Dad's the way
Unlike a majority of the sporting accolades Yuvraj Singh has earned in his life, his most precious one didn't come on a cricket field. It was won on a skating rink.
An avid skater and tennis player as a young boy, a 10-year-old Yuvraj however was left shattered after having the prized medal won on the rink snatched away. That snuffed out a dream but another one began to be given shape soon after.
Recalling the incident, his father Yograj Singh, a pace bowler who played one Test and six ODIs for India and used a tough-love approach to drill cricketing basics into his son, explains, "Sitting in the crowd at the Chandigarh Sector 10 skating rink, where Yuvraj was competing in an event, I started thinking where he was headed. For me, it was important as a father to have a dream for my son, and this was not what I wanted."
Yograj recalls, "By the time the tournament had come to an end, he had won a few medals. But as we were walking towards the car, I don't know what got to me. I snatched the medals and skates from Yuvi, and threw them away. I asked him to leave skating for good."
While his intentions were good, his actions didn't go down well with wife Shabnam, and a fight ensued on the way home as a young Yuvraj went into his room in tears. Yograj said he thought skating was for girls and this was not the path he had charted for his son.
"That night, Yuvraj came to me saying if it was that important for him to play cricket he would do it. This coming from a 10-year-old gave me the peace of mind I had craved for. And soon the training started," he said.
Childhood friend Abhishek says, "He was a good skater, but his father forced him to leave it. Yes, the kid was disappointed."
Training him for hours, his father did not give the 11-year-old Yuvraj an inch. Yograj always felt his own career had been unjustly cut short by the powers that be and didn't want the same to happen to his son. The only way he could ensure this was by preparing Yuvraj for the rigours of the game from an early age.
The backyard of their Sector 11 house was converted into a special net where Yuvraj could practice anytime he wished to - under the sun, or in pouring rain. Although this led to more tension between him and his wife, Yograj was clear in his mind.
"Soon neighbours started complaining because of the noise. Even my mother and wife used to fight with me all the time as I was pushing Yuvi too hard. But, nothing affected me. From then on, I used to get him a bat or some cricket stuff from anywhere I went. But, there would be no soft approach for him," he said.
Yuvraj was being pushed to the limit, but to his credit the youngster never wilted under pressure. Once, he was hit on the head by a plastic ball and collapsed, but within a few minutes, he was back on his feet eager to have another go.
Yograj, who later was divorced from Shabnam, concedes that his relationship with his wife and family deteriorated because of his obsession with his son's training.
"At that time, I was obsessed with turning him into an international cricketer that I never heeded any advice. My only focus was to make my son as strong and mentally tough as possible," he said.As Yuvraj's interest in cricket evolved, skating and tennis no longer held his interest.
Weight of lineage?
Yuvraj first tried to break into the Chandigarh under-16 team when he was 12, but failed to make the cut. Yograj had his own take on why Yuvraj was not selected.
"Next year, I asked him not to mention his father's name as that was keeping him from getting into the squad."
Sure enough, Yuvraj was selected and soon gave a glimpse of things to come. He went to the Elf Vengsarkar Cricket Academy in Mumbai and to the Bishan Singh Bedi Academy in New Delhi. By 16, Yuvraj was punching above his weight, playing in under-19 cricket.
Sukhwinder Bawa, the then coach of the Punjab under-19 team, remembers Yuvraj's innings against Bihar in the Cooch Behar Trophy in Jamshedpur.
MS Dhoni's fine batting guided Bihar to 357, but Yuvraj batted like a man possessed. "MS Dhoni was playing for Bihar and had made 84 runs, but Yuvi single-handedly scored 358 over two-and-a-half days. He hit some 40 fours and six sixes. Yashpal Sharma was an umpire in that match and was impressed by what he saw," Bawa said. Punjab ended up making 839 runs in the drawn match.
Yuvraj always had a penchant for big hits as his Sector 10 DAV College physical education teacher Ravinder Chaudhary recalls.
"He has broken countless window panes at the college, not to forget the countless balls that have gone missing. He used to hit monstrous sixes. In fact, I remember his sixes used to land either in the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association Complex ground opposite to the college or in the skating rink adjoining the ground," said Chaudhary.
Yograj remembers an incident when the late Raj Singh Dungarpur described Yuvi as a combination of Gary Sobers and Viv Richards.
"For me that was, and still is, the best compliment he has ever received. He hit four centuries in a row in the Buchi Babu tournament after Dungarpur said that," said Yograj.
"I have a picture of him with my idol Viv Richards, and there is a Gary Sobers picture by the side - the other cricketer that I admired," his father said.
Teammate and former India all-rounder Reetinder Singh Sodhi remembers one of the earliest game-changing innings Yuvraj played.
"We were playing Australia in the U-19 World Cup semis. Yuvraj came in and knocked off 58 of 25 balls, including five fours and five sixes to propel us to a huge total. It was some of the best hitting I've ever seen."
Off the field, Yuvraj always played tricks on friends.
"Yuvi is a prankster and many have been at the receiving end of his practical jokes. One had to constantly be on guard when Yuvi and Bhajji were around."
Pranks aside, Yuvi was a vital cog in the victorious under-19 team.