The contortionist: in action against West Indies last August
The contortionist: in action against West Indies last August
The India and Mumbai Indians T20 phenomenon talks about his methods and his belief in them
AB de Villiers is the gold standard for batters in T20 cricket. Using his skills from different sports, de Villiers created magic, conjuring angles and gaps that left bowlers flummoxed and helpless. The term "360 batter" was coined to describe the way he hit to all areas of the ground, opening vistas that did not seem to exist for batters before.
So if you are told you remind no less than Ricky Ponting of de Villiers, you must be something. Suryakumar Yadav is.
Like de Villiers did, Suryakumar hits all around the ground, producing uppercuts, ramps, inside-out drives, lofts, scoops, pulls, sweeps and reverse sweeps in profusion.
On form, he is probably the best T20 batter in cricket at the moment. On the ICC T20I ratings he is second, a few points behind Pakistan opener Mohammad Rizwan. It has been a remarkable and dramatic rise for Suryakumar, who made his India debut in 2021 at 30, after long years on the fringes wondering why he was not playing for India despite his consistent domestic form.
In this interview, which was conducted in September, immediately after the Asia Cup, he talks vividly about his journey in the game; the art of his batting; his guiding lights, including Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma; and about his best friend, life-coach and wife, Devisha.
Suryakumar Yadav talks about his debut international: 'My wife literally jumped on me'
Suryakumar Yadav talks about his debut international: 'My wife literally jumped on me'
Firstly, belated birthday. What did your wife give you when you turned 32?
She asked me ten times: "What can I give you?" I said, I don't want anything. [Just] support. Always. That's it.
Tell us about the first time you entered the Mumbai dressing room. I believe Sachin Tendulkar plays a role in this story.
Yeah, it was at Wankhede Stadium. That was my first practice session after I came into the team. I had come from Under-22.
I was a little late that day. And I looked around - where can I sit? It was completely jam-packed. I went to warm up and then when my opportunity came to go and bat in the nets, I wanted to change, I had to put on my pads and all my gear. Sir [Tendulkar] was sitting right next to the Ganesh murti [idol] in the dressing room. He said, "Take this chair and you can sit there. There's room here." I said okay. I just wanted to quickly sit, wear my pads and bat for the first time in the nets. I was very excited. And that's the place where I sit even today, whenever I go to the dressing room.
Do you also remember the MCA U-16 match at Cross Maidan in Mumbai where you impressed selectors by hitting some 140 off 40 balls? Your first coach, Ashok Aswalkar, told us about how one of the Mumbai junior selectors said to you: "Tum itna lamba lamba kaise maarta hai?" [How do you hit it so far]?
Haha. It was a league game and it was about to get over, it was like a dead rubber. I asked the captain, "Can bat I bat No. 3?" And he's like, "Okay, enjoy." And I just went out there and enjoyed myself. I made full use of the short boundary and with those Tugite balls they had at that time, I just kept batting and kept enjoying what I was doing. One of the selectors came and said, "How can you hit such long boundaries in an age-group match? I said "Yehi hai, sir, dekh lo bas" [That's what it is].
Do you remember where that bat is now?
I still have it. I still have the three-four bats which I used to play with in U-15, U-17. Those were bats which were gifted to me by my coach at that time and they are all broken now but I still have them.
"I think of playing two, three strokes before the ball gets delivered. If the bowler bowls here, I will play this shot, if he bowls there, I will play this shot"
© Getty Images
"I think of playing two, three strokes before the ball gets delivered. If the bowler bowls here, I will play this shot, if he bowls there, I will play this shot" © Getty Images
About ten or 12 years ago you asked the Mumbai performance analyst, Saurabh Walkar, for a video of Steve Waugh against West Indies in the 1994-95 series where he made a memorable double-century in Jamaica.
