Yuvraj Singh: The World Cup hero who bounced back from cancer

Story highlights

  • India cricketer Yuvraj Singh was World Cup hero for India in 2011
  • The all-rounder was "Man of the Tournament" but was then diagnosed with cancer
  • The 33-year-old famously hit six sixes in an over at Twenty20 World Cup in 2007
  • Cricketer set up foundation after successful treatment and returned to action for India in 2012
CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for times, videos and features

(CNN)He has faced menacing bouncers and even once had to duck a glass of milk propelled at pace from his father's hands, but it was an encounter with a different aggressor that proved cricketer Yuvraj Singh's most frightening opponent.

The mercurial all-rounder had been in the form of his life at the 2011 Cricket World Cup, helping India win their first title in almost three decades when they beat Sri Lanka by six wickets in the final at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium.
Yuvraj had particular cause to celebrate after putting in a series of match-winning performances -- his tally of 362 runs and 15 wickets in nine matches earned him the "Man of the Tournament" award.
    "Everything came together at the World Cup and it was something really special. And just being together as a team, lifting the World Cup was a dream come true," Yuvraj told CNN's Human to Hero series.
    But as each new chapter in that Indian sporting fairy tale was being written a more sinister narrative was unfolding deep inside Yuvraj's body.
    "I was coughing a lot. I was not able to breathe on my left side. I was struggling to breathe throughout the whole tournament (and) spitting a little bit of blood at times during games," he recalls.
    Indian cricketer beats cancer
    Indian cricketer beats cancer

      JUST WATCHED

      Indian cricketer beats cancer

    MUST WATCH

    Indian cricketer beats cancer 02:56
    After the World Cup he went for a scan that revealed a tumor in his chest cavity, but a combination of denial and disbelief saw him carry on pretty much as normal.
    "Even when I was diagnosed, I kept ignoring it because I still wanted to play and I didn't believe it could happen to an athlete like me who had been training and keeps himself fit."
    So off he went on tour to England that summer and in November he played two Test matches at home against the West Indies.
    It was only the following January, when results of further tests confirmed the tumor was malignant -- a germ cell cancer called a mediastinal seminoma was diagnosed -- that Yuvraj was forced to face his worst fears and seek treatment.
    "It was located between my heart and my (left) lung and it grew about 14 centimeters like a ball over my chest which was a concern."
    Yuvraj sought the expertise of Lawrence Einhorn, a U.S. doctor who had successfully treated cyclist, Lance Armstrong for testicular cancer in the 1990s, and underwent chemotherapy at the IU Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis in early 2012.
    "I had three sessions of chemotherapy so it was really tough, it was hard to go through it. But while I was going through my treatment, I was always motivated that I was going to come back and play for India. I think that's what kept me going and got me through."
    Yuvraj had enjoyed a stellar career up to then, playing Test, One-Day International and T20 cricket for India, making his senior debut in 2000 at the age of 19.
    A sparkling 84 off 80 balls in his first innings in a one-day match against Australia served notice of his talent, and it was in limited overs cricket that he was most at home on the international stage.
    The left-hander has fluently notched more than 8,000 one-day runs, which have included 13 hundreds and 51 half-centuries, and when he's on his game his assaults on opposition bowling attacks have displayed a brutal beauty.
    It was four years before his heroics with bat and ball in 2011 that Yuvraj had made himself a household name, smashing six sixes in an over off England paceman, Stuart Broad during the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup. Previously only Herschelle Gibbs had recorded such a feat in international cricket.
    "I would say it's one of the biggest highlights of my career because wherever I go and whenever I speak to people or my friends, they always mention they remember you hitting six sixes. It's a very special moment in my cricketing career."
    Unlike a lot of kids growing up in India, where cricket is the national game, Yuvraj didn't care much for the sport preferring to play tennis and go roller skating during his early childhood in Chandigarh, a small town five hours north of New Delhi.
    But his father, Yograj, who had represented India at cricket in the early 1980s, had other ideas and was hell-bent on seeing his son following in his footsteps.
    "My father was an international player but he didn't play much, so he wanted to continue his dream through me. He pushed me a lot into cricket and I eventually started liking it and I think I was destined to play."
    The intense parental expectation of the elder Singh is laid bare in Yuvraj's autobiography.
    Writing in "The Test of My Life," Yuvraj recalls an incident when his father exploded with rage after hearing that his son had been dismissed in a practice match.
    "I was once out for 39, hitting the ball in the air and Dad got to hear about the dismissal. That evening he went back home and told Mom, 'Tell Yuvi not to enter the house or I will kill him'," Yuvraj wrote in the book published in 2013.
    After spending the night in his car, Yuvraj returned to the house the next morning when his father had gone out. But then he unexpectedly came back.
    "Without warning, he picked up the glass full of milk on the table and threw it straight at me. It missed my head and broke the glass pane of the window behind where I was sitting. Then I received the full volley of his abuse."
    His father has had to deal with his own cancer diagnosis in recent months -- reportedly undergoing treatment for cancer of the vocal chords last year -- but happily Yuvraj remains clear of the disease.
    His wish to represent his country again was granted when he returned to play in three Tests against England at the end of 2012 and a string of one-day and T20 international appearances followed in 2013 and last year. But, as he's first to admit, his form has been patchy since recovering from cancer.
    "I've had a little bit of up and down in the last two to three years and that was bound to happen and I've taken that in my stride. I've worked very hard on my game and I look forward to doing good things for India again."
    He would have been the romantic's choice for a place in India squad for next month's Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand but he wasn't named in the 15-man squad announced by India's national selectors at the beginning of January.
    Still, the 33-year-old is still much in demand elsewhere.
    Last season, he was the most expensive player in the Indian Premier League auction, snapped up for Rs 14 crore ($2.25 million) by the Royal Challengers Bangalore.
    In addition to regular appearances for his state side Punjab, he is kept busy with his cancer foundation, YouWeCan, which raises awareness and funds to fight the disease.
    "I definitely think I'm inspiring a lot of people," he says.
    "Trust me, it's not easy to get out of it. It's something which kills you from inside and it takes a lot out of you, your family members and your friends to see what you're going through. That's why I'm trying to motivate people and try to help them get their life back."
    It's a positive message from a man who could have been forgiven for letting his sporting career fade in the face of such trauma. But his love for cricket remains as strong as ever.
    "It's a sport which never flows in one direction, it's always up and down. You never know which way it's going to go. I just love the unpredictability."