Yuvraj Singh, the star of India’s World Cup-winning squad, had to undergo the ordeal of a lifetime when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011. Despite the rigours of the treatment, he soldiered on, making a full recovery, as well as a comeback to international cricket in less than a year. He speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about the highs and lows of his life as a cricketer and cancer survivor.
Q. When you started your career, there were no Twenty20 matches, nor was there the IPL tournament. Yours was a different kind of struggle to get into the national team. How was that journey for you?
A. My tryst with fulltime cricket began in a funny way. I won the gold medal in only one sport when I was around 10 years old, and that was in skating. My father sat me down that day and said, “I understand you don’t enjoy studying but if you love sports so much, at least take one that can get you somewhere…focus on cricket.”
I went through my fair share of struggles while attempting my hand in the field of professional cricket. My father has been one of the biggest driving forces in my career. From an early age I was sent to Mumbai to train and endured the most strenuous training every day. It definitely paid off in the long run—I made it to the Under-19 team of Punjab, and played the Ranji Trophy in 1996-97. I was then awarded “Player of the Tournament” for my performance in the Under-19 World Cup held in 2000, which won me a spot in the national squad.
Q. How has IPL affected the domestic cricket scenario in India? Do you think the shorter format of the game is helping foster young talent, or is it creating a distraction for promising cricketers?
A. IPL is a format that allows the best of cricketing talent to compete with each other and entertain cricket fans. It is definitely an opportunity to observe and learn from phenomenally talented players. IPL is giving a favourable chance to young talent and helping them create a pathway to go up in their careers. It promises young talent a platform to play with national and international players. I truly believe that this format has opened more pathways for Indian cricket.
Q. Right after India won the 2011 World Cup, you were diagnosed with lung cancer, which you fought through and made a full recovery from. Do you think there is still a stigma around cancer? Many public figures go private when they are diagnosed with the disease, but you did not make a secret of your treatment. What was the idea behind that?
A. In recent years, a lot of people have become more aware about cancer and have begun taking their health more seriously. But of course, even with the progress made in oncology over the past few decades, cancer still has a stigma attached to it for some of those who do not understand the disease or the effects of its treatment. YouWeCan [Singh’s cancer foundation] is an effort to support such people and create awareness among them. These [the foundation’s] grants will provide substantial funding of devices and adaptation of existing technologies for cancer awareness and detection in low- and middle-income areas nationally.
I did not want my treatment to be a secret because I was very well aware of the love that my countrymen have for me and I wanted to let them know that I was fighting my cancer just like they wanted me to. I wanted to lead by example and believed that nothing is too big for you to conquer once you decide on it.
Q. Tell us more about the kind of work YouWeCan has been doing.
A. YouWeCan focuses on every sector of cancer. Be it creating awareness about its symptoms and chemotherapy procedures, or helping educate the kids who are cancer survivors. All in all, we believe your hope and help from the near ones give you enough courage to face adversity in its face. We as a foundation make conscious efforts to set up cancer awareness camps in remote areas of the country. We work towards creating awareness of the disease, as well as encouraging people to get screened for cancer on a regular basis. As a foundation, our main aim is to allow every cancer patient, survivor or fighter to believe in themselves and those around them, and to fight cancer with the utmost willpower and spirit. YouWeCan had a clear mission and vision in place since the organisation’s inception. We believe charity is the first step to a better society and hope is what keeps everyone together in difficult times.
Q. Battling a disease like cancer can be a life-changing experience. To what extent was the decision to set up this foundation inspired by your own personal struggles?
A. The YouWeCan initiative definitely came into existence due to my personal struggles. When I was detected with cancer, at first I was in denial about it—playing for India was more important than my health, and for a few months I chose to ignore the blood I spat out or my decline in stamina. It was only once I accepted cancer that I could beat it. When life knocks you down, you have a choice—to get up. So I thought to myself, “Get up and do it again.” Only during this battle I realised how important it was for cancer to be detected at an early stage, for it to be given the right treatment. It is the first and the most important step: identifying cancer. The detection is also something that most of us ignore, because we do not want to take a chance.