I watch videos of any beautiful Test innings played or any nice one-day innings or any nice T20 innings on YouTube because I like to see and learn what people did in those situations, what I can do better when I go in to bat, how I can improvise, how it can help me and my team. The habit started from that year, 2010-11, when I made my debut for Mumbai, and it's still with me.
Do you watch your own innings?
I do watch my innings as well. I love watching it when I come back to the hotel room. If it was really good - like, for example, there was a situation and I pulled off something brilliant - I watch it again and again.
Do you remember what was going through your mind when you were watching those videos of Waugh play Curtly Ambrose back then?
I used to watch those videos and see what he's [Waugh] doing when he's going in to bat. What's his attitude? What's his intent when he's batting against such crazy fast bowlers, the fastest in the world?
Only one word I took from that video was: attack. That is the only thing, and that is how I used to bat when I started my Ranji Trophy career as well. I always felt attack is my best defence. Whatever the situation is, try and put the pressure on the opposition and see what comes your way.
Wasim Jaffer, your first captain for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, said recently that you "defied logic" right from your early days in domestic cricket days, in that you were not in the mould of the traditional Mumbai school of cricket. Was it a challenge to retain that belief in attack and play the game your way?
It was a little difficult. I mean, I used to hear a lot of things when I was batting that way [in domestic cricket], that this is not Bombay school of batting, this is not how you play a four-day game. But I was very clear in my mind that whatever format I play, I'll just express myself, I'll back myself and do whatever I feel is right at that moment. Because later on, I don't want to say, "Oh I listened to this one and that one." I want to blame myself if something goes wrong.
With Axar Patel, who Suryakumar came up the ranks alongside
Saikat Das / © BCCI
With Axar Patel, who Suryakumar came up the ranks alongside Saikat Das / © BCCI
And you made the runs.
Correct. It worked for me. I wanted to do things my way. And it really worked for me.
You made runs year after year, but you waited agonisingly long for the India selectors to give you a call-up. At one stage you said you were lost in the absence of any acknowledgement from the selectors that you were being considered. Can you talk about this phase?
It was a very long stretch. And it was very difficult in that phase to push myself, keep telling myself that the opportunity will come, you just have to work hard. Because everyone I was meeting was telling me the same thing - just work hard, keep pushing yourself. Sometimes it becomes really easy to say those things and difficult to be practical. I used to do different things every year. "If I do this thing, will this work? If I do that thing, will it work?"
After 2017-18, I still remember, me and my wife, Devisha, sat down and decided, let's do some smart work from here on. You have worked hard, you have come this far, let's do something else and we will see what happens. I started training in a different way. After 2018 I realised what I needed to work on in my game. I started batting more towards the off side. I started dieting. Did a few things which really helped me in the 2018 domestic season and 2019. And going forward, in 2020 my body was completely different.
It took time. It took around a year and a half for me to realise what my body is used to - what will help me, how can I move forward, am I moving in the right direction? Eventually we both realised, yes, we are moving in the right direction. Then everything was on autopilot. I knew what I had to do, how I had to train, how much practice I had to do.
Before that I was just practising, practising, getting a little frustrated sometimes. And I felt there was no quality in that - there was a lot of quantity. But after 2018 there was a lot of quality in my training, diet, net sessions and everything, which helped me really well. And then it was a complete build-up, runs coming in all formats, in the IPL as well. So consistency came with that and finally I broke the door.
In those days, did you carry the frustration home? And how did that have an impact on your relationship with your parents or your partner or friends?
Never. Whatever I used to do on the ground stayed on the ground. We [wife and he] never got frustrated when we were home. The most important thing was, we used to find solutions: how can we get better instead of just being down, thinking, "We didn't do this well, we should have done that." We were looking at the future and we wanted to improve. So I never got frustrated when I was home. We were always on same page together.
Back then, did you compare yourself with other young players who you played with at U-23 and who had started playing for India by then?
