The warrior prince has left the building.
Yuvraj Singh called time on a 25-year tryst with cricket, nearly two decades after donning the India jersey for the first time, on Monday. The 37-year-old earned the last of his 399 international caps almost two years ago, in an ODI series in West Indies immediately after the 2017 Champions Trophy.
Yuvraj retires with his legacy as one of India’s greatest white-ball match-winners firmly intact — though he admitted to leaving with a slight regret over his fortunes in the longest form of the game.
Volumes could be written about the all-rounder’s top performances — the Yuvraj Singh highlights reel will be both a collector’s edition and a time-taking watch — and so condensing his heroics down to 10 is a giant task.
This writer, after taking a trip down memory lane through the day, had to put a rock to his heart and discard a few gems that most mortals would possibly have regarded as their finest hour. This is what heart and mind, in tandem, finally settled upon as the ‘top-10’.
The Arrival, against the Aussies at that
When 14 Indian players boarded a flight to Nairobi towards the end of September 2000, Indian cricket was attempting to emerge from its darkest hour. The ghosts of the match-fixing still hovered over Team India as they walked into the ICC Knockout Trophy, now known as the Champions Trophy, with a team featuring five rank newbies (three of whom would be handed their maiden India caps through the tournament).
After brushing aside Kenya in their opener, India stood up to world champions Australia in the quarter-final; it was 7 October, the day of Vijayadashami/Dussehra in India, and such was the gulf between the sides that most back home preferred watching Raavan burn than their cricket team.
As a result, many in India only belatedly caught the glimpse of a new star who rose from the ashes that very day, far away in Kenya.
Yuvraj Singh — Player of the Tournament during India’s march to the under-19 World Cup title earlier that year — strode out for his maiden international innings against an all-pace Aussie attack McGrath, Gillespie, both the Lees, Harvey and Waugh) with the scoreboard reading 90 for the loss of Messrs Tendulkar, Ganguly, and Dravid. The men to follow him to the middle were Robin Singh, Vijay Dahiya, Ajit Agarkar and the bowlers.
For the next two hours, the world champions — and the world, at least whoever was watching — stood transfixed, because anyone watching knew they were witnessing the birth of something special.
His first scoring shot was a punched off-drive straight past Ian Harvey. He got to a 47-ball half-century with a rasping on-drive off Glenn McGrath. In between, there was a delectable mix of cuts and pulls, and in particular, those flicks which would become a trademark.
He finished with 84 off 80 balls, and added a run-out of Michael Bevan as India successfully defended a total of 265; the Yuvraj Singh story was only just beginning.
Red-Letter Day: Lording it at Lord’s
When you think of the instances, or the results, that would go on to galvanise Indian cricket and turn it into a superpower in the decade that followed the ICC Knockout Trophy 2000, one match from each present format of the time sticks out.
Where would Indian cricket be if it weren’t for Kolkata 2001? Where would Indian cricket be if it weren’t for the NatWest Trophy final 2002?
While the first of those, without a doubt, was the single-greatest mic-drop moment for the cricket in the country, the second, arguably, was the one that would kick-start the soon-to-be-burgeoning legacy of the ‘Men in Blue’.
At the heart of it were two men still finding their feet in the international game.
Ironically, for the second instance running, a Yuvraj special was perhaps missed by the vast majority of the country back home.
Because when Mohammad Kaif joined Yuvraj in the middle at Lord’s on 13 July, India were 146/5 in response to England’s 325/5; by the time people across India switched their TV sets back on, (with news filtering in that the impossible was indeed happening) just in time to catch the closing act, Yuvraj had departed.
The fortunate few who sat through the initial turmoil were able to witness an astonishing achievement from two future stars in a team of superstars.
Kaif finished the deal, but Yuvraj was the one to start the fire; it was his combination of attacking shot-making and intent-laden strike-rotation in a 63-ball 69 that kept India afloat in the middle overs, and prepared for the final assault.
When Yuvraj fell, the equation had come down to 59 from 50 balls — his walk back to the pavilion, termed the ‘longest of his life’ in an iconic piece of commentary from Harsha Bhogle, was painful to witness; luckily, unbridled joy was just eight overs down the line.
Sailing along in Sydney, 2004
The first 30 months of Yuvraj’s India career were laced with sensational bursts but limited to nothing more. It took him 71 ODIs — and 61 innings — to reach three figures for the first time.
But that was against Bangladesh, who were yet to really arrive at the international stage, so further evidence was required. It came on India’s tour Down Under at the end of 2003.
Quite like Nairobi 2000, Australia, still world champions, had fielded an all-pace attack for the Indians (this time reading Gillespie, Lee, Bichel, Harvey), and the Sydney Cricket Ground, circa 2003-04, still had its ropes attached to the advertising hoardings; this wasn’t a venue, or indeed a time, for the big-hitters to enjoy monstrous outings.
Yuvraj — still only 22 — wasn’t having any of it. He blasted 18 boundaries, even crossing the fence twice, to pound 139 runs off just 122 balls, sharing a double-century partnership for the fourth wicket with VVS Laxman.
