We first met Yuvraj Singh, who retired from all forms of cricket yesterday, in January 2001.  He had just turned 18 and had come to national attention in the previous year when he won the Player of the Tournament Award for his all-around performance in the Under-19 Cricket World Cup in Sri Lanka which India won for the first time. The performance earned him a call-up to the national team later in the year for the ICC KnockOut Trophy in Kenya, where in his second match against a pumped up Aussie pace attack of Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Glenn McGrath, he scored a scintillating  84, and was declared Man of the Match. With him, in Chandigarh, we interviewed his childhood cricketing buddy Reetinder Singh Sodhi, then thought of as another major rising star of Indian cricket. He was Yuvraj’s vice-captain in the Under-19 World Cup winning team and had made his ODI debut in the previous month against Zimbabwe. Reetinder famously faded away just two years later, while Yuvraj went to fame and glory. This story from our February 2001 issue is on the great promise the duo held out in their early days.  

 

Everytime John McEnroe squared up against Ivan Lendl, like millions across time zones, I kept my tryst with the television set. A natural genius versus the gritty logician—what a match! A rivalry that was riveting purely for the sheer contrast that was on offer. Pat Cash once came back into the locker-room awestruck after a match with McEnroe and said: “He hits million-to-one shots in regularly.” Many a time when one felt Lendl didn’t have much of a chance against the unbelievably gifted McEnroe, the calm logician would find a way out with his brand of ‘percentage tennis’. The two in a sense proved that modern sport is as much about science as it is about art. Lendl ended his career with 8 Grand Slams while McEnroe has 7 to show for his genius.

Yuvraj Singh and Reetinder Singh Sodhi were kids during the heyday of the McEnroe-Lendl rivalry, but they have one going between them that holds out a lot of promise for Indian cricket. Much like the tennis masters, these two young cricketers couldn’t be more different in their style and approach. One is a gifted left-hander who makes batting look easy, the other might not be as stylish but is dogged in his approach and just as effective. Yuvraj might draw fans in their thousands to the stadium, but Reetinder would be your man to see the team through in a tight situation. While one can take the match away from the opponent within the span of a brief knock, the other by his sheer will power would guide the team home.  One plays with his heart, the other with his mind. One masks his competitive spirit behind a cool attitude while the other wears his aggression on his sleeve.

They are a study in contrast off the field too. “You basically take your essential character on to the field. What you see of me on the ground, is what I am off it too. I’m the disciplined, punctual, steady sort,” states Reetinder who learnt much of his cricket in Patiala. In sharp contrast, the Chandigarh man is suave, flamboyant, temperamental and fashionable. In essence a charmer both on and off the field. Giving their rivalry the edge is their almost simultaneous rise into the national team. It is only in the fitness of things that while Yuvraj burst into the world stage in spectacular fashion, Reetinder has quietly worked his way up.  And like in the case of the Lendl-McEnroe rivalry, the logician’s current one-day average reads better than that of the naturally gifted left hander’s.

Dad had installed makeshift nets behind our house. He’d bowl for hours on end to me. Later on he even installed a gym at our place

It was Reetinder who set the pace in this friendly rivalry. He first shot into prominence guiding the Under-15 India team to a memorable World Cup win over Pakistan at Lords in 1995. That tenure as India’s captain set him up for big-time cricket. “Captaining the team at that early age taught me a lot. The crowd, the overall atmosphere and the pressure are all so fresh in my mind. We came through in tough circumstances,” he says. The captain literally guided the team home with a tenacious 82 not out and a 3-wicket haul.

Around the same time, Yuvraj was busy honing his skating skills. Serious cricket was yet to become a priority. One fine day, the talented young lad came back home to Chandigarh with the Under-14 National Gold Medal in Skating. He proudly walked up to his father, the former one-Test fast bowler Yograj Singh and said: “‘Papa, look what I have won’. Instead of praising me he threw the medal away and told me not to speak to him if I didn’t concentrate on cricket.” Yograj Singh who had played his solitary Test alongside Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, obviously knew where his son’s talent, and of course the future and the attendant fame and money, lay. “In hindsight, much of my present success is largely thanks to dad’s single-minded pursuit,” the son admits freely.