I used to think like that. I still remember [at the 2013] U-23 Asia Cup I played with KL [Rahul], with [Jasprit] Bumrah, Axar [Patel], Harshal [Patel]. There were a lot of players from that time who made their debut for India and they'd started doing really well by the time I got married in 2016. This conversation [with Devisha] came two years later. We didn't actually compare [Suryakumar to the other young players], we wanted to move forward, so we just looked into ourselves what we could do better together so that I could go one step ahead and slowly make a mark.
Can you talk about the pre-diet days?
My God, I had no idea what diet and all was. I always felt, what feels good, let me eat that. Whatever I felt like eating, like, you name it, for example, a biryani or an ice cream, which could make me feel, "Wow, now I'm in a good space." So later on, when we both started having a conversation, we realised that whatever makes you feel good, it's all in your comfort zone. You have to leave all of that and come out of it. So these are the few things which we did to come out of that comfort zone, leave it aside and move in the other direction.
Would you say your wife is like a life coach for you?
Oh yes, absolutely. She keeps me grounded all the time. You do well, you don't do well. Most important thing is, when I do well and when I come back to the room, she's like, "I think it was a good day. It's time for you to enjoy tonight. Forget it tomorrow and move on."
An unforgettable turning point in your life came on October 28, 2020, when you hit a 43-ball 79 to help Mumbai Indians chase down 165 against Royal Challengers Bangalore. It was two days after you were not included in the T20 squad for the Australia tour, though you had had a strong IPL. Can you talk about what you thought and felt that week after not being picked for India?
It was a little difficult. I mean all the team-mates from different countries [during the IPL] were telling me, "Your opportunity has come, you are doing so well." And I was also very excited at that time, and I imagined things: yes, I'll do this, I'll do that when I play for India. But then, when it didn't come, obviously I was disappointed.
Tell us about your India debut. I believe Shastri called you the day before.
On the day of the game he called me and he was like: "Do the things you do, don't think too much, attack. First punch dena unko" [Land the first punch]. I said: "Yes sir, I'll try and do that." It was really motivating to hear that on the day of the game. I don't know what impact it would have made if he had told me before game day, but it was in the afternoon. I was having lunch and he called me and said, "You are playing today, you are making your debut." I was like, "Wow, this is the day I have been waiting for."
What were your emotions at the time?
I was having lunch, me and my wife. She is like, "Your phone is ringing." I picked it up and he [Shastri] said: "Come down, I'm sitting at the pool." I started getting that feeling, that, boss, there is some good news. I went and he was like, "You will play today." The next two-three minutes whatever he said, it was all going here and there because I was thinking to myself, "What!? I'm making my debut today!"
He was like, "Just enjoy yourself, be fearless, express yourself." I was just dying to go on the ground that day. (smiles)
What did you say to your wife when you got back to your room?
She literally jumped on me (laughs). I called my parents when I was in the [team] bus. They didn't expect it because it was the second or third match of the series. They thought I might get an opportunity when the series was decided. Dad came back home early from office and he was very excited.
You faced your first ball in international cricket in the next match, off Jofra Archer, and you hooked it for six.
First punch! (punches fist into palm)
First balls are for pasting: Suryakumar sends a Jofra Archer bouncer over the rope on debut
Ajit Solanki / © Associated Press
First balls are for pasting: Suryakumar sends a Jofra Archer bouncer over the rope on debut Ajit Solanki / © Associated Press
Boss, kaise karte ho, yaar?
Arre, bahut jaroori tha na. First impact bahut jaroori tha [It was very important to land that first punch].
So you had already thought about playing that shot?
Not really. When I went back to the room [after knowing he was going to debut] me and my wife discussed that I was making my debut at 30, so I shouldn't be thinking [conservatively] about when I might get my next opportunity, what I should be doing. I had already been playing eight-ten years of IPL, so I had seen that high-pressure environment. I just had to be myself, what I wanted to do. I was very clear. If you see, when Rohit got out, I literally ran towards the pitch, so I was that excited. I just wanted to go out there and bat wearing that India jersey.
