Not many in Anushakti Nagar — a neighbourhood in Mumbai where the Bhabha Atomic Research Council (BARC) is located — dreamt of playing cricket for India instead of following in the footsteps of their scholarly and qualified parents. He did.
Not many Mumbai batters — with a legacy of textbook batsmanship — have succeeded while using unconventional batting techniques. He has.
Not many Indian cricketers have forged a thriving international career after debuting after their 30th birthday. He has.
Suryakumar Yadav is no stranger to swimming against the tide. But since earning the much-awaited India cap in March 2021, it has largely been smooth sailing for the maverick batter. For the bowlers across the cricketing landscape, though, it has been exactly the opposite.
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“He was a prolific performer in the age-group tournaments. But he was always unconventional and a daring batter. What has worked in his favour is he didn’t change his game across formats at the higher level. He believed in ‘this is how I score runs’ and stuck to it,” says Wasim Jaffer, the run-machine, under whose captaincy Surya – now famous as SKY, a nickname picked by Gautam Gambhir based on his initials — made his First Class debut.
“Mumbai is known for its tradition of conventional batting. The trend has started changing over the last few years. He is one of the first ones in the new trend of attacking and unorthodox batters. He is a nightmare for bowlers,” Jaffer adds.
From playing rubber-ball cricket on cement strips in his locality to emerging as the backbone of Mumbai’s middle-order in Ranji Trophy to making a mockery of the best of bowlers in the Indian Premier League to stamping his authority in limited-overs’ cricket, Surya has come a long way.
It has been a roller-coaster ride for the man who loves cars. Ever since he made his First Class debut in 2010-11, Surya has been hailed as the next big thing from Mumbai’s stables of batsmanship and was handed the captaincy of the most successful First Class team in the world when he was 24.
But it proved to be a forgettable outing for him and the team as midway through the 2014-15 season, he was sacked as the captain following numerous instances of infighting. The Mumbai Cricket Association even withheld his match-fees for a while as a punishment for his alleged indiscipline.
Perhaps he was outspoken, even demeaning to some of his team-mates and a few administrators at times. But he had to pay dearly for his deeds.
It didn’t deter Surya as he continued to back himself to excel with the willow. He may have appeared to drift away due to the lures of the IPL, but he continued to be focused on his cricket. It’s his ability to be driven towards his goal that stands him apart.
“The sports psychologist community often underlines resilience as a must-have for a top athlete. He is one of the best examples of being resilient and with an ability of bouncing back,” says renowned sports psychologist Mugdha Bavare, who has worked with Surya for over half a dozen years.
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“He has always been very passionate about the game, very sincere in his approach and open to accepting suggestions. Initially he was somewhat of an extrovert, expressing himself in a manner that possibly didn’t go down well. But he is aware of himself and plain-hearted.”
In between, during a rebuilding phase for Mumbai cricket, Surya appeared slightly defensive while batting in the Ranji Trophy, losing his effectiveness and consistency.
Despite breaking into India A set-up for limited overs, a string of low scores saw him dropped for the last game of the 2018-19 Ranji season.
“He tried to be defensive, perhaps due to the need of the team. I had told him during a short chat. I was surprised that despite all the promise he had, he was yet to have a colossal season in Ranji Trophy, something like what Sarfaraz (Khan) has had for the last two seasons or Ajinkya (Rahane) had before he made his India debut,” recalls Jaffer.
But fortunately, Surya soon rediscovered his zone, setting himself new targets. With wife Devisha by his side, Surya devised a plan to take his career a notch higher than just being an IPL regular. Returning to Mumbai Indians stables, where he started his franchise-league sojourn before moving to Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014, helped too.
He changed his body clock, devised nutritional plans in consultation with a specialist and even started organising personal off-season batting stints in various parts of the country. From Indore to Bengaluru — he would spend a week or two working quietly on various aspects of his batting. He had even told Sportstar in an interview in 2019 about how switching to a meditation app had helped him a great deal.
It paid rich dividends as successive high-scoring IPL seasons and consistent outings for India A had elevated him into the national reckoning. But even then, he had to wait for more than two years to finally earn his maiden call-up.
But despite all the frustration, Surya never got desperate. He was patient yet confident about the India call-up. After he was ignored for the tour to Australia in 2020, a friend texted him: “ Apna time aayega!” (Our time will come) Pat came the reply: “ Aana hi hai” (Of course will come).
Bavare explains how Surya took the phase in a positive way. “The disappointment over non-selection is natural but he took it in a positive way. The disappointment was like a springboard for him to bounce back. There was a huge shift in his attitude, in a positive way. And he put all of it in his performance,” she says.
When Surya was selected in India’s Test squad for the tour to England in 2021, it raised a lot of eyebrows, but the then Indian think-tank believed he would be India’s trump card during the 2021 T20 World Cup.
He had little role to play in 2021 but 12 months since, with a new leadership group at the helm of Indian cricket, Surya has repaid those who had shown faith in him.
Thanks to his uncanny ability to pull off strokes that even in the age of real-time performance analysis, no bowler or a fielding captain can set a field for, Surya has scaled great heights.
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When he started off as a predominantly on-side batter, sweep was his go-to shot, besides being adept with late-cut and cut. But over the last few years, he has added the scoop, the reverse scoop, and the wristy pick-up strokes. His command while driving the ball on the off side has made Surya “a bowler’s nightmare”, according to Jaffer.
It has paved the way for record numbers. Even before he topped the T20I ranking charts, Surya had become the quickest (in terms of balls faced) to 1,000 international runs in the shortest format. As a result, his strike rate is the highest among all the batters who have faced more than 250 balls in T20Is.
In 2022, he became the first batter to hit 50 sixes in T20Is in a calendar year. During India’s last league game of the ongoing T20 World against Zimbabwe, he became the second batter to tally more than 1,000 runs in T20Is in a calendar year, joining Pakistan’s Mohammad Rizwan, who had scored 1,326 runs in 2021. His ability to shape his batting based on the situation and improvise has made him the mainstay of the Indian line-up which otherwise is packed with conventional batters.
Besides proving himself at the biggest stage, Surya has also made hundreds of cricketers, who keep toiling in domestic cricket, believe that SKY is indeed the limit!