The drives and flicks couldn’t come much crisper, but what stands out about this particular effort was his control on proceedings: as per ESPNcricinfo’s calculations, Yuvraj’s control percentage on the day was 93.
Sadly, it ended in vain, as India lost an eventually rain-reduced game in a dramatic finish. But if there were any doubts over the ability to stay put, they were starting to be quelled.
Rare bright light in whites, Lahore 2004
“I would have loved to average 40,” Yuvraj said during his retirement announcement while admitting to his performances in Test arena being a regret. In the 40 Tests he did play in a career played in the shadows of India’s greatest-ever middle-order, Yuvraj returned 1900 runs at 33.92.
His stint in the whites wasn’t entirely devoid of sparks, and he seemed to entirely save those sparks for Pakistan.
Each of Yuvraj’s three Test hundreds came against the arch-rivals, two of them in their own den. The first of those was a knock that begs the same question with every subsequent viewing, even 15 years down the line: What could he have been?
Umar Gul had brought India crashing down from their Multan high to 125/5 on the opening morning of the second Test in Lahore; five overs later, the visitors had slumped to 147/7.
A deep glance at Yuvraj’s Test-match numbers would beg the presumption that he, too, would have been part of the collapsing cycle stand. Not that day.
Pakistan had Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami to complement the buzzing Gul, and Danish Kaneria to stifle with spin — but Yuvraj decided to counter-punch, and he did so with aplomb.
Crunched drive after crunched drive, with an obvious garnish of those trademark flicks, accounted for the pacers. For Kaneria, the bigger hits were reserved; the highlight being a pristine straight drive for six.
Yuvraj’s 112 came from just 129 balls; that strike rate of 86.82 would have been world-leading even if it were a 50-over contest at that time.
Into Orbit: 36 Reasons Why T20 took off in India
India, quite like their subsequent acrimony with DRS, weren’t quite taking to T20 cricket even as the concept won the world within years of its advent. Not many would have even bothered with the inaugural World T20 if it weren’t for the jingoistic pleasure of watching India play — and beat — Pakistan in the group stage.
But on their third outing of the competition, at Durban on 19 September 2007, India woke up to the crash-and-bang format of the game. It took the greatest crash-and-bang humanly possible in the game (and a dose of inspiration from a certain Andrew Flintoff).
Two weeks earlier, playing an ODI against the same opponents, Yuvraj had been tonked for five sixes off the 50th over of the innings by Dimitri Mascarenhas.
He went one better facing Stuart Broad, becoming the first man to hit six sixes in an international game between two Full-Member nations, while pulverising his way to a 12-ball 50 — still the fastest across any grade of cricket.
Go on now, do it. You know you want to YouTube that over for the gazillion-th time. Do it.
In the next game he played, the semi-final, Yuvraj took Australia to the cleaners with 70 off 30 balls. He ‘only’ hit five sixes in that contest, but one of those was a flick off Brett Lee — which travelled 119 metres.
Go on. See that one too. You must.
England eclipsed, again: Rajkot Rampage, 2008
It’s sure got to be a running joke in the Singh household that Yuvraj took the greatest affinity to the English bowling attack (in December 2016, Yuvraj married Hazel Keech, who is half-British).
England were the only team barring Bermuda and Netherlands against whom he averaged above 50 in ODIs, and unlike the two Associates, who he only faced thrice in all, Yuvraj had 36 innings against England.
He hit four hundreds against them, two of which came in back-to-back games to start off a five-match series at home in November 2008.
The first of those belonged more in the ‘AB de Villiers-Johannesburg-2015’ or ‘Jos Buttler-Trent Bridge-2018’ category.
Before getting the details, remember this was 2008. When 350 wasn’t the norm. When a strike rate above 150 was only conceivable for a 20-ball cameo.
Now sample this.
When India opted for the batting Powerplay, the scorecard read 216/2 in 34 overs, and Yuvraj was on 30 off 33 balls. India finished with 387/5. Yuvraj? 138 not out off 78 balls. That’s right. 108 runs off his last 45 deliveries. If ever you wish to use an innings as an example of being ahead of the times, look no further.
Oh, and just as an aside: Yuvraj played the last 15 overs hampered by a back injury, with a brace strapped on to his body, and a runner doing the running for him. Not that there was much need for a runner.
The ‘Double-Treble’, IPL 2009
For all his rambunctious ways with the bat, and despite his unofficial status as the man who led to the tournament’s advent (thanks to his six sixes), Yuvraj actually endured a quite middling record in the IPL.
He finished with an average below 25, and a strike rate below 130, both well below par, by both T20 standards and his own lofty credentials.
But barring a hugely unlikely occurrence, Yuvraj is set to remain the answer to the greatest stumper of a quiz question around the IPL: Who is the only man to take two hat-tricks in a single season of the IPL?
As if that alone doesn’t astonish enough, he did so in the one IPL season that was played in South Africa, so no pinning it on dust-bowls and rank-turners or what not.
