Tall and lean, with a smile twinkling in his eyes, he makes you wonder what naughty joke is running in his head. Yuvraj Singh is minus any starry airs that you’d associate with a cricketing champion.
He wears his stardom easily and lightly, as he does his other, and perhaps more important victory, surviving lung cancer. Life has dealt Yuvraj as many blows as it has bestowed on him accolades. The man seems to live in a karmic balance. Right now, he appears to be on an even keel. Much like the proverbial phoenix, he has reconstructed his chemotherapy-ravaged body, is working on his cricketing form, has launched his dream business, and most importantly, married the woman he loves. Phew! The last year was his happiest and busiest. This year by the looks of it, is going to be even busier with plans afoot for his clothing brand, You We Can, to shift into high gear.
Working on domestic bliss, of course, takes top priority. He has to field the usual questions Indian newly-weds face: when are you giving us the ‘good news’? Yuvraj takes these on much as he tackles the fast balls. “Bas shaadi ho gayi, good news agayee (I got married and that is the good news). I agree pressure bada aajata hai shaadi ke baad. We are going to take our time. We just got married. Finally. It took me many years to get there.”
Late by Indian standards or late by cricket standards? “No! I’m late by my own standards. I thought I didn’t have time for marriage. It’s always about when you want to get married. This was the right time for us. It was a great celebration, and we are looking forward to our life together; it is going well.” The laugh is accompanied by a blush!
Good humour keeps the endorphins going, and laughter is, indeed, the best medicine. How did this man, who has had his share of glamorous girlfriends, know Hazel Keech, the Mauritian-British actress was the one for him? “I met Hazel six years ago. My first interaction was a very brief 15 seconds. She was very sweet and I asked her out for coffee. She refused. After about seven times, I was like ‘yeh pehli baar ho raha hai, ki mujhe koi mana kar raha hai coffee ke liye!’ I was intrigued. She probably thought I was one of those guys, so she took her time. I am glad she did.”
The key to wooing is patience, perseverance, persistence, it seems. The man, of course, wants to be recognised for doing all that! “Yeah, she should give me an award. I waited for her for four years. I always knew there was something nice about this girl. Maybe I could get an English passport,” he bursts into a wicked laugh. Something he reminds her of when they travel abroad. “She goes off with her British passport, saying ‘yeah I’ll see you on the other side’ while I am standing in line.”
If you are mentally prepared to win the battle, physically you will eventually win.
The passports may not have changed, but after marriage, Yuvraj’s life has. “I think a lot of responsibilities come in. Taking care of the house, of the family. It becomes your duty to take care of both families. My in-laws are simple people from Essex in England, and they love sports. It is great interacting with them and talking sports. Hazel doesn’t have a clue about it, which is great! When I come home there are few cricket questions, and they are often funny. So that side is well taken care of.”
It can’t be that simple, a self-confessed mama’s boy gets married to an independent woman, there have to be some hiccups? “We spent a year and a half together before we decided to tie the knot. She is half English and half Hindu. She has Indian values, but has been brought up as an English girl and likes to do everything by herself. We have been raised differently.” Aha! How does that rock the newly sailed matrimonial boat? “She tells me to come to the kitchen and cook! I tell her I don’t want to. So, we’re working that out. I can cook a little. I am learning with her. Learning about a new person in your life is a lot of fun.”
Marriage to Hazel is not the only new thing in his life. There is You We Can, the clothing brand that keeps Yuvraj on his toes. Has YWC contributed to the grey strands in his beard? “We have been working on You We Can fashions since 2014.” Yuvraj could have endorsed any clothing brand and made good money. That, however, would not have left a legacy. Along with a core business team, he began market research. “We didn’t just want to use my name and start a label. We did a lot of R&D.”
There was some soul searching as well. “What do I aspire to? What is my fitness mantra? What are the clothes going to look like? Is it going to be just clothes or a fitness lifestyle?” Two years later, YWC was launched.
Yuvraj Singh confesses to being a shopaholic, especially when it came to clothes. His says much like his game, his fashion sense has evolved consistently over time. “I have learnt about fashion over the years. As a young kid, I always studied it as I loved clothes. You obviously don’t want to look at my fashion sense in the 2000s,” he chuckles self-consciously. “I dreamt of creating my own fashion label. It was only a matter of time.”
Destiny, however, had a cruel hand to deal. Just as his cricketing career was soaring, he was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. The illness and the long fight to recovery gave him time to think - to look at life, reclaim it, and to prioritise what he wanted from the future. After his treatment in the United States, he returned to India a changed man, a mature man. “I think I am 50 years old, in a good way.”
The roller-coaster of life taught him to introspect. “When I was recovering, I had a lot of time to think. Not just the ailment, but about my life, and how I would approach it.” He wondered if he would to be able to continue with cricket, particularly as some doctors in India had ruled it out. This part of his journey had to be mapped as a solitary traveller. “My mom has been there most of the time, but eventually it is you who has to come out of it. The family suffers. But, you have to pick up the pieces and put them together.” He did just that, one shard at a time. “Just to get my body back was pretty hard in the beginning. Once you go through chemo, your body is almost finished; getting it back to normal fitness took almost three years. Obviously, my career was not doing well…”
Was the mental fight worse than physical recovery? “It is more mental than physical. If you are mentally prepared to win the battle, physically you will eventually win.” This was also the tough journey of the brand that he set up to part-fund his foundation for those battling cancer. Both named You We Can, his life’s motto is about teamwork conquering all obstacles.