Archer - I had something at the back of my mind, that he might have thought: he [Suryakumar] is making his debut, so let me pitch a hard length, short ball. So I was a little predetermined. I don't know what would have happened if he had pitched a yorker. I was ready for that ball, not for that shot.
That thing you spoke about, running onto the ground at the fall of a wicket. Is it nervous energy?
There are a lot of butterflies in my stomach, and that is how I relax them. I run, stretch a bit, and by the time I'm reaching the pitch, I'm already warmed up. I don't want to go there, take stance, run the first run really hard and then I'm warmed up. I want to be warmed up when I'm playing my first ball. If someone asks me, "What makes you ready from ball one?", I say, when I'm sitting inside the dugout, I keep doing something. I jump, I stretch my body. Because when I go in to bat, I don't want to be wasting any of my time. If there's a ball to be hit… from ball one, go for it.
Against Archer again, in the IPL the year before, you were floored by him first ball and then you reverse-scooped him for a six. Can you talk about those two balls?
I knew he was a super-fast bowler, but I didn't expect it would come that fast from that wicket we were playing on, in Abu Dhabi. But when I got hit, in the time I had till the next ball, I thought, "I have to do something different on this [next] ball. Even if I get out, no problem, but I have to do something. I have to tell him: 'Boss, I am also here for some strict business.'"
"What I do during practice, however I bat, I do the same thing in the game"
Deepak Malik / © BCCI
"What I do during practice, however I bat, I do the same thing in the game" Deepak Malik / © BCCI
I had never played that shot [reverse scoop] before. I tried it two-three times in a practice game that season but it didn't work out well. But I was like, "This is the stage, let me try." It just brushed my bat and I didn't even look back because I knew the way it brushed my bat, it had to go a long way.
Saurabh Walkar has a name for you - Zee Cinema. Tell us about that.
Correct. He calls me "Zee Cinema - action, masti [frolic], drama." Because he sees all that in my innings.
When I started my first-class career, we used to sit together and talk about the game: how do I attack spinners, how do I attack fast bowlers. We used to discuss all kinds of silly things, like: Can you score a century in one session in Ranji? Can 150 be made in two sessions? Can you make a double-century in three sessions?
Once our friendship built, he said to me, "Tu toh action, masti aur drama waala aadmi hai, ekdum. Ground pe bhi jaake waise hi khelta hai" [You're a man of action and drama and you play that way on the field too]. I was very clear: what I do outside, what I do during practice, however I bat, I do the same thing in the game.
So would you say it's all actually planned?
You have to plan when you go in to bat. You have to plan your shots, what shots you will play against the spinners, the fast bowlers. There are areas - one side is short, one side is long, which areas you should target. So there are three, four things which you plan, you read, and then you go in the game and then you execute.
Eight times in 26 innings till the end of the 2022 Asia Cup you hit a boundary on the first ball of your innings in T20Is. Is that part of the plan?
No, that's not planned. That's what I said - when I actually run in to bat, I'm already warmed up, I'm excited. So if I have to stamp my authority when I go in to bat, if I have to tell the opponent that I am here for some business and I am here to score runs, what do I do? I hit a boundary off the first ball, a six off the first ball, or maybe I try and hit two-three boundaries in the first seven-eight balls I face. That's my style of playing.
Super scooper: at work during his Trent Bridge hundred against England
Rui Vieira / © Associated Press
Super scooper: at work during his Trent Bridge hundred against England Rui Vieira / © Associated Press
If I don't get boundaries early on, it's okay, it's not a problem. I'll try and find a boundary a little later, but what I love is trying to get a boundary or six as soon as a wicket has fallen, so it quickly shifts the pressure to the opposition and then you can control the game.
Of your many fine T20 innings, can you talk about one or two that stand out for you?
The first international fifty [against England] I made, we won that game, so that is very special to me.
