May 2006: Cover Story

Born again

Yuvraj Singh talks to Anand Vasu about maturity, new responsibilities and finding his place in the sun

One more century, yet more vindication of the management's faith © Getty Images

In similar circumstances a couple of years ago, this interview, probably wouldn't have happened.

It is a hot day in Jamshedpur. So hot, in fact, that Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who grew up in these parts, would strap a constricting ice-pack behind his back the next day while batting. Yuvraj Singh has trained all morning at the ground in the ridiculous heat, after having made the long and tedious potholed road journey from Ranchi to Jamshedpur, the venue for the penultimate match of a one-day series that by now seems to have lasted an age. I have an appointment with Yuvraj at the team hotel in the afternoon, but the policeman manning the barrier about 200 metres from the hotel will just not let me pass.

"Kis se milna hai (Who do you want to meet)?" he asks.

"Yuvraj Singh," I respond.

"Ja, beta, udhar khade raho (Go, son, stand there)," he says, pointing to a group of fans who are trying to gain access to the team hotel to meet their heroes.

My pleadings that I am a journalist here to keep an appointment cut no ice. I then call up Yuvraj, who asks me to hand over the phone to the cop, who, though visibly thrilled at having Yuvraj on phone, sticks to his guns. Yuvraj demands his name and designation, which he gives reluctantly. But nothing can dissuade him from keeping me at bay.

A couple of years ago, that would have been that. And I couldn't reasonably have complained. Yuvraj had done his bit and I couldn't have asked for more. Now, though, he asks me to wait. A few minutes later, I see him walk towards the barricade, looking relaxed, casually dressed. He comes up to where I am standing, grabs my hand, and escorts me past the slightly bemused looking policeman.

Yuvraj Singh was never quite the arrogant brat people made him out to be. But having known him since his Under-19 days, I can venture that I didn't expect him to walk the extra mile to meet a journalist seeking one more interview. But as he would tell me in the course of the meeting, the last few months have been life-changing: he now knows that life is much more than cover-drives and catches at point. He is mellower, more thoughtful, more accommodating, and more in control. It shows in his game.

Yuvraj has been around for so long that it's easy to forget that he is only 24. But for a player who burst onto the international scene in such scintillating fashion - his 84 against a full-strength Australian attack on a lively pitch at Nairobi in the 2000 Champions Trophy remains the most memorable first innings by an Indian since Sourav Ganguly's debut hundred at Lord's in 1996 - he has found the transition to Test cricket far tougher than expected.

First, there was the struggle to break into a middle order that was rightfully considered the best in the world. Then there was the failed experimentation with opening, periods of self-doubt, and time out of the Test squad - effects of the changes in the team management when he found himself torn between his personal loyalty to the man whom he owed a debt of gratitude for his support in difficult times, and his own career priorities and obligations. The last 12 months have been as much a period of disquiet as of revelation.

Yuvraj won't say so openly, but when the war between Greg Chappell and Sourav Ganguly came out into the open, he more than most others in the team found himself in the middle of the crossfire. When the team were doing badly in Sri Lanka late last year - Rahul Dravid was then the makeshift captain and Ganguly had just returned to the team in the middle of the tournament after serving a ban - the team stood in danger of being polarised. While the rumours about the divide in the team at the time were perhaps exaggerated, leanings were beginning to be apparent. And perhaps out of his feeling of solidarity with his former captain, Yuvraj felt obligated to take a public stand supporting the inclusion of Ganguly in the team - for which he was duly cautioned by the cricket board.

Yuvraj had his share of brushes with authority, and it wasn't fear of recrimination that got him aligned with the new regime. It was the realisation that he had his own battle to fight, and it wasn't a battle with anybody outside of himself.

By then he had played about 120 one-day matches but was struggling to hold a place in the Test team. He was still a certainty in the one-day side, but even there his game had clearly begun to stagnate. His first 66 matches had produced 12 fifties, but the next 52 brought only five. His average had slipped under 30. He went through the one-day series against Pakistan in early 2005 without a fifty, and when he failed in the first two matches in Sri Lanka, it was the closest to the breaking point he had ever been.

