At one point, he could not imagine he would lift a bat again. The brilliant Yuvraj Singh, Indian cricket's wayward prince, was hit by fate's thunderbolt right after coronation at World Cup 2011. Awarded the Player of the Tournament honour, Yuvraj helped India emerge world champions 28 years after their first victory in 1983.
The image of the elegant left hander going down on his knees and letting out a gladiatorial roar after beating Australia is still embedded on the minds of cricket aficionados. And then came the shocking news that throughout the tournament, the champion had been battling cancer.
Millions prayed for his well-being as Yuvraj underwent chemotherapy in Indianapolis. Unlike many other international athletes who like to hide their ailments under a veil of secrecy, Yuvraj posted a picture of his shaved head on Twitter, as he began losing hair during the treatment. It showed that the indomitable batsman was not letting the life-threatening disease or chemotherapy keep his spirits down.
After making a comeback, Yuvi is now out with The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back (Random House India, co-authored by Sharda Ugra and Nishant Jeet Arora). He looks leaner, fitter and relaxed. Yuvraj has seen hell and returned to tell the tale. The dreaded cancer has also been a life-defining experience which has made Yuvraj value life, enjoy the world on offer without fear and without worrying about failure and the future any longer. In this exclusive interview, he explains why.
How has life changed for you?
Ah, I am a more relaxed person now. When one is young, aspiring to play for the country, doing well, any hindrance, like injury or being out of form, can be frustrating and a cause of annoyance or even anger. But once you have a close encounter with death, you realise the real value of life. Simple things like breathing, enjoying food, the small pleasures of life that we take for granted, become precious. The bodily suffering, when I was choking while trying to breathe, when I couldn't digest anything each time I had chemo, when I would be a mental and physical wreck, made me realise that living a normal life is a blessing and should not be frittered away by fretting over things which are beyond your control.
Would you say you've had a rebirth and have become a changed person?
You can say that. For me, just to live again, feel normal, be with my friends, family and breathe normally was a great feeling. I started to put on weight, I ate like hell, eating every 45 minutes, enjoying all the delicacies I had thought I would never get to eat and smell again. And I didn't care. I was living again and that was the most important thing.
You started enjoying life as it came...
Well, you can say that I started valuing life far more. One falls into a rut in life and in my case it revolved around training and thinking of scoring runs, playing for the country and figuring out how to win more matches. And in that cycle I think I'd forgotten to live. At the same time, it is not that my hunger for performing has deserted me. In fact, it has grown. I am fitter, healthier. I am a more relaxed person now.
How different is your daily routine from the past?
Not very different, except that I have stopped worrying about the future, of things like how much will I play, whether I will score runs, what will happen if I fail. I don't live too much in the future. But still, my training is more vigorous than before.
There are no medical restrictions right now?
No, there aren't. The doctors in America told me to go ahead and train when I finished treatment. It was in India where the confusion about my disease was going on, that the doctors told me you may not be able to play at all or not for at least two to three years.
Now I just try to train well. But I also pay attention to what I am eating. I eat organic food, ghar ka khana, ghar ka ghee and makhan most of the time. I also managed to lose around 10 to 15 kg, which I had gained when I started bingeing on food immediately after I was cured. I also have fewer friends now. Earlier if the number was 1,000, it has reduced to 10. All my fair-weather friends have gone as I realised during my ailment who my real well-wishers were. I have cut down on socialising with the others.
I meant I got a reality check. Chadte suraj ko sab salaam karte hain, but when the going gets tough only a few people stick with you. A lot of people even used me during those days to get publicity for themselves. It was sad to see them use my suffering for their benefit.
Are you completely cured now? Are you under any medical supervision?
No, I am not. In the first year I had to have a check-up every three months, and after that every six months. In the first year the chance of recurrence is three per cent and after that, one per cent.
And a year has passed now...
Yes, my doctor Lawrence Einhorn had told me that I am cured.
Did you think you would make a comeback so soon?
No. I never thought I would play again. I was only thinking about saving my life. I used to watch my videos on my laptop during the treatment, but one day Anil bhai (Anil Kumble) visited me in America and told me to shut my laptop and concentrate on getting well.
When did the desire rekindle?
When I came back, I was happy I was living again. I was eating so much that I can't tell you how much! Suddenly one day, I weighed myself and was shocked to see the scale telling me I was 105kg! [from 90kg]. It was then I realised that I should start exercising a bit.
I had to go through a harrowing period. My body initially refused to listen. I would climb two steps and pant! When I went to the National Cricket Academy, my calves gave in. At times, I wanted to give up. But it started becoming better and I was back to working out hard in three months.
How did the book happen?
Initially it was going to be about what my friends had documented during my illness. Then Nishant [his friend and manager] told me we should tell the world your story as it would be an inspiring one. Many patients have told me that they are taking treatment, hoping to be cured because of me. And then Lance Armstrong [the champion cyclist suffered from the same cancer as Yuvraj] was an inspiration and I thought, why not write about my battle with cancer like he did.