The US cycling legend Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor himself, was and has constantly been one of my biggest inspiration in both fighting cancer and sharing my story with the people who had believed in me and bestowed so much love on me. And that is when the idea of YouWeCan came to me, while sharing my experience with the virtual world about on-going treatments and the physical changes that I was going through, to only send them one clear message: Never Give Up.
The goals of YouWeCan are largely carved from my personal experience with the disease, and my intention to reach out to as many people possible. The foundation’s endeavour is to ensure that cancer is detected at an early stage, for one and all, and no one has to fight it alone. We aim to create consciousness on cancer prevention and early detection, and to fight against the stigma associated with it.
Q. While working with hundreds of cancer patients and survivors, what did you discover about the current state of cancer awareness in our country?
A. We are a country with a very large population living in rural areas—people who aren’t very well aware of cancer, its symptoms or how they can avail treatments. Usually the notion of people is to associate cancer ultimately with death, and that’s one of the stigmas that we are working to eradicate. A lot of people go in denial once they’ve been detected with cancer and they take too long to make the decision to be treated, because they’re not fully aware of the types of cancer and their treatments. We really have struggled with certain issues like these.
Q. You’ve also set up a fashion label, YWC, which is linked to your foundation. What was your goal when you launched it?
A. When I first launched YWC as a fashion label, my biggest goal was to raise maximum funds for YouWeCan foundation and thus we kept ourselves bootstrapped. We aimed at maximising the revenue generated by YWC fashion. I am very overwhelmed and thankful for the kind of response that I have received for the brand. It is so good to see that people believe in the brand and are taking the initiative to associate with the cause as well.
Q. More recently, brand YWC has expanded from fashion to sports gear and equipment. Tell us about YWC Sports.
A. After successfully venturing and establishing a mark in the fashion industry, we decided to expand in the sports vertical as well. Keeping the ideology of “Live Dare Inspire”, the brand decided to launch an entire range of sports gear under the brand. Sports is in my DNA and I wanted to integrate good quality sports gear into the YWC label. The equipment we are introducing is something I have tried and tested and would recommend for use by children and adults alike. I have seen an overwhelming response for YWC as a fashion label and hope people like our new products as we foray into sports gear.
Q. You have also set up your cricket academy, Yuvraj Singh Center of Excellence (YSCE), which has several branches across India. What was the vision behind the YSCE? And what kind of measures do you think are needed to cultivate young cricketing talent in the country?
A. Our vision is to groom and help every cricketer from the grassroots level to the highest standards. We want to make accessible the best infrastructure for cricket aspirants in every city and bring the best opportunities for every future legend. YSCE’s out-of-the-box strategy focuses on developing the sporting ecosystem of the country via a multi-faceted approach which includes setting up high-quality cricket academies across the country, identifying and supporting technology solutions for the enhancement of the sports, pitch intelligence, character building and understanding of the laws. According to us, being successful in sports is a way of life—24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We strive to give all players the necessary tools to develop their game, but it’s up to the player to take the
Q. How was the experience of penning down your 2013 autobiography,Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back?
A. If I think of it, my life is full of words beginning with the letter “C”. I was born in Chandigarh; I became a cricketer; and during my decade as an international cricketer, all I craved, along with the rest of the India team, was the “Cup”. This story, though, was about the new C in my life. It was the story of my cancer. The experience of writing about my life was very overwhelming. It became about denial and acceptance, from the battle to defeat the disease, to the struggles that I still face.
Q. After your recovery from cancer, how did you prepare for your comeback to international cricket, which happened in September 2012?
A. I began training with the team a few months prior to the matches. In the beginning, it was very tough on my body. Things improved with each and every session. The body got used to the conditions. Also to resume training, you need a lot of strength. The body needs to get that strength back. I went through a period of training at the NCA [National Cricket Academy], as well as underwent physiotherapy and gym sessions, and was continuously monitored for my progress. I was nervous and was preparing myself like it was my first time playing for team India.