The first, better still, included two South African batsmen of more than decent repute. Leading the Kings XI Punjab against Royal Challengers Bangalore, Yuvraj dismissed Robin Uthappa off the penultimate ball of his second over, followed it up by castling Jacques Kallis with an arm ball, and then, from the first ball of his next over, trapped Mark Boucher with a fast-arm dart.
Just two weeks later, Yuvraj got rid of the Deccan Chargers spine of Herschelle Gibbs, Andrew Symonds and Venugopal Rao off consecutive deliveries. He had his teammates to thank for this one; Piyush Chawla held on to a flying blinder at point for Gibbs’ wicket, while Symonds’ ouster was down to Kumar Sangakkara’s acrobatics behind the stumps.
Still. Yuvraj Singh. Two hat-tricks. One season. Who wrote this man’s scripts, eh?
The match of his life
If you had to put Yuvraj Singh’s World Cup 2011 campaign down to a moment, it would be, surely, that warrior growl, down on his knees, in the middle of the Motera, after ending Australia’s 12-year unbeaten streak at the World Cup to guide India into the semis.
This was the moment he had waited for. Ostensibly since the end of that 2003 final, where his and his team’s dreams were trampled over by the most ruthless machine known to the one-day game.
In the years between 2003 and 2011, the Aussies would continue to boss India, as indeed world cricket.
Yuvraj had waited. He had endured. He had hoped.
And he wasn’t letting this moment slip, not even if he saw his captain depart to leave his side needing 74 off 75 balls with only Suresh Raina and a lengthy tail for company.
Lo and behold, the prince rose to the occasion to end the reign of the kings — and that battle-cry at the end would serve as the defining moment of a historic summer; a lifting of the pains of past, for Yuvraj, and a billion more.
India, of course, went on to win the semi-final against Pakistan, and the final against Sri Lanka, and Yuvraj even got the pleasure of being at the crease to watch MS Dhoni send the winning six sailing into the Wankhede stands.
He also won the easiest-to-award Player of the Tournament title at the World Cup since Lance Klusener, becoming the first — and till-date only — man to make 300 or more runs and take 15 or more wickets in a single edition of cricket’s biggest tournament.
But the moment of Yuvraj’s life was when Yuvraj sank to his knees after winning the match of his life.
Still got it: Coming back from cancer
In the year that followed, the world would come to know that Yuvraj had played through that World Cup with the onset of the battle of his life — the battle for his life. Diagnosed with cancer in the months after his greatest joy, India’s hero had to leave the game, and the country, to fight the toughest fight he could. He did so, and, as always, emerged victorious.
But could he be the same? Did he still have any fight left in him? Would he not be hampered by the sheer exhaustion — physical, mental and emotional — of what he had been through?
The answers, through the first of his comebacks to the game, appeared to be what no one wanted to hear. Rushed back into the setup, as many felt, ahead of the 2012 World T20, less than a year after having played his last game before cancer struck, Yuvraj, one and all feared, had lost the touch.
The return lasted four months, and by February 2013, Yuvraj found himself out of squads across all formats.
Eight months and 13 days later, he was back. No, not just back in the team. Yuvraj was back. Chasing 202 to win their one-off T20I at Rajkot to mark Australia’s arrival in the country, India were left needing 122 from 69 balls when Yuvraj walked out at number five.
He was joined by accomplice-of-old Dhoni shortly, by which time the equation read 102 to win off 53. They did it with two balls to spare. Dhoni’s contribution? 24 off 21 balls.
In a role reversal from that April night in Mumbai two years ago, the skipper this time took the best seat in the house — and there are few better seats anywhere in the world than one that allows you to watch Yuvraj Singh at his best.
The flicks, the drives, the pulls, the bludgeons. They were all back. Yuvraj Singh was back.
The Last of the Epics: Cuttack 2017
For the final stretch of his career — a four-year stretch from the assault on the Aussies in 2013 to what was eventually his last international outing in mid-2017 — Yuvraj went around with a permanent ‘comeback man’ tagline. It wasn’t an entirely flattering moniker to go by.
So frequent were his ousters from the Indian squad that it almost became impossible to tell whether he had been part of the previous India game or not. But the absolute final stretch, the one that carried him into the Champions Trophy squad in 2017, featured one jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, time-travelling throwback.
For good measure, Yuvraj saved this final burst for his all-time favourite English bowling attack. For even better measure, he did it as part of one final ‘Yuvi-Mahi’ two to tango.
England had reduced India to 25/3 inside the first five overs at Cuttack. And then?
Then, two 35-year-olds shared their first 200-plus stand, more than a decade after they first started demolishing bowling attacks.
Then, Yuvraj Singh struck the highest score of his 304-match ODI career — 150 of the most sublime, the most supreme, the most surreal runs you could ever expect to see of a man who had been seeing career obituaries penned for him every other day.
Of course, it was only one final flicker for the light that burned so long.
It was ethereal, but it was ephemeral. It was unreal, but it was real.
It was Yuvraj.