It is only natural that the evolution of the game of cricket during the last five decades since the introduction of the limited overs version has resulted in a huge change in the approach towards all its elements - batting, bowling and fielding. While fielding standards have improved beyond recognition throughout the cricketing world, bowlers, after some initial hiccups, too learnt the art of sending down deliveries taking into consideration the restrictions in place, not only on the number of overs but in placement of fielders as well. But the maximum impact is seen in the area of batting, where innovations, powered by necessity, led to invention of new strokes in a new milieu where strike rate has replaced average score as the benchmark for assessing a batsman’s performance.
Coaches of the yore used to drill into their wards the importance of playing within the “V” and to striking the ball along the ground. Hitting the ball in the air was to be strictly avoided while strokes played with a horizontal bat invariably elicited a sharp reprimand. However, all these underwent a sea change as the focus shifted to making runs quickly, irrespective of the methods employed. The first step was to play risky strokes using horizontal blade, which was followed by the development of unconventional strokes such as paddle and reverse sweep, helicopter shot and the scoop.
It was AB de Villiers who redefined batting in limited overs cricket by inventing 360 degrees batting. A natural athlete who excelled at various sports till he decided to focus on cricket, de Villiers mastered the art of creating new angles to play strokes that left the bowlers and fielders flummoxed. He had an uncanny ability to play shots in the unmanned area behind the wicket keeper, which invariably fetched a boundary. Though the strokes he played were not part of any coaching manual, they were effective as they got him tons of runs, while the grace and athleticism of de Villiers ensured that they did not look ugly or inelegant.
After de Villiers retired from the sport in 2018, cricket world felt the absence of a batsman who could wield the willow in a similar manner till a new phenomenon named Suryakumar Yadav (SKY) emerged on the scene. Though hailing from Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh, 'SKY' cut his cricketing teeth in Mumbai where his father found a livelihood. He rose through the ranks of Mumbai cricket and made his first-class debut during the 2010-11 season. Despite scoring runs aplenty in the domestic circuit he remained largely unnoticed and never came into the reckoning for a place in the national squad during his early years.
'SKY' had an inauspicious entry into the Indian Premier League (IPL). He was signed by Mumbai Indians in 2012 but played only in one game where he was dismissed without scoring. A barren 2013 season was followed by a move to Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in 2014, where he got opportunities to wield the willow. Four seasons with KKR did not bring mountains of runs but his ability to clear the fence and impressive strike rate brought an offer of Rs 3.2 crore from Mumbai Indians during the 2018 IPL auction. His performances with the bat started moving on an upward path from this season onwards and he has not looked back since.
It took 'SKY' 10 years to move from domestic cricket to the international arena, which he did in March, 2021. He did not get a chance to bat in his first T20 International, which was against England at Ahmedabad. But he made amends in his next game where his first scoring shot was a six, struck by hooking a bouncer sent down by Jofra Archer, among the fastest bowlers in the world. He soon established himself as one of the best batsmen in the world in the shortest version of the game with a strike rate of 178.76. Further, he is presently the only batsmen in the world, other than openers, who has struck three centuries in T20 Internationals. However, it must be stated that he has not found the same level of success in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) where his strike rate of 102.46 and two fifties in 20 matches tell their own tale.
What is the secret behind 'SKY’s rapid and dramatic transformation from a run of the mill middle order batsman in domestic cricket to one of the best performers in the world in T20 format in a short span of four years? As he has himself confessed, he took a long and hard look at the way he was playing the game during the 2017 season and decided to change his basic approach towards it. He went on a diet to shed excess weight and altered his strategy towards practice in the nets. It was no longer sessions involving doing more and more of what he used to do; instead, he focused on quality seeking to improve the range and repertoire of shots under his command. This was not an easy exercise as it involved unlearning all the skills he had acquired and erasing memories embedded in the brain and muscles. But 'SKY' went ahead with this task gamely and finally struck gold as shots started flowing from the blade of his bat from IPL 2018.
The deliberate efforts taken to move out of the comfort zone and chart a new course yielded great dividends for 'SKY'. The strokes that he plays while at the crease - uppercuts, sweeps and reverse sweeps, scoops and reverse scoops, ramps, and even the pulls and hooks - will not be found in any coaching manual. He has been able to play these unconventional strokes with precision in matches only because of the long sessions he puts in at the nets to polish and perfect them. He does not walk to the crease when his turn to bat arrives; he runs to the middle so that he is warmed up and ready to get cracking from the very first ball he faces. His principle while at the crease is “to land the first punch” so that the bowler never gets the upper hand. By his own admission, he plans three strokes in his mind for every ball he receives.
'SKY' must be among the very few sportsmen who has given credit to his spouse for his success in the middle. He openly acknowledges the role played by his wife Devisha, who he calls his friend and life- coach. He has no qualms about admitting openly that they sat down together in 2017 and decided to do some smart work by trying different from what he was doing till then. She also acts as his shock absorber besides keeping him grounded. It is only very rarely that one comes across such couples who work with and inspire each other in the field of sports and this has undoubtedly been one of the factors behind the spectacular rise of the 'SKY' phenomenon.
It did not surprise anyone when International Cricket council (ICC) named 'SKY' as the winner of the award for the top men’s T20 cricketer of 2022. He is currently on top of his game and has become an integral part of the national side in the shortest version of the game. But he is yet to find the same fluency in ODIs though the selectors and team management have thrown their full weight behind him. If he manages to achieve in the 50 overs a side game even 50% of what he has done in theT20 format, he will be acknowledged as one of the most destructive batsmen in white-ball cricket.
Indian cricket needs Suryakumar Yadav to fire on all cylinders if we are to stand an even chance of winning the 2023 ICC World Cup. Let us hope that he continues his golden run with the bat and pilots the national side to the pole position in the World Cup.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)