Armstrong's drug saga must be a huge disappointment.
Yeah, it is, but let us not forget he is a cancer survivor and despite all that he has done, which is a big letdown, he came back to sport, though not many people may agree with me.
Tell us a bit about your cancer foundation.
Armstrong, in his book, writes that when he was going through a lot of pain, he realised there must be millions out there experiencing the same pain. He decided then that regardless of whether he could take up his sport again, he would do something for the cancer fraternity. The same thoughts inspired the project YouWeCan. The money generated from the book's release will be used for the foundation. We are in partnership with hospitals around the country for diagnosis and treatment.
Initially, even I was scared and in denial. But once I accepted the reality of the situation, I decided to do things that would help people fight the disease.
You came back to the Test team and were dropped again. I have no thoughts about it. I do aspire to be back with whatever cricket is left in me. I've bounced back before and I hope to do it again. I still hope to play 80 to 90 test matches. Let us see how much fuel is still left in me.
What is your routine like?
I am vela [idle] right now (laughs loudly). But I don't skip my training at all. On average, five to six hours a day are reserved for it. I am a great movie buff and I devour films regularly.
What kind of films?
Barfi! is the new hit, though Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is the all-time favourite. I admire the Khan trinity (Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir). I also like George Clooney.
So movies occupy most of your time these days?
No, I never miss training. I am looking forward to the IPL as I missed it last time. I have to train harder now as I am not getting younger. My body can't sustain the same training as I am no longer in my 20s. Also my body has taken a lot because of which, I have to train harder than before.
Extracts from the book, The Test of My Life - From Cricket to Cancer and Back by Yuvraj Singh Dr Kohli didn't waste any time.
'I've got bad news.'
'Tell me, doc.'
'It's a tumour.'
'What kind of tumour, doctor?'
'It could be malignant.'
His next four words were: 'It could be cancer.' A fist into the gut. Everything slows. The rain slows down. Is this the last rainfall I'll feel on my skin? I hope he has not told Mom yet. It should be me. I have to find a way to tell her.
There was no slipping past. There was nothing I could do but listen. They told me what I didn't want to hear. The lump was 15x13x11 cm. It had grown in the chest cavity and was pressing hard on the pulmonary artery and had squeezed the left lung.
So. Here it was. This was it. My cancer. I had cancer. It was not lung cancer, it was not lymphoma, it had not spread; it was a tumour and it was growing. Ashish told me my heart could have burst.
The doctors now believe that my heart didn't burst despite a compressed pulmonary artery because I had trained so hard.I cried like a baby. When no one could see me or hear me. Not because I feared what cancer would do but because I didn't want the disease. I wanted my life to be normal, which it could no longer be.
Before the chemotherapy began, I had to sign a form that said I understood and accepted its consequences. It fell to Nurse Jackie Brames to read out the form. She stood next to me and started speaking. The drugs could impact fertility. The drugs could cause liver damage. The drugs could cause kidney damage. All there was to read on the paper was damage, damage, damage. Jackie always found reading out that form difficult. Halfway through, she said, 'I can't read any more. You just sign it.' I said, 'Jackie, are you giving me confidence here or what?' She laughed. Her face beamed. I told her, 'Whenever you see me, meet me with a smile on your face. I don't want to see you brooding.'
The first time I watched the liquid drop down the tube and into my arm I wondered what would happen when it finally did its business. On day 2, I felt my face swell. On day 3, I was back in the hotel watching TV when I suddenly felt a horror catch hold of my throat. It was a feeling in the throat that plunged me into terrifying gloom and filled my mouth, the back of my eyes, my mind, with the sensation that only bad things would happen from now on.
As my chemo progressed, it started taking away my appetite and sleep. Suddenly I didn't want to eat anymore. Or I wanted to eat till I saw the food and then no more.
The apartment security passed on a gift that was left for me by some Indian students of the University of Indiana. They made me a giant card. When Nishant got in touch with the student association to thank them, they said they wanted to say to me in person that I was going to get well soon.
On the promised day, I didn't wake up in great health. I was puking all morning. I looked out of the window and saw that it was probably the worst day of the winter. The wind howled. It was sub-zero temperatures outside.
When I stepped out there were at least 150 kids there. When they saw me, they let out a cheer. People started whistling, catcalling and started chanting my name.
At first I was taken aback. I could not believe it. They were students, probably much younger than me, and here they were standing with arms full of flowers, gifts, cards. Many of them had packed boxes of biryani, rajma, aloo-gobhi, chicken curry, dal. They must have realised I was homesick for India, that Indian food would make me feel happy. After a little hesitation, they all started talking together.. Suddenly for a moment I felt as if I was in a cricket stadium somewhere in Jaipur or Rajkot.
After a long time I felt happy, surrounded by faces that felt familiar, joking that I had forgotten how to sign autographs.
From HT Brunch, March 17
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch