The puffiness is gone. He is not lean and mean by any stretch of imagination, but the difference is stark. He looks fitter, familiar in his Team India colours. The trademark curls are back. A hint of double chin is still there, but then he's still a work in progress. After all, it has been just four months since Yuvraj Singh's return from Indianapolis. His return to life, after an arduous battle against a rare germ-cell cancer.
The dashing southpaw's return to the Indian team is the stuff of guts and grit. With his selection to the team for the T20 internationals against New Zealand and the squad for the upcoming ICC T20 World Cup, India's 2011 World Cup hero became the cynosure of all eyes—fans, media, broadcasters, the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
The thunderous applause that welcomed the big man to the Chepauk Stadium in Chennai may have drowned the pounding of his own heart. Yuvraj admits that he cried as he walked onto the field, as the crowd kept roaring “Yuvi, Yuvi...” After that moment passed, he did what he loves the most. Play.
Bowling 2 overs for 14 runs, taking a tough catch and scoring 34 runs (26 balls/1 four/2 sixes)—Yuvraj's return to international cricket was near-perfect. The glorious comeback perhaps made up for the gloom of India losing by just a run.
The manner in which he middled the ball from the word go proved that his class was intact. His six off Daniel Vettori over long on, followed by another one off Jacob Oram over deep mid-wicket confirmed that Yuvraj kept his word given through a special message to THE WEEK readers last April: “I will be back. Hopefully, soon!”
He may not have displayed peak fitness levels but the team management and Yuvraj are confident that he is gradually improving by the day.
In contrast to the loud reception, it was a quiet return to the dressing room for Yuvraj, sans any frills. He was heading back to a place where he belonged for a decade.
But it was an anti-climax at Visakhapatnam, where the “rain gods” drew the wrath of many. The port city was to host the first T20 match against the Kiwis, “the biggest day of my life after the World Cup final,” according to Yuvraj.
“Few hours to go till I wear my fav jersey To my mom my friends my fans this wud not bin pos thnks for ur lov nd courage,” he tweeted. Though the match was washed out, many fans stayed on with banners and placards for Yuvraj. “Goodbye Cancer, Welcome back Sixer,” read a banner.
Yuvraj's friends and family—about 25 people who were with him during his fight with cancer—accompanied him to Visakhapatnam and then to Chennai. “Getting very restless. Just a few more hours to go, hope it doesn't rain in the evening,” tweeted Yuvraj, ahead of the second match. This time, the rain gods yielded.
“We are just happy to see him play again,” said his friend Sandeep Sharma, who had been with Yuvraj from Indianapolis to Indian training. For Yuvraj, it was a leap of faith—that he has indeed beaten the beast.
“I don't know how I am gonna play.... But just to comeback on the field and play for my country again, is a huge thing for me,” he told THE WEEK before taking to the field.
After his return to India in April, it was time to focus on just being. The body had to be detoxified, muscles had to be rebuilt. Eating regular food—mostly organic—was paramount. “Araam se khata hoon, maza le kar [I relax and eat, relishing every bit],” he said recently when we caught up with him during a lunch break at the National Cricket Academy, Bangalore.
His plate was laden with chicken, rice, roti, daal, sabzi and raita. The Punjab da puttar soon demanded more paranthas and daal!
He particularly enjoyed the salad, but the sight and taste of papaya got him agitated like a child. “Oh, ye papeeta hai? I hate papaya from the bottom of my heart!”
A few months ago, eating a normal meal was unthinkable for Yuvraj, especially during the three-month chemotherapy in Indianapolis. He used to pray for a day that would pass without puking. Whatever he ate was soon upchucked. So much so that he often refused to take medicines and even plain water, and would “get cranky, start crying”.
After his return, it was the weighing machine that gave him a jolt. He was 13kg overweight. “He initially went to the NCA for ten days in May to assess where he stood in terms of resuming training, whether his body was strong enough to give him a realistic chance to make it to the T20 World Cup,” recalls Nishant Arora, his friend and manager.
The Yuvraj that we see on field again is courtesy a joint effort of the fighter himself and the entire coaching and training staff of the NCA.
This was his daily schedule: “I come to the NCA by 10:30 a.m., do my stretching exercises, core and glutes strengthening. Then I have sessions of Pilates, batting and fielding. A one-hour lunch break is followed by either a session of weight training or running alternating with fielding practice. I also play about 12-15 games of table-tennis in between. That, I think, would be enough for a day [laughs]. Then I have stretching and yoga, followed by a pool session—that's my day.”
The training programme was drafted after consultations with Dr Lawrence Einhorn in Indianapolis, Dr Nitesh Rohatgi of Max Hospital, Delhi, and Dr Nitin Patel of the NCA.
Physio Ashish Kaushik, trainer Nagendra Prasad and yoga expert Manoj, too, worked on Yuvraj, alongside the rest of the NCA coaching faculty led by its director and former Indian batsman Sandeep Patil.
Says Dr Rohatgi: “I told his physio to go on with him as one would with any cricketer who returns after a long break. Initially, there were issues with his stamina to which I recommended more breathing exercises. I was happy for them to take him wherever they wanted to. He was going gradually up and up.”
The trainers reveal that they “pushed Yuvi to the limits”. He kept responding positively. There was neither the time nor the energy to focus on anything other than cricket. Yuvraj says initially there were times when he would be too exhausted after a day's session, collapsing on his hotel bed. He had to force himself to get up and head to the pool for a cool-down. “The body would shiver initially; it would feel like a bundle of nerves,” he says.
There were instances when he felt like giving up, returning home. But such thoughts remained only till the training session next morning. No wonder that Patil, while watching Yuvraj go through the fielding drills, murmured, “He is no longer the same old Yuvi. He is very focused.”
It was on the basis the NCA's reports that selectors picked him for World Twenty20. Many people might think it was an emotional decision, but Patil is certain that “his return is good for Indian cricket”.
During every phase of training, Yuvraj surprised his coaches and trainers. He often beat the target set for him by a week or more. A fortnight before the New Zealand T20s, the trainers felt his fitness was two weeks ahead of their expectations.
During THE WEEK's interaction with Yuvraj at the NCA, Kaushik and Nagendra asked him how many runs he made at the nets. “Sixty to seventy,” he replied, leaving them astounded. While discussing his post-lunch training plan for the day, Yuvraj quipped: “Yeh mujhe Usain Bolt bana denge [They will turn me into Usain Bolt]!”
It is not just about the body. The mind needs reinvigoration, too. Thus, Yuvraj has been keeping himself busy with a few social commitments, too. He is working on a book—to be released on his birthday, December 12—based on his journey from cricket to cancer and again back to cricket.
He has also been active with his NGO YouWeCan, which aims “to produce help in terms of knowledge about cancer, medical resources and financial support [for patients]”. A documentary aimed at spreading awareness about cancer, especially early detection, is also set to be aired on Colors channel.
But for now, all that is on Yuvraj's mind is the upcoming Sri Lankan safari. Signing off, he says: “I am just thankful to God that I have a second life. I will just go and play my cricket. I don't know how many runs I will score, but will just enjoy myself.”