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Cricket?s crown prince

india Updated: Nov 18, 2006 05:10 IST

The news that Yuvraj Singh may recuperate from his cruciate ligament injury in time for the World Cup in the West Indies has come as music to the ears of the Blue billion. The stylish lefthander from Chandigarh is a vital part of India’s plans.

Last week, Yuvi, as team-mates call him, was nominated for the ICC one-day Player of the Year award, eventually won by Australian Mike Hussey. Earlier this year, his exploits with the bat helped India give the Windies a run for their money in the shorter format of the game.

“There’s something about Yuvi,” says cricketer-commentator Atul Wassan. “There are good players and there are better players, but he is an exceptional talent. Along with MS Dhoni, he was instrumental in India making the world record for the most victories while chasing.”

Even in the last World Cup in South Africa, with Sourav Ganguly as captain, Yuvi played some exhilarating knocks. One, in particular, where Yuvraj remained unbeaten at the end with a chanceless 50, remains etched in memory. Recalls Yuvraj: “The only time the otherwise noisy Indian dressing room went silent during the World Cup was when we were chasing Pakistan at Centurion Park. Nobody moved from where they were seated and when Rahul scored the winning runs, all hell broke loose. It is one of my fondest cricket memories.”

Poise under pressure

In many ways, Yuvraj Singh reminds cricket aficionados of Australian allrounder Michael Bevan, one of the best finishers of the game. In numerous pressure-cooker situations, displaying a maturity way beyond his 24 years, he has kept a cool head and taken India home.

Take another World Cup match against Kenya in Cape Town’s Newlands Stadium, for instance. With the ball swinging and the crowd cheering for Kenya, the underdogs had already sent Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar to the pavilion. With the asking rate climbing to over six, just as another Indian middle-order collapse looked imminent, Yuvi came to the rescue with a 58 off 64 balls.

Ironically, the gentleman’s game was not the first choice for the son of Punjab pace bowler Yograj Singh. In fact Yuvraj chose skates over the bat. “I was a natural athlete and played football, cricket and tennis well. But I had a passion for skating,” he says.

His father, a contemporary of Kapil Dev’s, however, was keen that his son don cricket whites. While still in school, a chuffed Yuvraj returned home after winning a medal for skating.

His father, who played just one Test for the country, was unimpressed and told him to throw out his skates and focus on batting instead. “I threw away his medal and skates and reminded him that he had to work towards a larger goal — playing for India and becoming a cricketer of world stature,” says Yograj. “One day, he will lead the Indian team.”

A zest for life

Yuvraj seems pretty set to fulfill his father’s dreams. His stature in the world of cricket is evident in coach Greg Chappell’s insistence on anointing him vice-captain whenever the incumbent, Sehwag, has been injured.

But Yuvi has his share of critics too. Ever since he burst onto the international scene with a scintillating 84 against a full-strength Australian attack on debut in Nairobi in October 2000, his talent has never been in doubt. But till last year, his detractors were wondering if he had the stomach to be a long-term prospect. The allegation? The ‘party animal’ was letting his wild ways affect his game. His alleged association with a Bollywood starlet and his fondness for flashy cars and painting the town red didn’t help improve his stock with the nay-sayers. He was easy meat for the tabloids. “I can’t help it if the media smell an affair every time I talk to a girl,” he said in an earlier interview.

Batsman returns

Yuvraj’s makeover from wayward talent to match-winner has been magical. Before his resurrection last year, Yuvraj had played 120 one-day matches but was finding it tough to cement a place in the Test team. Even in the one-day game, his average had dipped below 30. A dry run against Pakistan appeared to have dented his confidence. But then the batsman returned to hit a purple patch that produced 1,313 runs from 31 matches at 59.68, with five hundreds, six fifties, and three successive Man-of-the-Series awards. The critics had got their answer.

Before he bought an apartment in Gurgaon, Yuvi used to share a flat with fellow cricketers and pals Sandeep Sharma, Amit Sharma and Sarandeep Singh. “He is one of the few players in the team who can win you a match from any situation, on any terrain,” says Sarandeep, the off spinner who now plays for Himachal Pradesh. “As a flatmate, he was very helpful and warm. Whenever he returned home victorious after an overseas win, such as after the Natwest Trophy, we celebrated by partying through the night. Not only is he a big player, he has a big heart too.”

But to fulfill his father’s biggest dream, of leading India, the prince of Indian cricket has to display higher consistency, says former Indian all-rounder Kirti Azad. “That is the least he can do after playing over 150 ODIs. Undoubtedly, he is a great talent, but a true match-winner is one who comes good every four matches,” says Azad.

His family of fans is waiting for Yuvraj’s coronation.

Email aasheesh.sharma@hindustantimes.com

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