It feels fitting that Yuvraj Singh announced his retirement from international cricket during a World Cup. His career was defined by India’s global wins: in Twenty20 cricket in 2007, then the 50-over prize in 2011.
He was the defining player who heralded a new generation of Indian cricket, a bridge from the Test match fighters of the early 2000s like Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh to the confidence and swagger of white-ball cricketers a decade later like Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli.
On the Stumped podcast for the BBC on Friday, we interviewed Yuvraj about his decision. He was taking a break in Dubai, but joined Alison Mitchell, Charu Sharma and me on the phone.
Yuvraj last played for India in 2017. By this year it became clear to him that physically and mentally he no longer had the intensity required for international cricket.
“Looking back, starting my first innings in 2000 against Australia in the Champions Trophy, that’s 17 years of international cricket, and on and off 25 years of playing cricket,” he said. “I don’t think you can ask more than that. In time you have to decide what’s the best time to move on. Looking back on my career it’s been amazing.”
He sounded cheerful and relaxed about his decision, but remains interested in playing short-form competitions around the world. “I’d love to play The Hundred. When you stop playing top-grade cricket you just don’t know what to do. Whatever cricket I can get to play outside India, I would love to play. It’s been a lot of fun playing international cricket but it’s been a lot of stress, the body has gone through a lot, so I just want to enjoy playing cricket now.”
It’s interesting though that short-form cricket isn’t what he values most. “Growing up, Test cricket was really special to me. I always wanted to play Test cricket,” Yuvraj said. “The first Test match hundred I scored we were 120 for 7. That was a very special knock for me. And I think winning the Test series in England in 2007, the first overseas Test series for me, I was not part of the XI, but just to be there.”
In the end, he played 40 Test matches, a substantial career. He made three centuries, all against Pakistan. Perhaps this is a good omen for India ahead of their World Cup group match against Pakistan on Sunday.
Of course, aside from the World Cup win, one of the main things that people associate with Yuvraj is the illness that he battled through, and the charity foundation he established afterward.
“To get that diagnosis of cancer – you’re at the peak of your career, you’re 29 or 30 years old, you’re at the top of the mountain with the 2011 World Cup, you can’t ask for more. And then it dropped from the sky. You think these things can never happen to you, but that’s life. It shows you that you’re a normal human being.”
That can be a hard thing to remember when you’re in the bubble of elite sport. But another sudden popping of that bubble came in 2014, when Yuvraj struggled in the World T20 final against Sri Lanka. While trying to set an imposing target in the first innings, he couldn’t get moving against Lasith Malinga and company.
“It was a tough time in my career,” he said. “I was playing the T20 in Bangladesh and I was dropped from the one-day side. My form was patchy and things were not going my way. But one day before I scored 60 against Australia from 40 balls and I thought I was playing really well.”
“But suddenly this game where I was not able to connect, I was missing, I was not even getting out. Obviously, there’s a credit to Sir Lanka for bowling really well, but I just couldn’t hit the ball. I remember getting a lot of flak, and that was curtains drawn for me I thought.”
Some Indian followers savaged him for the performance, seeming to forget that any player has good and bad days on the field. He was dropped from the team. You could forgive any player for wanting to walk away from the game after that.
“It was disappointing for me to disappoint so many fans around the world. But after all that I took a bit of time and I realised why I play the game. I play the game because I love it.”
After hard work over a couple of years, he eventually worked his way back to 20-over and 50-over cricket for India, culminating in the 2017 Champions Trophy final after another important performance against Pakistan in the group stages. He had some nervous moments on his comeback though.
“I remember playing a T20 game against Australia chasing about 200, and I had just come back after a year and a half, and I was about 7 runs off 11 balls. All those thoughts were in my head that I’m in a position where I’m not able to hit.”
“And suddenly I remember hitting a four and a six off Andrew Tye, and we scored 17 runs off the last over, and I remember hitting a boundary off the last ball, and suddenly the belief came back.”
That was how it seemed to be for so much of Yuvraj’s. “It’s been always up and down for me,” he says with a laugh. But those highs and lows have delivered so much entertainment.