Yuvraj Singh's brush with cancer: Initial sense of denial, the steely fight and eventual victory

Yuvraj said: 'Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. I go by this theory and have no regrets and keep marching on and keep looking forward to life.'

Debdutta Bhattacharjee October 18, 2017 16:06:56 IST
Yuvraj Singh's brush with cancer: Initial sense of denial, the steely fight and eventual victory

"Hello, haven't we met before?" Yuvraj Singh said cheerfully as he walked into the room after a session of football with children, and you could not help but be struck by the aura of his persona.

The man they call the 'Prince', the gladiator who hit a hapless Stuart Broad for six consecutive sixes in the 2007 World T20, the hero who ignored cancer to deliver the World Cup to a country that had been waiting for it like farmers in a parched land do for the first shower of monsoon, the superstar who commanded a record-breaking Rs 16 crore in the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction in 2015. Yuvraj has been a champion cricketer and he always will be, but there is much more to the Chandigarh lad than cricket. His life is a story of enormous crests and then, depths of despair, and the way he has negotiated all the hairpin bends on the road of life with the expertise of a seasoned driver is an endless source of inspiration.

We were at the Cooperage Ground in Mumbai last week, where Yuvraj was nominated as the brand ambassador of Laureus - a "global movement that celebrates the power of sport to bring people together as a force for good". One would be aware of the Laureus World Sports Awards that recognises the greatest sporting achievements of the year, and the awardees have included the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Usain Bolt among others. Indian sports enthusiasts would draw a connection with the organisation too, with Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid being the members of the Laureus World Sports Academy.

In an exclusive and candid interview to Firstpost, Yuvraj, the newest addition to the Laureus family, spoke about what this nomination meant to him, his fight with and victory over cancer, his humanitarian work and interestingly and perhaps for the first time, his struggles with fielding early in his career, which in every measure was quite a revelation, given that the image people had of him was that of a veritable Indian 'Jonty Rhodes'.

Yuvraj Singhs brush with cancer Initial sense of denial the steely fight and eventual victory

In this iconic image from the 2011 World Cup, Yuvraj Singh celebrates after India beat defending champions Australia to progress to the semi-final. AFP

"It is a huge honour to be included in the Laureus family. I have been watching the work Laureus has been doing since 2004, and I have seen how many legends have been working with them for so long and doing good for sports for all the countries in the world, and to be included alongside legendary cricketers like Tendulkar, Dravid and Kapil Dev is a huge honour," said Yuvraj when asked on what the nomination meant to him and the role he would be playing.

"It is a very special moment and hopefully, coming together with Laureus, we can do really good work for the community, especially in the rural areas of India, where there is no education on sports, education on education and there is discrimination of children, especially girls; to get them out there, to come and play sports – football, net ball – whatever sports they like to play. I think it is very important for a child to have a healthy mind and play sports," he added.

The talk invariably moved to Yuvraj being diagnosed with cancer at the height of his international cricket career, his subsequent triumph over the killer disease and bouncing back to play cricket at the very highest level and that too with distinction. I brought up the words of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and the first patron of Laureus. “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire," Mandela had said at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000.

"Definitely remembering Nelson Mandela when he said sports can change the world, and it definitely has changed the world, if you see, over the years. There have been some great sporting stories and one of those stories is about myself – coming out of cancer and getting back to sports, to what I love. It draws a lot of inspiration, and it gives a lot of inspiration to others, to come out of adversities, and believe that if I could have done it, they can do it as well. In these circumstances, sometimes we don't have the right support, and we don't have the right people around us. But I think, if we come from a sporting background, it motivates you to come back and play the sport. So for people out there, it is important to believe they can get back from the crisis they are going through and I think stories like mine can really inspire a lot of people out there, who then will stand up for the community and do good for sports," Yuvraj noted.

Yuvraj Singhs brush with cancer Initial sense of denial the steely fight and eventual victory

Yuvraj Singh gestures upon returning to India after treatment for a cancerous tumour in the US. His mother Shabnam Singh is in the foreground. AFP

He was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour of the size of a golf ball in his left lung after the 2011 World Cup. He was having difficulty in breathing, felt nauseous and was spewing blood before the start of the tournament, but nobody from outside got the faintest whiff of his troubles. He put all those aside and put up a stellar show at the showpiece event, winning four Man of the Match awards – the joint highest with Aravinda de Silva (1996) and Lance Klusener (1999) – and was the chief architect of India's fantastic title triumph. For Yuvraj, the country came first, his own troubles were secondary. With his cancer fully under remission by March-April, 2012, it had to be one of the biggest human success stories ever.

"The motivation was to just win the World Cup. We were all playing to win it for Sachin (Tendulkar), because he had given so much to the Indian fans over the years, and somebody who has won everything deserves to have a World Cup. It was a cohesive team unit," said Yuvraj. "The moment (of highest achievement for me) was the World Cup in 2011, when we won the trophy after 28 years, and winning in India was very special. I can't really express in words; it was a dream-come-true."

But how did he react to the news that he had cancer? There must have been negative thoughts swirling around him. Did he fear for the worst?

"It is very hard to accept when you have cancer. It took me a while to accept that. I am sure a lot of people go through that adversity as well. But once you accept it, it is up to you to fight it. Nobody else can fight it for you. You can have the right support, you can have the right doctors, but it is eventually you who is going to take that call. And if you go through a disease like that, you don't have a choice but to fight back. So that is my appeal to people – that you can get out of it, but it is only you, if you believe in it," Yuvraj said.

"Definitely (there were negative thoughts). You don't know whether you are going to save your life – you might survive, you might not. There will be negativity around you, but the positive people around you take that away from you," he added.

