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When cricketer Yuvraj Singh discovered that he had cancer, he decided not to ask the "Why me?" question and not to indulge in self-pity. Instead, he got down to fighting cancer with the same determination and passion with which he has shaped his cricketing career. Yuvraj has related this story in his book, The Test of My Life – from cricket to cancer and back, reviewed here by practising physician and cricket fan, Dr. Ajey Hardeekar

The Test of My Life– from cricket to cancer and back
Author: Yuvraj Singh, Sharda Ugra, Nishant Jeet Arora
Publisher: Random House India (2013) 
Pages: 194
Price Rs. 399

The other day I switched on my TV set to watch an IPL game between Pune Warriors and Rajasthan Royals. A wicket had just fallen, and in walked Yuvraj Singh to bat. I suddenly had a strange feeling – one that I have never had before, although I am a cricket fan…I felt that a close friend of mine had walked on to the field! I had just finished reading Yuvraj Singh’s book about his recent successful fight against cancer. While the blue on the jacket is rather gaudy, it is Yuvraj’s faint smile that invites you to open it. The off-white paper and the beautiful Goudy Old Style classic serif typeface add immensely to the joy of reading this account.

The book is co-authored by Yuvraj Singh’s friend (and now Manager) Nishant Jeet Arora, and sports journalist Sharda Ugra. It begins with Yuvraj’s childhood. He was a fun-loving, well-meaning, all-consuming lad, prone to dive headlong into trouble. He loved sports of every kind.

He was very good at speed skating and at 11, had won a gold medal in the State under-14 tournament. But his father had other plans for him. His own international cricket career had been unsuccessful­– Yuvi grew up hearing his father’s friends say that the 1983 World Cup that India won should have been Yograj Singh’s and not Kapil Dev’s ­–  and he made it his mission to see that Yuvi became a great cricketer. Such was his obsession that he even threw the gold medal away, and stopped his skating classes!

Yuvraj Singh with the ICC World Cup 2011 Player of the Series trophy

The second chapter is almost entirely about the 2011 World Cup that India won, and in which Yuvi was the ‘Player of the Tournament’. The next three chapters are mainly about the detection of his cancer, and the ensuing chemotherapy in Indianapolis. It is about how he found the strength to fight the dreaded disease by reading Lance Armstrong’s book, and his own successful battle against a similar enemy. The final chapter is about Yuvi’s gradual rehabilitation and his return to international cricket ­– a process that continues to date.

It is incredible that his definitive therapy began more than a year after his first symptoms appeared. Most patients go through a phase of ‘denial’ when faced with a diagnosis of cancer, but Yuvraj seems to have stretched things too far. On the other hand I find it amazing that the human body can take so much – for months together he trained hard, and played international cricket (including the 2011 World Cup) even as the tumour continued to grow inside him! Was it sheer will-power? Was it something else? No one can be sure what exactly it was.

The narrative moves back and forth between his illness, and his cricketing memories. Hitherto I had known Yuvraj Singh as a hard-hitting batsman and an outstanding fielder. On TV and in the media he came across as a rather brash and aggressive young man. But here in this book, we meet a strong and determined character, yet very human and vulnerable too. He writes in a matter-of-fact way, neither glorifying his triumphs on the cricket ground, nor seeking the reader’s sympathy when he talks about his illness and the misery that it must have brought him.

Cancer is indeed a dreadful disease to have. The treatment, especially the chemotherapy literally consumes the patient by way of painful side-effects. The interval between two cycles, and the sense of impending disaster as one waits for the results of the treatment cannot be imagined by an outsider. All over the world, thousands suffer silently every day. Every cancer patient begins his internal battles with the question “Why me?” To a celebrity sportsman and one who took great efforts to maintain a wonderful physique, this question must have been all the more poignant.

I think Yuvi’s answer to this question is the most important message of this book. I quote: “I was not going to feel sorry for myself…when I got the big scores…or hit sixes, had I ever asked God, ‘why me?’ Of course not…so when the illness came I had no right to ask ‘why me?’” Yuvi had great friends and a very loving mother to look after him, but each one of us facing any crisis has to bear the pain himself. Neither inspirational books, nor people around you can tell you how to do so.

This book also brings to mind the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate.  It would be interesting (and debatable) to try and understand what made Yuvi the great player and courageous human being that he is. What is it that differentiates us commoners from the great people of this world – whether sportspersons, scientists or artists…? Yuvi may himself attribute it to his mother’s love and also to his father’s doggedness and dream. But I am not so sure. To me, he must have ‘had it in him’. He must have been born tough; the way he describes his father’s methods, a lesser man would have succumbed to the pressure of expectations and just given up. Someone has rightly said that ‘Sports do not build character, they reveal (emphasis, mine) it’.

Cricket is a reflection of human life, perhaps more so than any other game I know – you are a player selected by forces not under your control. Your role is more or less fixed, and you’ve got to give it your best shot. You have to face the burden of expectations. Your opponents maybe tougher than you imagined…and above all, the umpire may wrongly declare you ‘Out’! Playing cricket for India, you are demi-Gods. For us Indians, a cricketing win is far more than just a victory in a game. It gives us a much-needed dose of self-esteem. To play under such circumstances, and not let the feeling distort one’s sense of proportion is no mean task. Very often I think that the ability of most of our cricketers to remain level-headed is perhaps a greater achievement than the runs they have scored or the wickets they may have taken.

