Yuvraj Singh: Playing the game of his life

Yuvraj conquered the world in 2011, but his biggest challenge was yet to come AFP

At 36, in the twilight of a career interrupted by cancer, Yuvraj Singh is an unusual entrant in ESPN's World Fame 100 list. Or maybe not.

Yuvraj Singh isn't the pre-eminent cricketer in India today.

Yes, he has played more one-day matches than any of his contemporaries, but his statistics in the game's longest form are more modest. His numbers on social media (4.3 million followers on Twitter) are impressive, but they are a third of what Virat Kohli can boast of. And, at 36, he is the oldest member of the Indian squad for the ICC Champions Trophy in June; a lot closer to the end of his career than its peak.

In fact, when the national selectors recalled him to the ODI squad in January, ESPNcricinfo called it a backward step. Yet that same article tempered the criticism by acknowledging that his return made for a lovely story. That story continues with Yuvraj finding a place on ESPN's World Fame 100, among the world's most high-profile sports personalities, on the same list as Ronaldo, Messi, Federer, Bolt.

There are few stories in cricket as compelling as that of Yuvraj Singh's renaissance over the past six years, a tale - like the best kinds often are - that transcends sport. Imagine Lance Armstrong with all of the glory and inspiration but none of the eventual disgrace.

Rewind to 2011. Yuvraj was at the peak of his cricketing powers. He had just helped India win the World Cup, reclaiming the title they'd last won in 1983. He had won four Man-of-the-Match awards, and was named Player of the Tournament. Yet, his finest hour was played under a deadly shadow: He was visibly distressed during matches, vomiting over the boundary on a couple of occasions and reportedly unable to sleep for much of the tournament.

Days later, he was diagnosed with a six-inch tumour inside his chest, squeezing against a lung and artery. Doctors told him afterwards that he could have died of a heart attack because the artery was being compressed. The tumour was cancerous, and within days Yuvraj was whisked off to the US for his chemotherapy.

Yuvraj was lucky that his cancer - a rare germ cell version - had been detected relatively early. Yet, it took three torrid cycles of chemotherapy over 57 days before he would be given the all-clear.

Few Indian sportspersons, and certainly none as high-profile as a cricket World Cup winner, had battled the disease as publicly as Yuvraj did. It was a struggle documented candidly in the bestselling book The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back.

His return to the national team in December 2012 was emotional - the huge cheer he received from the crowd at Chepauk when he went out to bat against New Zealand would suggest as much - but unrewarding in cold stats. His hopes and ambitions on winning the World Cup seemed remote as he struggled for runs, and he was eventually dropped from both the ODI and T20 international sides - the latter after a particularly horrendous innings in the final of the 2014 World T20.

It seemed the end for an international career that had begun in 2000 at the ICC Champions Trophy. There was little shame in letting go, as he could live off his "Player of the Tournament" tag for the rest of his life. Yuvraj, though, chose to persist.

"I came back after recovering from cancer, the first two-three years were very hard," he said at the time. "I had to work hard on my fitness and I was in and out of the team. There was a time when I was wondering whether or not to continue."

His comeback would be plotted in the desolate grind of domestic cricket, a scenario few would have imagined. Ever since his international debut, Yuvraj had served as the stereotypical modern Indian one-day cricketer. He was part of Indian cricket's first brat pack of the 21st century, who chose not to hide their love of the high life.

"I'm the type who enters and leaves a party from the front door," he once said. One of the definitive Indian sports films of the past decade, Chak de India, even included a thinly veiled, though largely caricatured, reference to him as Abhimanyu Singh, the brash vice-captain of the Indian cricket team.

His decision to try and earn his way back to the national team through domestic cricket startled even his team-mates. "We had grown up seeing him as a superstar. He had played all over the world. Now he was playing with us in small grounds in front of just a few people. We didn't even know how we should approach him," says Mandeep Singh, himself an India international who played alongside Yuvraj for the Punjab first-class team.

It was Yuvraj who would put them at ease. "He'd come out and talk to us. He would tell us of his struggle with cancer and he would encourage us in our game. He wasn't like a senior to us. He became like a brother," Mandeep told ESPN.

Yuvraj played his way back to the national side and, once he got that second chance against England last January, he grabbed it with both hands. He answered the critics in the second game of his comeback with a career-high ODI score of 150. It was a knock that would cement his place in the side as a lynchpin of the middle order, much as he had been in the past decade and a half.

Off the field, though, he had changed. Instead of the cocky icon of his youth, the new Yuvraj seemed to acknowledge a vulnerable side to his personality. He now runs a foundation, Youwecan, that seeks to spread awareness about cancer. A fashion line with similar intentions was launched last year. There is remarkably little self-pity about the fact that he lost some of the best years of his life to illness.

"I was not going to feel sorry for myself. No, why should I? ...When I got the big scores, or when I got player of the match, or hit six sixes, had I ever asked God, 'why me?' Of course not. So when the illness came I had no right to ask 'why me?" he wrote in his book.

When he steps out on the field at the 2017 Champions Trophy - in the same tournament where he had first made a mark - life would be coming full circle for Yuvraj. It remains to be seen what the future holds for him.

The next 50-over World Cup is another couple of years away. Yuvraj will be 38 then and the competition for a spot on the team bench will be as intense as ever. Who would want to bet against him, though?

"He has shown us what is possible if you just believe in yourself. He is the ultimate inspiration for us," says Mandeep.

Speaking not long after his chemotherapy treatment, Yuvraj explained why he wanted to bear that responsibility. "It (cancer) takes a lot out of you, your family members and your friends to see what you're going through," he said. "That's why I'm trying to motivate people and try to help them get their life back. I definitely think I'm inspiring a lot of people."

On the field and off it.