Siddhartha Vaidyanathan on a champion – both on and off the cricket field

Ever since he landed in Canada, for the second edition of the GT20 tournament, Yuvraj Singh has been entertaining requests. For selfies. For autographs. For handshakes. For interviews.

He has had fans approaching him at restaurants. Fans approaching him before and after games. Fans approaching him in hotel lobbies. And fans approaching him in the Niagara Falls. They have thanked him for making the trip to Canada. For giving them a chance to see him bat.

Dhruv Patel, an electrical engineer who also plays club cricket in Toronto, had considered a trip to Florida to watch India play West Indies. The moment he found out that Yuvraj was going to play in Canada, he told his friends: “No way am I going anywhere”. Dhruv is also a left-handed batsman. His first proper memory of Yuvraj is from the Natwest Series final in 2002 – when Yuvraj and Kaif guided India to 326 from the depths of 146 for 5. Dhruv was six years old back then. Seventeen years on, he got a chance to see his hero play – and later take a photo with him.

Like Dhruv, several diehards have made it a point to be at the games featuring Toronto Nationals. Some have driven from neighboring towns to watch him. And the loudest cheers have usually been heard each time he has walked in to bat.

Yuvraj the cricketer has drawn the chunk of the adoration. On Monday night, though, at a fund-raising event for his charity, one got a glimpse of Yuvraj the survivor, and the respect and admiration he draws from another set of people – some of whom have no interest in cricket.

During the event, two of the ladies in the audience – both cancer survivors – were called up on stage. Yuvraj welcomed them with handshakes. He shared words of encouragement, and then stood by as one of them delivered a moving speech on the importance of creating more cancer awareness. Yuvraj, with his hands clasped, nodded in agreement every now and then. He seemed to empathize with what she had gone through, and applauded heartily at the end of her talk.

Unlike most of his fans – with whom he has very little in common – Yuvraj’s relationship with fellow survivors transcends cricket. This is not a bond forged on runs, wickets, and catches. This is a deeper connection, a matter of pain and uncertainty, of life and death. Like him, the ladies too had grappled with cancer. And like him, they too had managed to overcome the illness.

Sport, it is said, imitates life but it is also an escape from it. Athletes tend to live in a bubble and often don’t have the time to engage with the outside world. Earlier this decade, Yuvraj had cocooned himself. Despite the warnings his body threw out, he refused to pay attention.

The alarm bells first went off with his breathing troubles in South Africa late in 2010. So focused was he on preparing for the World Cup, he didn’t act upon it. The distress signals kept coming. There was the World Cup match against West Indies in Chennai, when he threw up blood while batting; the subsequent IPL, when the vomiting got more frequent; and the early part of the Test series in England in 2011, when he knew something was seriously wrong. But Yuvraj didn’t do anything about it then. He wanted to win the World Cup. For himself but also for Sachin Tendulkar. He wanted to seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And he wanted to cement his Test spot. These were ambitions that he had nurtured all his life. How could he look away?

Even when he was receiving treatment – at a hospital in Indianapolis – Yuvraj was living in the cricketing bubble. “I used to watch a lot of my old match videos on YouTube. I would open my laptop and spend hours on many of my innings.” It was around then that Anil Kumble, his former captain, dropped in to check on him. “One of the first things Anil told me, ‘Close the laptop. Enough. No more watching cricket till you recover. Focus completely on your health.’”

More than eight years later, Yuvraj is in a position to laugh about all that happened. Not only did he fight back – and return to the Indian team – he also took it upon himself to transform several other lives. His contributions towards battling cancer – both financial and on the ground – won’t make for thrilling YouTube videos. But for meaning and value, they will remain unmatched.