Talking of the support he had during his most trying times, one has to doff his hat to the efforts of his mother Shabnam Singh, who was by his side at all times, his teammates and friends. Tendulkar once said before meeting Yuvraj in the hospital in London that he was afraid whether he would be able to control his emotions. The Master Blaster gave Yuvraj a tight hug when the two met and dined together. Tendulkar recalled that the way Yuvraj ate he was certain his junior colleague was on the mend.

Yuvraj Singhs brush with cancer Initial sense of denial the steely fight and eventual victory

Yuvraj Singh in tears as his India teammates embrace him after winning the 2011 World Cup. AFP

Yuvraj's face brightened when reminded of that story. "During those times you need a lot of support and a lot of positivity from your friends, and with my mother being there and my family and friends, I had a lot of support. Tendulkar came all the way especially to meet me in England. Anil Kumble came all the way to America. These are the moments I will never forget and what people have done for me. Obviously, when your friend is in an adversity, you would like to put a smile on his face, and he (Tendulkar) definitely put a smile on my face," Yuvraj noted.

No interview with Yuvraj Singh would, however, be complete without a reference to his cricket, and more specifically his fielding. Yuvraj, along with Mohammad Kaif and Suresh Raina, totally revolutionised Indian fielding in the 2000s. Those who have seen Yuvraj in his prime during that time would remember how he used to prowl the area around backward point, letting not even a fly fly past him.

India till then were not exactly known for saving runs on the field or converting half-chances in terms of catches or run outs, though a few fine fielders came along from time to time, in the form of Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja or Robin Singh. But that was more an exception than a norm. But there was perceptible change in the mindset of the team in the 2000s, when fielding started to be taken extremely seriously to the point where being lethargic on the field today would mean an automatic disqualification for a place in the side, irrespective of one's expertise with the bat or ball.

Was fielding an aspect of his game that he emphasised on since the very beginning, and what sowed the seeds of this revolution, I wondered. Was it a result of the realisation that India were lagging behind teams like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand?

"(It was) Nothing like India lagging behind. You have to work on your skills. As a young kid, I was dropped from my state team because I was known to be a bad fielder. That was the first Ranji Trophy game I played. I took it very personally, my father (former India player Yograj Singh) took it very personally and I worked really hard on my fielding for the next couple of years. I always thought, if I ever play for India, I would be the best fielder in my country. That was my goal. So it was about setting personal goals," Yuvraj declared.

I reminded him of the stunner he took of Jonty Rhodes in the 2002 Champions Trophy that amply displayed the high level that Indian fielding had touched. It elicited a polite "thank you".

Yuvraj Singhs brush with cancer Initial sense of denial the steely fight and eventual victory

Yuvraj Singh going through fielding drills during the 2011 World Cup. One of best fielders India has ever seen, he revealed that he was once dropped from his state team as he was perceived as a bad fielder. AFP

The discussion then moved towards the role of Sourav Ganguly in Yuvraj's development as a successful cricketer. "He (Ganguly) was the captain when I started playing. I had huge support. In the early days of my career I was in and out and was not being able to settle, but he (Ganguly) knew that I was a match-winner and it was important for him to support me. I also met him in Birmingham during the Champions Trophy (this year), and I told him, I am playing my 300th game today, and it wouldn't have been possible without your support."

Yuvraj played his 300th ODI in the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final against Bangladesh, becoming the fifth Indian player after Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Azharuddin to achieve this feat.

But has there been any moment in his illustrious career which he felt could have been different, or could have been done differently? "Yes, not playing enough Test cricket. When I actually got the opportunity to get into the squad in Test cricket, I got diagnosed with cancer. So that was unfortunate, but life is not how we plan it to be; anything can happen. So hope for the best and prepare for the worst. I go by this theory and have no regrets and keep marching on and keep looking forward to life," said the feisty batsman. His answer didn't conceal his disappointment, though it also showcased a resolve to take life's challenges on the chin and still come up trumps.

How would he dispel the fear of cancer in the minds of people, I asked. "I think there is a lot of stigma around it. People don't really know. People think it is contagious. There is not much education in rural areas about cancer. Through my foundation YouWeCan, we are trying to spread that awareness among people and understand what cancer actually is. You need to go to the right doctor, to have the right help, have the support of your family. You have to be lucky to be detected early. Early detection is the key, I tell a lot of people out there. Sixty percent of the chances are only if you are detected early. So if you have any issues, you must go to your doctor and take the right advice and be around positive people."

Being a cancer survivor and in recognition of the love and support that he got during that harrowing phase in 2011-2012, Yuvraj now engages in a lot of charity, striving to bring smile on the lips of the downtrodden, deprived and the diseased, through his foundation YouWeCan.

"The YouWeCan Foundation started when I came back from my treatment in 2012. We decided to work for cancer, because obviously I had gone through it. We have done more than a lakh detections in rural areas of the south, east, north. The biggest problem with cancer, or with any disease, is that people in India don't have insurance. So it is important that you fund their treatment. So whatever we can do at the moment... basically children who come back from cancer and parents who have lost all their money in their treatment, who can't support their education can come back and stand up in their lives again, the way I had stood up. Obviously, I had everything around me to come back and be on my feet again. So hopefully, I can be of help to people and tell them that we are here to support you and your child is not alone."

YouWeCan has been funding the entire education of children whose parents don't have the funds. According to the YouWeCan website, the foundation has provided education funds to over 100 cancer survivor children and made more than 50,000 students aware about cancer.

Yuvraj Singh is a true fighter, champion and a marvellous human being. There could hardly have been a better ambassador for a brand of the repute of Laureus!

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