Devisha Shetty had watched Suryakumar Yadav woo cricket, while living it up in his 20s, like most youngsters of that age do.
In 2018, Devisha, his wife of five years who’s known him for a decade, watched him finally commit to the game, shrugging off his wild days.
The new rising of the sun that Indian cricket is witnessing, and which might reach phenom international star proportions, was the flame Devisha watched grow into the Surya blaze of now.
“You tend to enjoy life more in your early 20s, all of that comes in. But then things changed a bit, he started taking everything a little more seriously; 2018 was a great year batting-wise for Mumbai Indians,” says Devisha of the gradual transformation.
It wasn’t as if he was not focussed earlier on the ultimate goal: playing for India. But since 2018, when he moved to Mumbai Indians and began to bat higher up the order, he has become more aware of his abilities.
“Then he was like, ‘yeah I am capable of much more than what I have done over the past how -many – ever years.’ I would keep telling him, ‘you as an individual and a cricketer are capable of much more than you have achieved till now. So why don’t you push harder?’
“But you can only say, he has to do it. He did what he had to, he implemented it, no one else is responsible for his success. We are all part of his life, but how he has changed himself over the past five years is all on him.”
The commitment meant not just signing up for deepening his resolve to play for India, but leaving behind an entire way of indulgent, hedonistic life. Devisha candidly says, “He has no vices now, he may have had when he was younger, but he is much more in control of himself now.”
Heading into the 2022 T20 World Cup, Suryakumar is being widely acknowledged as perhaps the best T20 batsman in the world currently, and expectations are he’ll light up the tournament with his 360-degree range of strokes. Since the 2021 T20 World Cup, Suryakumar has scored 864 at an eye-popping strike-rate of 180. Only Mohammad Rizwan has more, that too at a sedate 127.
Who could have predicted that the talented but then inconsistent batsman – who would once get only a few deliveries at the death for Kolkata Knight Riders – would be the toast of the cricket world five years later? Talented but inconsistent – even the current India captain had to endure that label until 2013.
It would start with fitness, and what the mirror showed him. Suryakumar became a lot more careful with his diet and fitness regime. “He would work out earlier but he would not be that strict with what he was eating. There would be phases, he would crash-diet for two-three months, he would get into shape and then he would stop the diet,” Devisha says.
“But now for him it has become a lifestyle. It is no longer just a diet that he has to follow. It is not like on an everyday basis he will eat dal chawal and roti sabzi. From 2019 onwards, he has taken this up more seriously.”
At the Yadav household in Anushakti Nagar – a quiet, leafy settlement in eastern suburban Mumbai housing BARC employees – the atmosphere is sought to be kept as normal as possible despite Suryakumar’s increasing stardom. “Whatever his name and fame is, is on the ground,” Devisha says. “I tell him you leave all that outside, you will do normal things that normal people do when they are at home.” Even dizzying success needs sobering; home is Surya’s caffeine shot.
Dropped from Mumbai
Four years ago, Suryakumar Yadav was dropped from the Mumbai first-class team, a side he had led a couple of seasons earlier. After his return in 2019, he recalled a conversation he had had with his father, Ashok Yadav, an engineer with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai. “Daddy told me it was high time that I showed more consistency. And that is what I have been working towards since. I didn’t know then whether I was going to be considered again but rather than wasting time sulking over the exclusion, I had started preparing – my aim was to score runs,” Suryakumar had said.
When Suryakumar toe-ended a slow full toss back to the bowler Kane Richardson in India’s warm-up game against Australia in Brisbane, after smacking 50 off 33, Richardson remarked, “I think it was the first time he missed the middle of the bat against us.” Earlier, after dismissing Hardik Pandya, Richardson had walked up to punch wrists with the non-striker Suryakumar.
After Suryakumar plundered an unbeaten 68 off 26 balls against Hong Kong in the Asia Cup in Dubai, his partner Virat Kohli bowed in appreciation as the pair walked off at the end of the innings. Kohli has been a self-confessed admirer of Suryakumar’s audacious stroke-making, often applauding the Mumbai batter’s wizardry from the non-striker’s end.
Ashok Yadav chuckles that his son may even have had a role to play in the former India captain regaining his touch of late. “They have played together so much in recent times, have had big partnerships,” Yadav senior says. “There is no comparison between them, of course, Kohli is an all-time great, but you can see genuine admiration from him for Surya’s shots. And the way Surya bats, he can take the pressure off his partner, who then gets the space to play his game.”
Mahela Jayawardene, the MI head of performance, had spoken about how hard Suryakumar has worked on expanding his game. “Initially he was a player who would use the pace and probably play behind the wicket but over the last 2-3 years he has completely changed that. He can play in front, covering more areas. He has more ammunition to work with. He has become pretty much a very complete player.” Jayawardene had said last year.
Suryakumar scored 512, 424 and 480 runs in IPL 2018, 2019 and 2020, but the India call-up remained elusive. “In 2020, he was expecting to be picked for the Australia tour. It did not happen and he was disappointed,” Devisha says.
He had entered the fourth decade of his life, and time was no longer on his side. His father would tell him to not give up hope, citing the example of the Australian Michael Hussey, who played 79 Tests after debuting at the age of 30.
His wife would remind him that he had no choice but to keep going on. “I’d tell him selection is out of your control, don’t stress so much on that. It will happen when it has to,” says Devisha. “You have to give your best no matter what match. Even today if he is free, he’d happily go and play his club games. So nothing has changed that way.”
A few years ago, Suryakumar was fielding at long-off in a night game at the far end at Bombay Gymkhana, where the boundary almost touches the extremely busy public walkway across Azad Maidan. He hadn’t played for India yet, but he had been an IPL star for years. After every delivery, fans would walk up to him demanding a photograph and he would calmly oblige. The at-times volatile youngster of the past with disciplinary issues had visibly cooled down. “You must have noticed as well in the last few years. I’ve become more calm, more composed,” he had said.
Yadav senior says his colleagues and friends are still amazed at how a boy from a colony of engineers and scientists has become an India cricketer. “He was made of something different. And that bindaas attitude has brought him this far. That is why he feels no pressure; even if he gets out for 0, he will still play that sweep. He has worked very hard on his game, on his shots. If you see, he plays the ball, and not the bowler.”
Ahead of India’s T20 World Cup opener against Pakistan on Sunday, Swapna, Suryakumar’s mother, may yet perform a pooja, a ritual she routinely undertakes before her son’s games. Meanwhile, the father is happy that Suryakumar’s sun, albeit belatedly, has dawned.
“It is the culmination of the long journey that he has undertaken. His time should have come years ago, but it is alright, it has finally come now.”