India outsmarted Bangladesh by five runs in a rain-truncated fixture to reclaim the top spot in the points table. While much of the spotlight fell on Virat Kohli and KL Rahul for scoring half-centuries, Suryakumar Yadav too played a short but brisk innings that helped India gain much-needed momentum in a placid phase of the game. The sight of Suryakumar Yadav coming and smashing everything thrown his way has been a running theme of this World Cup. We talk with his childhood coach Ashok Aswalkar to understand the genius of SKY.
Irrefutably, sports has a weird obsession with age. It’s an integral part of a player’s identity, helping viewers make a mental note of not only how long they will continue to entertain, but also a rough assumption of their journey so far. For instance, young and promising ones are blessed, not only with age on their side but also with the skills that have come naturally to them. In contrast, a player like Suryakumar Yadav, who made a relatively late debut for his national team, is assumed to be a grifter, someone who compensated for the lack of talent through hard work. But this is far from true, tells Ashok Aswalkar, his childhood coach.
“It was evident from the beginning that he would play for the country. He was around 10 when he scored 140 runs off just 50 balls in a tournament organized by Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA). He kept scoring 50-60 with incredible consistency, but lacked the pedigree to make a big total,” says Aswalkar.
His penchant for scoring quick runs, not his appetite for big innings, made him the most desirable T20 batter in the world. As the format underwent a dramatic shift, the world realized the importance of a selfless cricketer like Suryakumar, who plays the game in one note, rhythm, and tempo. There are no soulful intros but just smash-and-bang cricket played with an air of relentlessness that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Surya’s strike rate of 184 in 26 matches played this year is second to none. He hits four on every 6 balls and six on almost every 8 balls. When you combine this, you get a boundary on less than every fourth ball that he plays.
Aswalkar details that the attacking game came naturally to him. “His game is now finely tuned but the approach has remained the same over the years,” adding that “when you are confident of taking on a bowler, there’s no reason why you should slow down the game”.
When you watch him obliterate the bowlers with immaculate precision, you wonder how it took so long for such a talented batter to break into the national side. But there are many things that need to fall in a cricketer’s favour to play for India. Suryakumar started his Ranji career with a sedate half-century for Mumbai, and in the subsequent season, he made 754 runs in just nine games. But Suryakumar lacked the consistency required to break into the national team, as in 2012/13, he could only manage 58 runs from four matches. In 2013/14, he played a few great innings but still finished with a mediocre average. When everything clicked again in 2015, Surya, who was appointed as the stand-in captain in the absence of Rohit Sharma, decided to hand over the reign of captaincy to Aditya Taare. He wanted to free himself from the shackles of extra responsibility, and felt resigning from the post will help him “score more freely as a player.”
“Suryakumar controlled what he could,” asserts Aswalkar. “Even when he was being ignored, he always had the conviction that his time will come”. But he was “badly hurt when he didn’t find his name in the teamsheet for the limited-overs leg of the Australia tour.” Asawalkar is talking about India’s tour to Australia in 2020/21. Two days before the squad was announced, Suryakumar Yadav played one of the most memorable knocks of his IPL career, slamming an unbeaten 79 off just 43 deliveries, a knock that included numerous awe-inspiring strokes and an unflinching stare to Virat Kohli, then leading the Royal Challengers Bangalore. Suryakumar expected to be in the team, but his name was nowhere to be found.
That was a tough time in Suryakumar’s life, tells Aswalkar. “But I kept telling him to continue working at the same level. The selectors are experts in cricket, they know the right time to give a chance”. A few weeks later, Suryakumar got a call from a top BCCI official to start working on his fitness.
On 18 March 2021, Suryakumar walked out to face the first ball of his international career, in a T20I game against England. He had just seen his captain Rohit Sharma getting tricked by a well-disguised delivery from Jofra Archer. The ideal option would have been to play out some balls and assess the conditions, before starting on with the attack. But not for Suryakumar, who shuffled in a bit, crunched down, and lifted the length delivery angled into him over the fine leg boundary for a six.
There couldn’t have been a better arrival than this. And Surya has managed to continue this form, stomping every opponent coming his way with wristy flicks, aggressive sweeps, swivel pulls, cuts, both upper and square, and lofted drives. His versatility allows him to play with the field, the fielder, and the bowler’s psyche at the same time. “He loves to exploit the open space,” says Aswalkar. “Once an opponent’s captain removed the fine leg, Surya started sweeping relentlessly, going down on anything that was within his reach.” When you replug the fine-leg, Surya will target other spaces that have opened up. His ability to get in weird positions – from where it seems borderline impossible to bail out – and still carry on with his shots had earned him a comparison to AB de Villiers.
As weird as it may sound, Aswalkar credits this versatility of Suryakumar to the Mumbai Monsoons! “Every year during the rainy season the practice sessions were shifted from regular ground to the Badminton court in the residential colony of BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre),” quips Aswalakar. “It was a concrete surface, where we used to play with tennis balls. Playing the extreme pace and bounce of wet tennis balls from a very short distance helped in improving his reaction time.”
Suryakumar has been the perfect embodiment of the attacking philosophy that captain Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid are trying to imbibe in the team. In a squad already brimming with batting superstars, it didn’t take too long for Surya to carve his own identity. Two years ago, Surya was full of self-doubts after he wasn’t picked for the tour to Australia. Fast forward to 2022, he is arguably the no. 1 T20I batter in the world, and his performances have kept India’s hopes alive in the 2022 T20 World Cup so far.
Lead Image: Suryakumar Yadav/Twitter