“It hit me hard. Going through something like that made me wonder how those who do not have good facilities, cope. That is why I want to do something for the community. It is a way of giving back, and because I have been through it, I don’t want others to suffer in the same way. It is about thinking about other people. The problem in India is also stigma. You send people to get tested, and they don’t have insurance to get treated. It is important for my charity to help remove the stigma.”
Good intentions need to be fuelled with big money. Raising funds has been an uphill task even for a celebrity like Yuvraj Singh. “You have to start investing money to get people treated. You have to generate money. It is a long process. Nike, for example, helped Lance Armstrong to generate more than $1,400 million over 14 years. There is no culture of charity in India. In America, people donate. Here, it is different and so very hard to generate money for charity. I figured if I were to create a business and it grew well, that could help sustain the charity. That was the start of the fashion brand You We Can.”
Business, however, is played on a different pitch, and Yuvraj decided to teach himself the rules. As always starting slow. “I started You We Can Ventures to invest in startups in 2013, and had the idea of conducting business. Fashion is a tough business.” So, it was off to a garment factory in Mumbai every week, watching and learning. “I met the workers and checked out every piece of clothing. I saw the effort it takes to make one kapda. Earlier I would toss away a T-shirt, now I fold it and keep it properly.”
Isn’t that marriage, too? “True! I think it comes from there. It was amazing to see how people worked hard to make every piece we wanted. We have had a good response, a consistent response. Hopefully, our next collection will be better than the last one.”
Yuvraj confesses that his business skills may not be the sharpest, but his people skills are. He has built a core team of professionals he trusts and hopes that together they will grow the business. Team YWC is planning stores in multiple cities, as well as working on promotions. The man obviously cannot sit idle for too long, “When I am not playing, I work on the business.”
He is definitely laying the foundation of the next innings of his career after cricket. “I am looking forward to working for the community, helping people who need it.” Wait. What? Is he planning to trade in his cricketing kit for the boardroom? “I will continue to play as long as I enjoy the game I would really to play for three more years. I don’t want to regret that I could have played more, or that I left too early. Ideally, I’d like to play till 2019-2020.”
He’s been told to hang up his boots already. “My theory is not to listen to people, everybody has to say something every day. My theory is to focus on myself. If I am able to deliver, I’ll play. The day I am not able to deliver, I’ll say thank you very much.”
How will he deal with losing his identity, his celebrityhood after cricket? “It happened already when I was diagnosed (with cancer). When I returned from the treatment, I did not know if I would play, so I focussed on other things. I took six months away from cricket and spent time with friends and family. I started to date Hazel.” The break from the game also drove home the point that cricket was not going to last forever. A hard lesson to learn for a man groomed to play since he was a child. “You are at the peak of your career and get diagnosed with cancer. It is not easy to take. Eventually, you have to come to terms with it. Then you have to realise that life goes on.”
Is he at peace now? “I will be at peace when I stop playing cricket. It is a professional sport, you are always thinking about getting better each day. Even when I am sleeping, it is playing at the back of my mind. I had to adapt to different ways of cricket. I had to get better in every department. I had to get fitter.”
Life’s lessons, sometimes in the guise of criticism, have come at regular intervals, does he hope that ends once he retires from professional cricket? “It is a part of life, and has been so since I started to play for India at 19.” Ignoring naysayers is the way for Yuvraj. “For the last three years I haven’t read the newspapers or watched television. I only watch football or cricket, or movies.”
But surely, he’s human, and words do hurt. How does he deal with the knocks and blows? “I get up, and do it again. My father taught me to never give up. I don’t want to give up because you never know what’s next in your life. If you give up today, you will never know what could have happened, what great things could have happened.”
I get up, and do it again. My father taught me to never give up. I don’t want to give up because you never know what’s next in your life. If you give up today, you will never know what could have happened, what great things could have happened.
Yuvraj is a mentor at 12 cricket academies, and says helping youngsters keeps him motivated. He’s taking baby steps as he, too, learns new things. “I don’t believe in big leaps, you can fall down very quickly and it is hard to get up. You have to learn step by step. That is how I learnt my game. Despite the money offered, I have said no to some things that did not suit me.”
‘Live, dare and inspire’ is his ethos, but he has one major desire that is yet to be fulfilled. There is one thing Yuvraj Singh does not want to fail at ever. He seeks a stable family life and puts all his energy towards that. I am close to my mom. My father put cricket in me. I played for India because of my father, he kept me there on the field. It was because of my mother’s sacrifices and the time devoted by my father. I cannot repay them.” He has learnt much from their failed marriage, too, “I only saw a failure in my family as my parents were not together. That is one area where I never want to fail. Family is very important to me. I always want to work on what will make for a good family.”
So, back to square one. Koi good news hai kya? What is Yuvraj Singh looking forward to now?
“First, it is definitely becoming a father, and making it to the 2019 World Cup team.” At almost 36, Yuvraj Singh, has his priorities sorted. Life, for him, is just beginning. Once again.
PHOTOS PRASAD NAIK ❖ STYLING GARY WALLANG ❖ HAIR AALIM HAKIM make-up milind dhuri ❖ OUTFITS YWC (YOUWECAN) ❖ LOCATION GOA TEXT KARUNA M. JOHN