In the next match, he produced an innings of violence, cutting and pulling the West Indian quick bowlers, and upon reaching his century, gesticulating so angrily at the dressing room that it left no one in any doubt that he had been stung by criticism from the team management. To this date, he maintains that he was only remonstrating with himself, but whatever the truth, it was a moment of catharsis.

That was the beginning of a magical run which has brought him 1313 runs from 31 matches at 59.68, with five hundreds, six fifties, and three successive Man-of-the-Series awards. It has pushed his career average to nearly 35, and his growing stature has been reflected in how he is appointed vice-captain whenever Virender Sehwag is absent. The man who was cast in the mould of the rebel is now part of the inner circle.

Being in the Test side has helped me most. A lot of players play one-day cricket, but actual cricket is Test cricket. When you go out and perform in Test cricket, you feel confident that you belong at this level

When he was starting out, Yuvraj says, sounding much older than 24, he used to think there was a clear difference between his cricket and the rest of his life. "But now I have realised that there are certain things in cricket which are not independent of the rest of your life. I have tried to become a better person outside the game, and that has helped me on the field as well. I have grown up a little bit and I am still growing. If you want to grow as a player, it's very important to grow as a person. In the end, you try and do things that will make your game better. I know I have done well in the last year, but I have realised that I need to keep on improving - both as a person and as a player.

"In the past, I used to bat well in patches but never made runs consistently. After getting that hundred in Sri Lanka, I started to bat well. My thinking really changed."

Another aspect that has apparently changed is his footwork. Early in his career, he was clearly troubled by spinners and often got caught on the crease, leading to dismissals. When you ask if there was a link between his changed thinking and improved footwork, he smiles. "It's not that. You learn a few things when you play international cricket, and everything comes with time."

He enumerates the difference. "When I started playing international cricket, my feet were quite close together in my stance. Then, as I played, they went wider apart. Now I have reverted to my original stance. I am trying to play more in the mid-on / mid-off region rather than playing square and playing across, which I had a habit of doing earlier on. I am just improving at that and working towards playing straighter. Also, I am not having too many thoughts in my mind. Just having a few thoughts and going about doing what I have to has helped my game."

Yuvraj has always been a creature of confidence. When his mind is unencumbered, his footwork decisive, and manner aggressive, he makes runs. It is when he is tentative - especially outside the off stump against the fast bowler, or sweeping instinctively against the spinner - that he is in the most trouble. Confidence comes from making runs, from playing big innings - like the Sri Lanka hundred - but equally, it comes from feeling that you belong in a team. "Being in the Test side has helped me most. A lot of players play one-day cricket, but actual cricket is Test cricket. When you go out and perform in Test cricket, you feel confident that you belong at this level. In turn, that gives you a lot of confidence when you are playing a one-day game. You have reached a difficult level. Now that I have achieved success in Test cricket, I can get better in one-day cricket."

"I'm in the middle ground," Yuvraj explains. "I've played more than 140 games. I know I've not played much Test cricket and I'm not a senior like Dravid, but I have been around for a long time. I've been with this team for five years and I know what we have been through. Accordingly, I play my role. There's a certain responsibility given to me by the captain and the coach and I look forward to filling that."

For the first time in his career, Yuvraj is now a certainty in the Test side. Ganguly is no longer in the frame, and Yuvraj, on the evidence of his last two series, has gone ahead of VVS Laxman. So if India choose to go with five batsmen, as they have shown they are inclined to, it is Laxman and not Yuvraj who will sit out.

"It has been a rollercoaster ride for me," Yuvraj says. "It's not that I just came in and replaced Sourav or Laxman. I know that when I perform at my best, there is a 90 per cent chance that I will win the game for India. The competition with Sourav and Laxman - that gives me a lot. When I was a young kid coming into the side, they had already played 60 or 70 Test matches. So, coming into the team, playing well, getting on par with them and then replacing them gives a real boost to my morale. It tells me I belong to this stage." There's still, though, a long way to go for Yuvraj in Tests. Two hundreds and three fifties, 726 runs at 38.21 are miserly runs for a man who dismisses bowlers with the air of a millionaire.