Reetinder’s interest and ambition also has strong roots in his father’s career which never really took off. He had played at all levels of domestic cricket without being able to break into the national side. Says the thoughtful son, “Along with hard work you also need luck.” And goes on to add about how his father initiated him into the game. “We’d take out our car from the porch and park it outside the gate. We used to play till 12 every night. Dad had set up lights especially for the purpose. While I’d bat with all the cricket paraphernalia: pads, gloves, guards etc, dad would bowl. Right from that early age, I was taught to approach the game seriously.” Yuvraj’s experience was not very different. “Dad had installed makeshift nets behind our house. He’d bowl for hours on end to me. Later on, he even installed a gym at our place,” he says.

Aside from their fathers, two other men have contributed immensely in the early grooming of the duo. Says Reetinder, “My uncle, who was a senior sports scientific officer at NIS, Patiala, was my mental motivator. He instilled in me the importance of self-belief and a balanced approach. He’d always say, ‘A man should always retain his equanimity. If you’re on top you need it, if you are down in the dumps you need it.’” And sure enough, this grace under pressure has been Reetinder’s biggest asset. Yuvraj’s coach, Sukhwinder Bawa, finds himself in a difficult position. He also happens to be Reetinder’s uncle. “As a kid, Yuvy would sometimes complain that I was supporting my nephew. And I’d always tell him you’ll make it into the national team before him. He first came to me 6 years back with Yograj paaji. He was then more keen on skating and tennis. Being a natural it didn’t take him long to make his mark as a cricketer,” Bawa says.

Last season at the Under-19 World Cup both Reetinder and Yuvraj proved their worth in their own unique ways. While Yuvraj effortlessly blazed away for the best part of the series, earning him the man-of-the-series award, it was left to Reetinder to guide the team home in a do-or-die situation in the finals. “At the end of the day, the honours were even. I had the man-of-the-match award in my kitty,” quips Reetinder brimming with pride. “We’ve always had a healthy rivalry going. When Yuvy made that superb debut against Australia, I too thought my turn would come. We’ve played together in the Punjab, North Zone and Under-19 teams. When he does well I think I can do well too. I can match him.”

For the past 5 years, the two have fed off each other’s success, raising the bar higher for the other, and in the process spurring each other to greater heights. “Ricky and I have shared many a partnership at various levels. We’ve always egged each other on to greater goals. He’s extremely hard working and has a lot of fire in his belly,” quips Yuvraj. Says Reetinder about his friend and rival, “He is tremendously talented. Haven’t seen a more talented youngster than him. I knew from the very beginning that one day he’d surely play for the country.”

The next few months will offer both big challenges in the form of Australia in India, the Sharjah tournament and later South Africa in their own den. Both claim India is good enough to take on the world-beating Aussies and stop them in their tracks. And unlike the older Indian cricketers, they aren’t too hassled about sledging that has become an all but inevitable part of the game these days. A little bit of it is good, so long as you don’t hurt someone with bat or ball, is their attitude. Yuvraj narrates an incident that took place in his last match with Australia to illustrate the point. “Steve Waugh was getting pissed off that having got the guys who matter his bowlers hadn’t got me early. On one occasion I slipped, bruising myself badly. I waved to my physio for first aid, upon which Steve remarked, ‘Don’t be a sissy, boy’. I waved back to the physio not to bother. It spurred me on. At the end of the day when Steve praised my knock, it felt good.”

When Yuvy made that superb debut against Australia, I too thought my turn would come. When he does well I think I can do well too. I can match him

Yuvraj is fast learning to cope with the ups and downs of international cricket. “Nowadays everyone has a word of advice for me. Often people walk up to me and say, ‘You’re good against the quickies but not so with spin”, or ‘You have disappointed me.’ So much so that even my mother who hardly knows anything about cricket says ‘Beta seedha khelo’ (son play with a straight bat). I was getting out to spinners playing across the line, now I’ve decided to heed my mother’s plea of playing straight. Whenever I slip a bit I get back to the basics. I’m working on the nets under the supervision of my coach.”

Reetinder too is fully aware of the fierce competition for a place in the team. “It is said between Robin Singh and me only one can play in the all-rounder’s slot. I don’t feel any pressure. It’s always good to have healthy competition in the team. I’ve great respect for Robin. Let’s hope both of us get to play,” he says. Yuvraj, on the other hand, hasn’t had a particularly great series against Zimbabwe late last year. And with so many youngsters vying for selection, despite their obvious talent and determination, Yuvraj and Reetinder won’t find the going easy in the coming weeks. It will be a nervous wait by the telephone, as the powers-that-be decide who would be best suited to play against Steve Waugh’s marauding Aussies.

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