Then the one which I played recently in St Kitts against West Indies. It was a slow wicket and the chase was a little tricky. We were chasing 165. I opened the innings and I just kept going even after the powerplay because I knew it would be really difficult for a new batter to come in and score runs. And it was difficult to score after 14-15 overs when the ball got old. There was wind as well. I got some 70-odd runs  and we won that game.
And the one against New Zealand in Jaipur [November 2021]. Again, I got 65-70 runs .
Of course the hundred [against England in July] I loved it as well, but if I had finished the game, that would have got pole position. I was very happy to get my first T20I hundred, but there was a small opportunity for me to take the side home. [When Suryakumar got out, India were 25 runs short, with seven balls left; they eventually lost by 17 runs.]
Surya as good as ABD? Why would Ponting say that?
Surya as good as ABD? Why would Ponting say that?
In that innings at Trent Bridge, some of your strokes were astonishing. There were a couple of shots where the ball was pitched on a hard length and came at your body and you hit it over backward point. How do you do that?
I used to play a lot of rubber-ball cricket during my school days. We used to play on hard cement tracks. People used to just come running and chuck the ball as fast as they could. One side, the boundary used to be around 75-80 metres and the other side, behind, it used to be 70 metres. So when you are playing with the rubber ball on hard cement, it's easy for you to scoop, pull, play an uppercut, then play a slice over point. All these strokes which you see me play, square of the wicket and behind square, have come from that. I have never practised this in the nets, never against the bowling machine. So it has all come from that.
How do you create those angles?
You don't have any other option when it's coming at your body - instead of getting hit, you try something.
Robin Uthappa, who was one of ESPNcricinfo's analysts during the Asia Cup, said one of your strengths is that you can change the stroke you want to play at the very last minute. Is that a correct assessment?
I actually think of playing two, three strokes before the ball gets delivered. If the bowler bowls here, I will play this shot, if he bowls there, I will play this shot. I keep thinking the same when I am at the non-striker's end. If he doesn't bowl [where I want it] then I am stuck, but then you have to adjust. So I actually think and play it in my mind before I play the stroke.
What is your favourite shot?
"I don't look at the line of the ball if I have thought of playing a sweep - I have to play it"
Aamir Qureshi / © AFP/Getty Images
"I don't look at the line of the ball if I have thought of playing a sweep - I have to play it" Aamir Qureshi / © AFP/Getty Images
In 2016, Jacques Kallis, when he was head coach at your franchise then, Kolkata Knight Riders, said he wanted you to teach him how to play the lap shot. Tell us about that.
Oh, yes! I remember that. I have seen him play a lot of sweep shots, so I was like, is he really asking me this? What's going on?
I told him it has come from batting on different types of grounds we play on in Mumbai. We play on red soil, where you don't have any other option when it's turning square, so we start playing that stroke. He was like, "You're crazy!" Back then I used to play sweep shots starting from deep midwicket till fine leg. I still do, but at that time I had just started playing that. And he's like, "Can you teach me?" I was completely shocked!
What are the mechanics required to play the sweep shots in that arc you just talked about?
I like to get in the line of the ball. I like to take the ball on the pads, literally. I don't see if the line of the ball is within the stumps. Because what I feel is, the sweep is a little predetermined stroke - you think before the ball is delivered. Very rarely I've seen people look at the line of the ball and then play this shot. I don't look at the line of the ball if I have thought of playing a sweep - I have to play it. I try and take it on the pad, so it is easy for me to control the shot.
You are known as a 360-degree batter. Who are some batters you spend time watching?
I watch everyone, not any one cricketer specifically. I like watching anyone. It's not only the style of play. It can be a cricketer who is opening the innings or batting at three, four, any position.
I like to see situations. Like, we are two or three down and we need ten an over, nine an over - what is that player doing in that situation? How did you build the innings? How did you finish that innings? So these are the things I watch and learn: How can I do the same thing? How can I win a game for my team? Can I do the same thing? Try and copy that from YouTube.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.