He is aware of the enormity of his responsibility, going by the calibre of the men he has replaced. "These guys have played a lot of Test matches and performed. I have seen Laxman perform outstandingly in so many games, so it puts responsibility on you to also perform at that level."

Few can time the ball as sweetly as Yuvraj at his best © Getty Images

Being the senior batsman in one-day cricket has meant a promotion up the batting order, and Yuvraj says it has made a huge difference. "Obviously, going up the order is important because it's the only chance to play a big innings, and make a score of 80, 90 or more. When you do that successfully, you know that you can play a crucial role in international cricket. And that gives you the confidence you need, which in turn helps when you have to play lower down the order.

"As far as one-dayers are concerned, in the first two or three years, I was always batting at No. 6 or 7. Once in a way I used to bat at five when one of the top players got injured. In the last one year, I have got more chances at No. 4 and No. 3. I have got more opportunities and more balls to play. Obviously, if I am there till the end, I will play more balls, score more runs, and the chances of doing well for the team become greater."

He is clearly a vital part of the team, but Yuvraj plays down his stature. "I won't say I'm one of the main batsmen in the team. But I will say that I have to take more responsibility in the middle order. I've seen that, more often than not, when I have batted through the innings, India has won. There were times when I started playing my shots too early - I used to go bang, bang, make 30 or 40, and get out - I can't afford to do that anymore. Now whenever I get my eye in, I have to play till the end."

Like most Indian players who have been part of the Wright-Ganguly era, Yuvraj is wary of making comparisons. "John Wright was a different character and Greg is different,'' he says in measured fashion. "Each one has his ways of coaching. Either way, it is for the betterment of the team - each player knows that.

"When John Wright was there, I was just trying to cement my place in the one-day side. In the last stages of John's stint with the team, I played one Test series but was soon out. It was a learning phase for me; that was a level at which I started.

"Since Greg has come in, a lot of emphasis has been given to the youngsters. Now I have come to a different level where I am getting better at my game. Now the challenge before me is to score consistently in Test matches."

Ask him about the stories you hear, of how certain players - he among them supposedly - have felt stifled under the "stern and disciplinarian" regime of Chappell, and Yuvraj breaks into a smile. "I don't know where people get this sort of thing from," he says. "Greg is the one who cracks the most jokes."

But, he adds, turning serious, "Discipline is something you need. Under John, there was a certain atmosphere. It's not that the atmosphere is any more serious now. It's just that the drills in training and practice are more disciplined. We've become stronger and fitter in the last six months. The trainer has been very good with us, and strict also. The fielding drills have been really match-oriented, so that has made a big difference. "But we have great fun on and off the field. It is a very pleasant dressing room now."

Today India are a sharper fielding unit than they have been at any time in recent memory. And it's not just Yuvraj or Mohammad Kaif doing the diving around. "I know that there are youngsters in the team and this means I have to keep my standards up really high in the field. Guys like Suresh Raina, Sreesanth, and others have made us a much sharper fielding side over the last few months. Everyone is chirping around nicely in the circle and the standards are automatically lifted. The team suddenly looks a different unit on the field.

"When I see Suresh Raina on the field, the way he moves is quite electric. In him, I see myself when I first came into the team. He is throwing himself all around, trying to create an atmosphere," says Yuvraj, explaining how important it is for people like him to talk to the newcomers in the side at every possible opportunity. "I speak to them, tell them how it was for me when I first came into the team, and what I went through. The most important thing is to work hard and be disciplined. I don't have that much experience but whatever experience I have, I try to pass on by talking to them."

Put it to him that he has matured, and he leans back and laughs that throaty laugh of his. "One good phase and people start talking, saying you've matured and you've come of age and things like that. Soon after, you have one bad phase and people will say you're no good. That's what it's like, playing for India. The key is to just lie low, focus on the game and do what you have to. If you're doing well, make it count."

The above article appeared in the May issue of Cricinfo Magazine.

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Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo