April 14, 2010

When the brand's bigger than the player

Yuvraj Singh's celebrity is disproportionate to his achievements on the field, and his recent sulk brought that truth into focus

It was a surreal sight. As victory was sealed, the bench erupted, joy and relief suddenly jostling for supremacy on those rows of hitherto tense, sweaty faces. Every man was on his feet exulting, with one exception. There was a moment when his knees flickered, impelled by long-honed instinct to hoist their owner in solidarity, but Yuvraj Singh's head and heart were in no mood to be dictated to by mere force of habit. He stayed put.

Punjab had just shrugged off their listlessness by beating Mumbai, delaying their victims' qualification for the IPL semi-finals, yet Yuvraj was plainly a man apart, a man alone, his glazed eyes turned inward. Had he forgotten he was playing a team game? The evidence seemed incontrovertible.

Here in Britain, on ITV4, the studio pundits were having trouble suppressing their gall. John Emburey, the epitome of the gnarled, old-fashioned pro, was seething: it was well out of order, simply wasn't on. Graeme Hick, who drew even more affection from his dressing-room confreres, was gentler, yet still made his feelings clear: you must enjoy your co-workers' successes if you want to play a team sport, he reasoned. After all, you won't always play a significant role yourself.

Not that Yuvraj is the only member of a prominent sporting team to have his community spirit questioned this month. Two Saturdays ago, the footballer Kevin McDonald, who plays for Burnley in the English Premier League, stoutly resisted the conventional responses to being substituted. At the time, Burnley were 0-5 down to Manchester City and being thoroughly shamed in front of their home crowd, albeit by opponents infinitely richer in resources; McDonald's embarrassment was personal as well as collective. He was livid with his manager for taking him off. So, instead of marching stoically from the field, or ripping off his shirt and flinging it over the touchline in a fit of understandable pique, he decided to leave the ground altogether. And head for the pub. (In mitigation, at least he chose one that was broadcasting the game.)

Two days later McDonald was fined a fortnight's wages. Repentance was fulsome. "I now realise it was naïve, disrespectful and totally wrong of me. It was a gross misjudgement and instead I should have remained… to support my club and team-mates. I acknowledge that I also showed a serious lack of respect to all the fans who were at the ground and who pay good money to watch their team play... I would like to reassure all supporters that I am fully committed to helping the team as we fight to stay in the Premier League."

As I write, two days after that Mumbai match, Yuvraj has yet to acknowledge anything, much less express contrition. By the time these words are read he may well have followed McDonald's example, though the signs are inauspicious. With attention focused on the middle, perhaps he imagined that nobody saw his (non) reaction to the victory. But while his misdemeanour may not have been apparent to the spectators, television viewers saw all. And he was arguably even more culpable than McDonald. At least every other member of that Burnley team felt as fed up as the latter did (they ultimately lost 1-6). Yuvraj, though, seemed in no shape to share in anything. Would he have behaved thus had he been representing a nation rather than a business concern? It is desperately difficult to believe he would.

IT DIDN'T HELP, OF COURSE, that, according to a story in the Times of India on April 2, Yuvraj would have preferred to have been playing for another franchise, having been ditched as Punjab captain in favour of Kumar Sangakkara. Purportedly refusing to play ball, Kings XI co-owner Ness Wadia, suspecting that Yuvraj might not lend quite all his might to the cause, was said to have urged the BCCI to have a quiet word. If the board did so (and they denied having received a complaint), the fruits have been undetectable to the point of invisibility.

Yuvraj, who has attributed his poor returns to the strain of returning from injury, vented his spleen via Twitter: "I am disgusted and horrified that a news reporter can stoop down to such a level. I, in all my career, haven't seen such a disgusting piece of news." No player, he reckoned, more than a little risibly, "underperforms at will".

Preity Zinta, Punjab's other co-owner, also expressed disgust and horror; Gautam Gambhir, too, sprang to Yuvraj's defence. You would therefore have been forgiven, after all that, for expecting him to join those Kings XI celebrations, however confused or unhappy he may have felt. As Alan Price sings in Lindsay Anderson's magnificent career-defining movie O Lucky Man:

Smile while you're making it
Laugh while you're taking it
Even though you're faking it
Nobody's gonna know…

Fortunately, the impending World Twenty20 in the Caribbean offers him a swift opportunity to atone, to remind us, not what Brand Yuvraj can do, but what Cricketer Yuvraj can

On the other hand, if Yuvraj truly cared about the bigger picture and the greater good, he certainly did an exemplary job of disguising it.

If the Times story is true, Wadia would have been better off cutting his losses and letting Yuvraj go. After Mark Ramprakash was relieved of the Middlesex captaincy in 1999, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the club and, the following year, resolved to leave. Middlesex were equally determined to make him stay, and had the contract to do so. Discussing the matter with Angus Fraser and Vinny Codrington, the county secretary, I implored them to be pragmatic: what was the point in trying to keep someone who didn't want to be there? The odds on the team benefiting, after all, were anything but promising. Soon afterwards, Ramprakash was released from his obligations. Given how little Yuvraj has done for him lately, Wadia would have been better advised to do likewise.

As it is, Yuvraj's pitiful, almost pitiable form, culminating in last Friday's non-jubilation, could so easily be interpreted as the hallmarks of a spoilt, sullen, stroppy teenager immersed in an interminable sulk. It would be easier to sympathise if he hadn't just signed to play the lead in an animated movie with the rather optimistic title of Captain India.

The plot, according to the publicity, finds Yuvraj growing up in Mumbai and discovering a magical multi-purpose "cricket stick", one that not only enables him to help India win the World Cup but also to battle crime. The film is co-produced by Cornerstone Sports and Entertainment Pvt Ltd, a management company whose clients include… Yuvraj. "Cornerstone has always made best efforts to promote brand Yuvraj as uniquely as possible," explained the press release helpfully. "This project is one such opportunity for Yuvi to reach out to the millions of children across the countries who aspire to be like him one day."

"Brand Yuvraj"? Maybe that's the problem. The cricketer has become the brand. In any event, if Cornerstone can claim that their client is a role model for "millions of children across the countries", one can only wonder what this says about their market research.

The sadness is the waste. "Yuvi" has so much to give. Already one of the planet's most destructive 50-over batsmen, those six sixes off one Stuart Broad over in the inaugural World Twenty20 three years ago elevated him to a rarefied plane. Now he was up there with Sachin and Mahendra Singh, potentially the most glittering star of the next decade, one of those for whom surnames are superfluous. Now that next decade has come and he has not really progressed; has not, crucially, become a five-day champion. Discerning judges, noting his impatience and impetuosity, will not be altogether surprised.

In December 2007 he made a fabulous career-best 169 against Pakistan in Bangalore, his first Test knock after those half-dozen fence-clearers, dwelling more than four hours at an international crease for the first time. His 20 subsequent innings have seen a rapid return to modesty: no centuries, more single-figure scores than fifties (six to five), 13 dismissals for under 30 and, all told, 583 runs at 32. Now younger men are being preferred. He is clearly not where he believes he could be, should be. Yet still the rewards flow, and still the celebrity grows. Grappling with that little irony takes some doing.

Fortunately, the impending World Twenty20 in the Caribbean offers him a swift opportunity to atone, to remind us, not what Brand Yuvraj can do, but what Cricketer Yuvraj can. The difference, on this occasion, is that he will be playing for his country, not an unloved franchise. There will be no suspicion of divided loyalties, no team for whom he would allegedly rather be playing. That's why, for the foreseeable future, international cricket will remain the best brand in town.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton