Yuvraj shines bright for India when big match is on

From having to fend off rumours about his poor form, private life and waistline, Yuvraj Singh has become India's match-winner at the World Cup

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In December 1999, Yuvraj Singh captained Punjab in the final of the Cooch Behar Trophy, India's Under 19 first-class competition. Their opponents were Bihar, who had a certain MS Dhoni keeping wicket for them.

The match was played in Jamshedpur, in front of a partisan and vocal Bihari crowd, and the Punjab fielders had to take a fair bit of stick as the hosts batted first.

They made 357, with Dhoni contributing 84. Yuvraj, with his sunscreen and designer sunglasses, was an easy target for the crowd. Most of the barbs that came his way were too crude to mention.



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By the time the innings ended - with local newspapers proclaiming that Bihar's dream was close to becoming reality - Yuvraj was raging.

"I'll teach them a lesson they never forget," he told his coach.

The Bihar total was passed with just two wickets down, and Punjab finished with 839. Yuvraj's contribution was 358 from 404 balls.

So determined was he to prove his point that he did not hit a single six until he had crossed 200. Thereafter, a couple he struck had to be fetched from the neighbouring football ground.

My wife, who went to the same school in Mohali - just a couple of hundred yards from where Wednesday's semi-final will be played - remembers him as a gawky, quiet kid.

But, within months of his Cooch-Behar statement of intent, he had played for the national team, announcing himself with a magnificent 80-ball 84 against an Australia attack including Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie.

It has not always been smooth sailing since, but following a marked upturn in fortunes in 2005, he has been integral to India's limited-overs plans.

Save for a poor 2010, when he averaged 31.72 from 14 innings, Yuvraj has been both consistent and destructive.

In the age of 24-hour news channels though, most of the discussions about Yuvraj have centred on off-the-field activities. Some of the reports in Hindi have been especially vicious, whether it has been about alleged dalliances with Bollywood actresses or a less-than-svelte physique.

His resentment of that gossip shone through at a couple of news conferences during this competition. When interviewed last year, he was asked about the downside of being a cricketer.

"The scrutiny," he said. "You never have a private moment, and to add to it, you get public abuse."

But for cricket, he reckons he would have been a struggling model. The best answer I've ever got from him came when he was asked how he would have dismissed Sir Donald Bradman.

Bear in mind that this was in the aftermath of Kevin Pietersen calling him a pie-chucker - "Best sledge I've heard," Yuvraj said - and the Bradman question got a pure Punjabi response.

"I would have tripped him while he was taking a run," he said. "I don't know how else I could have taken his wicket."

A man for the big stage and the big occasion, not to mention the big hits, he is frequently at his best when challenged by other exceptional players.

"I always loved competing with Andrew Flintoff," he said. "It's sad he has retired."

Yuvraj's father, Yograj Singh, a controversial figure who played one Test for India in the early 1980s, attributes his son's current form to the influence of Sachin Tendulkar and to a new-found spirituality.

In seven World Cup games, he has 341 runs and 11 wickets at 24.63, and Pakistan - "There's no team I like beating more" - should be especially wary.

Against them, his career average of 37.62 shoots up to 48.11.

A stone's throw away from where it all began, Yuvraj is primed and ready for his finest hour.