Harbhajan Singh looks back on a long and boisterous friendship with Yuvraj Singh: from dancing to Punjabi music in the Under-16s to winning a World Cup together
When I was coming over to the ground in Southampton this morning, I got a message from Yuvi that he is retiring. We had met in London a month ago and he did tell me he was going to quit this year, so when I saw the message I was surprised because he'd talked about the year but had quit the very next month. Yuvi has been my friend for more than two decades now and I will always wish him well. He had an enormous career for India.
Yuvi and I go back a very long way. I first saw him at the Sports Authority of India academy in Chandigarh. I was 14 and I remember not being impressed. He had come driving a blue Maruti 800, without a licence, and we were told he was Yograj Singh's son. For a teenager to drive up to a ground in his own car was unimaginable. Then I saw him getting out first or second ball to an inswing bowler who was sending them down at my pace. I belonged to Jalandhar and thought, "God this is some spoilt rich brat." They don't think they need to work hard, and naturally, this is what happens to them on the field. We met later on, as part of the Under-16 Punjab team. I was called in to replace an injured player and it was then, playing on the team together, that we clicked.
We hung out together, I saw him batting in the Vijay Merchant Trophy. He got heaps of runs, I took around 35 wickets in four games, and we were both performers for our team and our friendship grew from there. Cricket took me to Chandigarh often and I met him at home and often when I slept over, I would see his father train him at home, under lights. With a plastic ball off a strip of astroturf, skidding and travelling through at pace, or a wet tennis ball. That's why he didn't have a problem with pace bowling no matter how quick. Within a year or so, a guy who at first look I thought couldn't play, had turned into a player of great skill and power. He came to the crease to dominate, he'd hit fours and sixes and there was never any blocking. In an Under-16 match I remember, Yuvi had hit the ball straight down the ground, and a guy whose hand came in the way dislocated his wrist. He had hit it so hard.
In Chandigarh, food would be sent over from his home. We would eat together and all the differences I may have felt when I first saw him - our backgrounds, rich or poor - made no difference. In Patiala, where most of our Under-16 cricket was played, he would park his car just outside where the team was put up and every few days we would set up our own disco. The Maruti dicky (boot) would be opened up, Yuvi was our DJ, he would switch on his superb music system or connect his CD player to the car speaker, and we would dance to Punjabi songs on the road. Just a bunch of kids, away from home, having fun.
I got to play for India before Yuvi did and the first time I went to Chandigarh, it was after my India debut and his U-19 World Cup win; of course it meant I'd been seen more on TV and he, a local boy, had not, and so naturally people came up to me and recognised me and this was in his town. Yuvi, competitive as ever, was astonished, "Gosh, you are getting recognised a lot."
At a restaurant once, on what was Rose Day, a girl came up to me and gave me a rose and Yuvi said, "How did you get the rose? Good looking toh main hoon (I'm the good looking one) but you're the one who has got it." I felt a bit sheepish but did say "yaar, what can I do. I've been on TV and so that's how I guess." He thought that was fair and said, "it's fine, but let me come on TV and then we'll see." He did play for India and after that, uska roz day (every day) was Rose Day. He was a hit among the girls more than any of us.
We often joked that he was the leader of our generation in terms of parties, for sure. I thank God I didn't go to too many parties with him, but our names were stuck together. If he got into any trouble, I could be sleeping in the team hotel at the time, but my name automatically got included in the incident. "Bhajjumust also have been there, he must have gone there, those guys hang out together." That's how I made my reputation, I suppose. Those were fun times.
When we toured Pakistan in 2004, more than only playing cricket, we got to visit some very important Sikh places of pilgrimage, like Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib, and we knew we were among the very few fortunate to get a chance to go there. My dad had wanted to go there but he had passed away so I knew what it meant and I took Yuvi with me. He wasn't sure how it could be done and I said "whatever it takes, we have to go. This is Baba Nanak's temple and we are being called." But please note, I took Yuvi to gurudwaras and he would take me to parties. Who is the more religious now, do tell. To be fair, he has become a lot more spiritual now than he used to be.
He did ask me once about spin bowling and I just gave him a look so he got embarrassed and went away. He would talk to me about my batting saying "yaar, just stick to it, play calmly, pay attention to it, understand the situation when you're batting." I understood it for a little bit and then my heart would demand that I hit a six, it was like a keeda (itch). I think in my life I've cost myself a few runs, 3000-4000 runs because of that. I was an okay batsman but don't ask Yuvi what I made of that. We fought a lot on the field also, of course, we would get stuck into each other. It's normal on the ground, you are in a different mood. When I was bowling and if someone made a mistake, let a run go, or dropped a catch, they would get an earful. Yuvi wasn't the type to listen. Of course, he would snap back and that annoyed me even more. We would take each other for granted being friends. It would be, "you know me, how can you say this to me?" And I would go, "you know me, how can you talk like this?" So that happened often and the language was much fruitier, but once we were off the field it was over.
I came to England to play county cricket, to make the most of India's four-month gap in cricket in the summer. Once I got there, this guy would land up, him and Zak [Zaheer Khan], Ashish [Nehra] too. Because they knew I had a flat, and, of course, it became their flat and not mine. They have often had me sleeping on the sofa and if I said to them, "guys I've come to play here, not you," Yuvi would say, "please do go ahead and play, it's not like we're stopping you."
The night we won the World Cup together, we cried, both of us, not massively, but we did. Everyone else was crying and so when one guy went, the others also followed through. But to me, I think the biggest thing Yuvi did was win us the World Cup. If I have two medals - one each for 2007 and 2011 - both belong to Yuvraj Singh. If you take Yuvraj's contribution out of those matches, I wouldn't have won those medals or those trophies.
Every time I meet him I say "Thank you for winning us the World Cup." As cricketers, we want to see ourselves in that frame lifting the cup and he was the one who created that history for us. That photograph has happened in our lifetime only because of Yuvraj. It took Sachin Tendulkar, who had all the records and the trophies, six World Cups before he could get that picture. That is what Yuvraj Singh gave to him, to us. That is what he is for us personally.
But for India, he has been a white-ball cricket legend, and probably the best left-hander India has produced in the middle order.