September 21, 2010

'I can't control my emotions all the time'

Yuvraj Singh looks back at a troubled year, marked by injury, controversy and the loss of form

Yuvraj Singh's career these days must feel like the middle overs of a high-scoring ODI - a long, often monotonous trudge that must be undergone to arrive on the other side with something substantial.

This is his tenth year with India and it has brought him a string of superlatives, all far removed from super: roughest, toughest, hardest.

Whether it is form or fitness, injury or illness, minor issues have turned into complications and complications have brought with them the most severe consequences. At a time when he believes his Test career should be taking off, Yuvraj has been dropped from a series squad for the second time in four months. First was the Asia Cup that followed a disappointing Caribbean World Twenty20. It is what happened during the Sri Lanka Test series, though, that stung him the deepest.

Its aftermath can only be worse. He must now know that the first-choice Test No. 6 is Suresh Raina, who stepped in and scored a debut Test century ¬when fever ruled Yuvraj out in Sri Lanka. He calls the omission from the third Test, the "hardest part" of his annus horribilius. He is now out of the Test squad against Australia completely.

It cannot have been easy but when the news reached him yesterday, his public persona kept him relaxed before the cameras. More than his image what Yuvraj will protect and fight for is his reputation as competitor and team man.

It is why he will talk about what he needs to do in order to hack it in Test cricket. Or why he can't field at point. Or what it's like to be dropped. Or why he looks so angry all the time. Or anything. Ask him any question and he answers like he strikes a ball best - clean and clear, beyond boundaries of doubt or rumour. He speaks like a man with few secrets or agendas. "I am an open person. I don't do anything in hiding" he says.

Yuvraj understands respect instinctively and is generous with it to his peers. After 10 years it is why he seeks it for himself now through his cricket. It is why being left out of the Test team is like being crushed by his own destiny.

He won't explode in a fit of rage, though. Speaking to ESPNcricinfo last week, Yuvraj talked about watching his rookie years happen all over again to his young team-mates. "Boys mature very late", he grins. (So that explains everything. Do stop the press.)

Consider him matured and not only because he's reading books on tour these days. One of the "most interesting" he says is Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps. He found some of it "very true - about men and women both", he laughs. He is intrigued by Shantaram, which he is still to finish, and his new hobby worries some mates. They remember the loose-limbed free spirit, and an anxious VVS Laxman once said, "Please don't read all these books - you just listen to hip-hop and keep dancing."

If this were an easier time, perhaps he could have. Not anymore. His career comes with a sobering constant. He sets no epic goals and keeps his tomorrows simple. This time it's about getting fit and in form leading to the World Cup.

As India play unconvincing ODI cricket, they will need Yuvraj because he is their man for the big moment. Without him, the Indian middle order is not so much brittle as hollow. In Test cricket, India's greatest ever middle order is heading towards a sunset that could well become a blackout. In a perfect world, maybe this sobering swashbuckler could steady them.

"I still haven't given up" Yuvraj says. His team should not either.

Injuries, getting dropped, not once but twice, the IPL drama - have the last 12 months been the most difficult in your career?
Yes, it has been the toughest year in terms of managing my body and my performances. The last hundred I had was in the West Indies after the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup. That really bothers me. I've been injured a lot, which mentally is very hard. Broke my finger, two fractures at the same time, then broke my little finger, then I had a cartilage tear in my wrist, then a series of neck injuries in the last series.

It's just sad because it has come at a time when batsmen really peak, at 28, 29, 30 you're supposed to hit your best form. Then I think, "It's a good thing this has not come at the end of my career when you're saying, 'Oh shit, man, I can't do this anymore.'" So it's been very tough but, touch wood, I've managed to be strong and I'm sure things are going to come good soon.

"A lot of people say things about me, but they don't realise I have played 250 games. It's not like you just land up in the team, sit down and play 250 games. You can't survive like that in international cricket"

What was the roughest patch?
The wrist injury in Bangladesh, when I couldn't bat in the second Test match, that was bad. But I would say the roughest part was in Sri Lanka. I scored a hundred in the side game, fifty in the first Test, then I fell sick and didn't get picked for the third Test. So that was the hardest part.

How is a situation like that handled in the team? Do you get an explanation? Did you?
If somebody wants to give me an explanation, they can come and give me an explanation. Neither was I given one nor did I ask for one. It's not in my hands to be picked or not to be picked. If the team wants me, definitely I'm there. If they don't want me, I'm happy to serve the drinks.

Is that why you snapped in Sri Lanka, reacting to the crowd calling you names?
I wasn't reacting to that at all. The crowd behaviour was very abusive, not to me but to other players, so all I said to the security chief, all I did was say, put in a complaint to the ICC - that the crowd was bad.

