had arrived with a style. And it could have only arrived if someone had the audacity and power to take on the current superpower of cricket. That someone was Yuvraj. India defeated Australia by 15 runs in that match and then fought a very competitive final with Pakistan to clinch the first T20 title. This success prompted their board to revolutionize and bring into life arguably the biggest event in modern cricket, the IPL. Cricket as a whole took T20 seriously after that event and other formats started to absorb and reflect the core concepts of T20 cricket. You could always argue against this but in many ways, all that followed was the result of Yuvraj’s efforts at Durban.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. If it did, Yuvraj would just be a one-tournament wonder. He was more than that. After 2007, he continued to play a central role in India’s slow rise in global cricket. He built newer batting partnerships with a younger generation. Though his test career never panned out, he stayed on as a consistent player of Indian cricket in limited overs. Steady and solid, racking up runs with the same easy mix of elegance and power. When he could, he contributed with the ball as well. His slow left arm was far cannier than many batsmen realized. Furthermore, his fielding was a decade ahead of everyone. From his debut and till the rise of younger men like Jadeja or Kohli he was very much the best fielder India had and amongst the best globally. It all came to head in 2011 though, where he somehow managed to top his own previous heroics.
The 2011 WC was another very important event in modern cricket. Moreover, it was as clinical a campaign for India as any team could ever have in a global tournament. The senior men lived up to their reputations and the young players stepped up when required. Batsman, bowler and fielder performed in perfect harmony. Tendulkar, Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Raina, Harbhajan were all important contributors along with Dhoni, Gambhir and a very young Kohli. They overcame teams like Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to reach the summit. Looking back on that event, the iconic images of Dhoni`s final hit for six or Tendulkar’s celebrations come to mind. And yet, despite the contributions of these great players, this success would have been impossible without Yuvraj, who gave one of the finest all-round performances ever in the WC. He scored 353 runs with a mind-boggling average of 88 and a very rapid SR of 108. If that had been his only contribution, it would have been more than enough. But he did much more as he ended up with 15 wickets at a miserly economy rate of 5 on flat Indian pitches. He choked runs and took wickets in the middle-overs throughout the tournament. He was the all-round pivot on which India’s champion team turned. To ask for any of his defining moments in that WC would be wrong. His entire campaign was built on handy contributions that seem small in isolation but are often the difference between loss and victory. The quarter-final brought the best out of him as he tormented his old victims Australia through wickets and crucial runs in a chase. It wasn’t to anyone’s surprise that he was named Man of the Series for the WC. No other player came close to his claim for the title. It is the peak point for any cricketer in limited overs international. Had he retired then, this would have been the golden image in which he would remain preserved. Alas, there is more to his story.
His biggest challenged was still to come. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that threatened to end his career in 2012. But for the warrior that he was, he undertook fight against it and eventually managed to rid himself of the cancer. That itself was perhaps his bravest achievement. Cancer is something no one should ever have to go through. That Yuvraj did and then came back out is his and his family’s great effort.
Once cured, he rightfully took his place back in the team. He couldn’t reach the same heights again as the disease had taken toll on his body. He then retreated into mountains somewhere and worked hard on his fitness. He came back a lean man and gave out few solid performances to demonstrate that he was still a force to be reckoned with. Yet again, his work came undone through inconsistency. Probably the worst performance of his career came in the 2014 T20. He struggled in the final against Sri Lanka as he scored only 11 from 21 balls. There were angry responses to his innings. It was painful to watch one of the format’s original pioneers struggle to stamp his authority on an important match.
Despite going through all that, the team loved him. Dhoni and Kohli, his two captains, sang his praises. They recognized his contributions. Majority of the fans loved him. Even IPL loved him. His irregular performances in the competition never affected his value. He always fetched a high price in IPL auctions. Perhaps at some level the franchise owners knew that when Yuvraj Singh comes to form, special things happen. However, form always seemed to elude him. Even his biggest admirers knew that his time had come. His fielding deteriorated as his body weakened. Something that was once his strength, the high back lift, unfortunately became his Achilles’ heel. The desire was always there though. He was a fierce competitor right till the end. It’s just that time had caught up with him. Still, there were isolated moments of brilliance such as the 150 against England in Cuttack and the devastating 53 against Pakistan in the first match of Champions Trophy. In these innings, Yuvraj turned back the years and showed everyone glimpses of his brilliant past. In those special innings he played with the same lazy elegance, the casualness of stance, the effortlessness, and the power with which he once used to dispatch good deliveries disdainfully towards boundaries. It was a reminder of the overpowering beast that he had once been. While he played only more unsuccessful series after the Champions Trophy, for many of his fans, these innings were the perfect swan song for him.
You can argue that this is less of a tribute and more of an eager fan boy desperately trying to glorify one of his heroes with nothing but vague allusions to some random few moments. But you would notice that when you look back at those numbers and achievements, it would be tough not to call Yuvraj Singh a truly great cricketer who left an irremovable mark on the game of cricket. Which other cricket player dragged their team to titles in not one but the two biggest tournaments of the game’s history? No one except him.
It is in this context that I claim that no young batsman will ever match his legacy. Will any other batsmen get to represent the future of the game the way Yuvraj did? Will their greatest innings ever be a symbol of what the new era meant? Will they ever have the stomach to come back from crippling personal setbacks and play cricket the way Yuvraj did? I have my doubts. After all, his legacy was far bigger than his numbers suggest. When historians look back on modern cricket’s past, they will have to reckon with Yuvraj’s role at its inception and in its development. They’ll get to see that when power and elegance harmonize, something beautiful comes out of it.
For now, it’s time to say goodbye to the legend world knows as Yuvraj Singh.
You will be missed.