Millions suffer from cancer but their tales of sorrow and courage never reach our eyes and ears. It is a great thing that Yuvraj Singh decided to write his personal tale. He is a hero to so many of us, and his tale will definitely inspire cancer patients to look afresh at their illness, take hope, and find the courage to go through their travails with at least some degree of equanimity.

For those who do not love cricket, half of this book may not be interesting. Yet, for anyone interested in human beings, the other half is definitely readable. I did find a couple of mild irritants, though – a few initial pages were out of registration. The text also has two or three typos. This is not expected of a Random House publication. There is another cause for some disappointment. The book reads more like a journalistic account, than a ‘personal’ one. This could be because both the co-authors have media backgrounds, and obviously Yuvraj is a novice to the world of letters.  Also, I would have liked to read a lot more about what went through Yuvi’s mind through all this. He does talk about it, but it is not really in depth. One reason for this could be that he is an extrovert (he describes himself as being ‘not the philosophical or introspecting type’). If this book was meant to be a kind of portrait of Yuvraj Singh, then I’m afraid it is a somewhat unfinished one. The likeness is there, but a few crucial brushstrokes seem to be missing. After finishing the book, I still do not know enough about Yuvraj the man, apart from the fact that he is a very tough and obstinate character.

He has founded the Yuvraj Singh Foundation (YSF), a non-profit organization that runs the YOUWECAN initiative. Yuvraj aims to work for creating awareness about cancer, and its early detection, and also to fight against the stigma attached to this disease. Above all, his is an inspiring tale that helps to drive away the notion about cancer being a ‘death sentence’. I look forward to another book from him, wherein he talks more about his cricket career and behind-the-scenes stories from the team dressing room.

Book Extract

'Cancer is not a death sentence'

As I wind up this book, we are already in the middle of a busy season of international cricket at home. YOUWECAN is a strong part of my everyday life and my team and I try to do promotional events in the off-days between matches. In the background YOUWECAN is working all the time to see through its plans for mobile cancer detection units for rural India. We think   we will do up vans with diagnostic equipment and staff first, which can go to rural areas and hold free screenings. The effort involved is huge. But we will get there. When I am done with cricket, as one day I will have to be, YOUWECAN will become my full-time job.

For now this is the plan. I want to raise awareness about the fact that cancer is not a death sentence. It is not. I want to raise funds for the detection of centres. Early detection is half the cure and if people can get simple tests done, it could increase survival numbers by leaps. Getting more detections will help set up a more widespread cancer registry in the country. An in-depth registry will give our doctors a better understanding of our country's cancer map and how the medical community could target treatment infrastructure.

Underlining these plans is this mission: for the rest of my life I want to try to remove the stigma around cancer in India.

I am ready to talk my head off about how ridiculous some preconceptions around cancer can be. Is cancer infectious? Can you go into a house that has a cancer patient and 'catch' it? If a patient has cancer does it mean the children also will? Then should we be marrying our children into a family where there has been cancer? Idiotic? Absolutely. The ignorance and superstition around cancer crosses all boundaries of blindness. Even from the most educated and wealthy I have heard this kind of talk. Not to mention the fact that even the cleverest, most intelligent, most well-travelled will often not want to deal with their cancer, preferring to take some quack at his word that alternative therapy has a cure rather than submit to straightforward medicine. Cancer is bad enough. Why also get silly?

Dr. Nitesh once said something to me that was funny and at the same time terrible. He said human beings by and large are basically stone-age people. Or when he wants to be kinder, he says, 'We are not very far from stone-age people.' He means we find it as hard to deal with our normal stresses as at any other time in human history. Cancer patients, he says, are different. They have faced and come through the fear of death and they learn from that experience to simplify their lives and often find themselves emotionally in a better place. I notice that cancer has made me  a less anxious person. More than one cricketer who survived cancer and returned to the game didn't succeed. It could happen to me. I can deal with this thought and not feel weakened by it.

Meanwhile I can look around me and appreciate my life today. It is filled with happiness and gratitude. I have my family, my friends. Over and above that I play the game again. I have received the gift of joy and opportunity in abundance and I tell myself now you can't be angry and you can't be greedy. I went into my first match for India with no expectations. If I fail, I fail. If I succeed, I succeed. I really want to succeed, but if I fail, it will be without regrets. If I succeed, it will be without any swagger.

It has been a few months since then. I have been wearing my blue India jersey quite a lot this season and note happily that it fits me perfectly. In this time Test cricket has given me a glimpse of its hardships and its treasures. I will have to prove myself all over again. But I see that I have been given a second chance in life and I know that I intent to spend it running. If I fall, as I will, I look forward to dusting myself off and running again. That I can do.

There you go, folks. Yuvraj Singh 2012 is a post-stone-age man. If Yuvi can, you can.

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