You're saying you didn't give the crowd the finger?
This is all media speculation. They always make it up... okay, I mean, most times stuff is made up. The same thing happened in West Indies when we went to eat after a match. There was no fault of the players. Cricketers are playing for India. You have a responsibility as ambassadors and we don't do these things. Everybody has a temper, but I keep my temper in check.

It's odd you should say that because to the public it looks as if you are angry all the time...
People who don't know me, how will they know what I am really like? They will only see me on the field, only see me in an advertisement. People who know what kind of a guy I am will tell you I'm a very open person. On the field you have to be aggressive, you're thinking how to get the better of a situation. It's not that I don't laugh on the field. In fact, I think it's very important to laugh, especially when you are angry and aggressive, to just take the tension away, make the moment go away.

That's how you handle everything on the field?
No, I'm not always telling myself do this, do that. Yes, there are times when I think that if I do this, this is going to be the outcome, if you don't do it, all is going to be much easier.

If the bowler is talking a lot, I just think that I should first make a big score and then show him the bat. In a heated argument outside, if someone says something, you want to reply, but you realise he is trying to get importance out of picking a fight with you. So then I think, I look and I move. Normally we react emotionally, so I try to keep my emotions in check. I can't do it every time. This is something I have changed about myself, because in the past I would always react. Then I figured that not saying anything can sometimes be more powerful than talking.

Normally I don't react too much to criticism, but when criticism gets too harsh and not acceptable, then I have to say it is not acceptable. Which is what happened at the IPL this year, when it was said that I was underperforming. That is ridiculous, I won't accept that.

How much did that get to you?
It hurt a lot. It was not even like just feeling bad. It was a lot of hurt because you have played your cricket with so much pride and passion, for your country and in whatever games you are involved in. No one realised that I'd just come from a wrist injury and I was struggling to hit the ball. I was just getting into the tournament, it was a serious injury - I tore the cartilage in my left wrist, which is the hand from which I generate my power. So to be hearing stories that you are underperforming because you are not the captain, that was just rubbish.

Did losing the captaincy of Kings XI bother you?
It didn't bother me in the sense that if they would have told me in advance... See, I had no issues with Sangakkara captaining the side, I welcomed the idea that they felt that I was better off as a player and Sangakkara could do the captaincy. I get along with him very well. He's more than welcome to be the captain of the side, he is captain of Sri Lanka, and I have no issues. I've played under every captain but I thought the situation could have been handled better.

After that kind of a year, do you want to be retained in the team? Or are you ready to move if you have to?
I haven't thought about it or about what's going to happen. It's been great and quite tough also, playing for Punjab, because people really love me in Punjab and they want to come and see me play in Chandigarh. But a franchise, it's very different from international cricket. Every franchise is a powerful entity in its own right, from the Ambanis or the Wadias or the Sahara group, which has come in, they are all powerful people, they all want to win. You can't blame them, they have to try a lot of things to make something happen. But cricket is a sport and only one team can win and the margins are very small.

In the third year [with Kings XI] we were just not winning and when you are not winning, nobody is happy, there is no camaraderie, there is no positive sense of approaching the next game. It's a normal human tendency - when you are not winning, everyone is going to accuse each other

How have you dealt with the ups and down in your Test cricket? Do you doubt your ability or reconcile with what has happened? Why do you think things turned out like they did?
There are a lot of reasons. Before I started playing one-day cricket, I used to play a lot of four-day domestic cricket. There is not a lot of one-day cricket in domestic cricket, so I was used to the four-day format.

For the first two or three years, I was playing only one-day cricket and never got a chance to play a Test match. Then I thought my chance would come, that it was just hard to get in. After a few years I realised that I just can't be thinking that my time will come, that I'll get a chance; I have to do something to create a chance. So I did okay and then kept coming in and going out. It was tough to be in the XI with the likes of Sehwag, Ganguly, Laxman.

At the time I should have been playing a lot of Test cricket, it was a tough middle order to get into. I knew I had the ability to make a place in the Test squad when I was doing well, but unfortunately I had a bad series. In 2006 I was supposed to go to South Africa, which would have been a testing tour for me, and I had a bad knee injury when I could have cemented my place. Call it luck or whatever.

Then, recently, there have been times when I have scored a lot of fifties and sixties that I should have converted into big hundreds. Okay, maybe not all of them but at least three out of six. So I couldn't really stamp my place in the team. It did not happen but I don't have any regrets because I tried my level best. Always.

No matter what people say, about what I did, about what I am like... They say you are not dedicated or hardworking. A lot of people say things about me, but they don't realise I have played 250 games. It's not like you just land up in the team, sit down and play 250 games. You can't survive like that in international cricket.

In part two, tomorrow, Yuvraj reflects on the loss of his fielding mojo, mentoring young players, spot-fixing and more

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo