One of the features of Suryakumar Yadav's batting is how well he picks his spots. He can be inventive with his shot-making or keep the scoreboard moving with risk-free cricket, or he can hit big. But, when the strokes aren't flowing as smoothly, Yadav finds a way to still keep ticking over without getting bogged down.
Then suddenly, an innings that began with a mite less fluency explodes into a match-winning one as the touch returns. The advantage Yadav has is that even when the ball is not hitting the sweet spot on his bat, he doesn't dawdle, he hasn't put pressure on himself (and his batting partner) with a dot-ball build-up, and is therefore in prime position to tear away to a fantastic score when bat makes more accurate geometric arcs and the ball pings off it.
His run of scores in India's domestic season so far bear witness to that. Across the 50-overs Vijay Hazare Trophy and Deodhar Trophy, and the ongoing Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20s, Yadav has scored runs at an average of 93.80 and a strike rate of 163.98. It's a particularly rich vein of form, which prompted Harbhajan Singh to wonder on Twitter why Yadav wasn't being considered for the national team, being a seemingly perfect fit.
Ask Yadav about it and he just laughs. "I have been sharing the dressing room with him since 2011 [at Mumbai Indians, his first IPL franchise]. We had a good friendship on and off the field," Yadav tells ESPNcricinfo. "When I left Mumbai Indians and went to Kolkata Knight Riders [in the 2014 auction], he was always behind me, 'why are you not playing for India? You are not doing justice to your talent. I think it's high time you become a little more consistent.'
"There was a lot of what you can call constructive criticism. I really enjoyed it. I could feel he wants me to go ahead and play for the country, which was the best thing. Knowing he tweeted, I was really happy. I called him and told him, 'thank you so much Bhajju pa for tweeting for me. It means a lot that you tweeted'. He keeps motivating me, keeps pushing me, because he feels I'm not doing justice to my talent. And that's good, there have to be a few people who keep doing this for you."
"If you think only about 'I have to play for India', it puts unnecessary pressure on you. But I strongly feel that the time is around the corner and I'm going to push the door this year." Suryakumar Yadav
The natural question then is: does Yadav feel he is doing justice to his talent?
"Well, currently I'm just enjoying the brand of cricket I am playing," he says. "I have always loved playing fearless cricket, for any format. So, instead of thinking of 'justice' or 'injustice', I feel rather I should enjoy my cricket more, keep scoring runs, keep winning games. That will help me more to push the door and play for India. My father always checks all the websites any time an India A team is announced. He calls me as soon as he sees it, and tells me 'your name is not there'. I tell him 'that's not a problem'. The most important thing I feel is that you have to score so much that you force them to pick you.
"I always feel some things in life are not in our hands. If you think only about 'I have to play for India', it puts unnecessary pressure on yourself. Of course, I have been thinking that I'm not there in that circle still. But I strongly feel that the time is around the corner and I'm going to push the door this year."
Every player who is doing well says the same things, more or less, but Yadav's season has been particularly special so far. In the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he batted only four times in eight matches, but no one had a better average or strike rate (minimum 100 runs) than him. His average (113.00) was higher than that of Yashasvi Jaiswal, who hit a double century and two hundreds in six innings. It was higher than that of Manish Pandey, who looked like he would never get out. His strike rate (154.79) was better than that of Shivam Dube, who was collecting sixes as if getting them at bargain rates in an online sale, or Shahrukh Khan, whose late-order exploits already had people speaking of him playing in his superstar namesake's IPL team.
Yadav has carried that form into the T20 format, where he's also leading Mumbai. He's had his share of ups and downs, but leadership roles, whether as captain or senior team member, seem to sit well on him now. "There is an app called 'One Giant Mind'. I have been using that since July," he says. "It helps you stay calm, tells you how to breathe and what to think in pressure situations. So far, it's worked really well. Not just because I've scored runs, it keeps me stable on the ground too. Even if I'm at the non-striker's end or fielding, or if I have to take a decision on the ground or off the ground."
It hasn't always been all calm, even though the first controversy of his career was not of his own making. The headline "'Injured' Suryakumar Yadav scores unbeaten 182" first brought Yadav to the notice of the cricketing world, when, declared injured by Mumbai Indians in the 2011 Champions League, he batted in an age-group game even as his IPL franchise had wangled a special concession of playing five overseas players due to their injury roster.
Yadav can laugh about it all now. "Actually, the thing is I didn't know the rules. They said I was not fit, I said, 'okay, that's not a problem, then I'll go back home.' I got to know there's a local match. I was batting and wasn't feeling that much pain in my hand (he had a finger injury). So I thought I can go and play, and I got a double-hundred (182) over there. Since I was scoring runs, I forgot the pain also! But it was highlighted in next day's newspapers completely, that I'm fit for Mumbai but unfit for Mumbai Indians. I was like, 'What is happening?'
"Then I got a call from them. They were like, 'bro, if you are unfit for a Champions League tournament, then you can't go back and play'. I said I was sincerely sorry but I didn't know the rule. I didn't even ask anyone before playing. That was my mistake. I was under a lot of pressure and didn't know what to do. I called our team (Mumbai Indians) manager Rahul [Sanghvi]. He told me I could go to NCA and give the fitness test. If I cleared it, I could come back to the squad. So I went and gave the fitness test and they said I'm good to go. I came back (to the Mumbai Indians squad) and played the tournament, and we won also. That was the best thing."
It's an endearing story, but the fact remains that if Yadav could go and score 182, how was he pronounced unfit in the first place? "Because that time, when I was batting in the nets, I was feeling a lot of pain," he says. "Maybe it was too hot, I was sweating a lot… and that time I was feeling it's paining a lot. So I came back, three-four games of Champions League went. I was at home for about a week, and I got a call that there is a local game, so I thought 'let's give it a try, if it pains, it's a local tournament, they can take care of me.' So I played, and got runs."
That Mumbai didn't hold it against Yadav was proven when they went for him aggressively in the January 2018 IPL auction, beating out Knight Riders and Delhi Daredevils [now Capitals] with a final bid of INR 3.2 crore.
While he makes no bones about having loved his stint at Knight Riders, Yadav cannot hide his joy at being back with his 'home' franchise. But even for Mumbai Indians, there is one thing he absolutely will not do: "I just avoid facing him [Jasprit Bumrah, in the nets]! I have actually seen him bowl too much at international level," he chuckles. "I have faced him a lot when I was at Mumbai Indians in his first year [in 2013]. I was batting in the nets and he was like literally on fire when he was bowling. There was something, a big spark. From that day till today, I've never batted against him in the nets. Never!"
In match-play, Yadav has an enviable head-to-head record against Bumrah, albeit over a small sample size. In 12 balls across five T20s, Yadav has hit 27 runs off Bumrah and been dismissed once. There aren't too many batsmen in world cricket who can claim a 200-plus strike rate against arguably the best white-ball bowler in the world. But he's still not going to face up to Bumrah in the nets. Ever.
"There's no one other than him [that I don't want to face in the nets]. Only Bumrah. That guy is something else. I'm telling you, seriously. I mean, why do you want to face the fastest bowler, and a toe-crusher, that too in the nets?" he laughs. "In the game it's fine. I've told him also very clearly. Recently when he got a hat-trick in the West Indies, I texted him, 'Boss, ab toh aane ke baad ek ball bhi nahin khelenge aapko nets mein! (When you're back I'm not going to play even a single ball from you in the nets). He was laughing and he replied that he is going to bowl slow to me in the nets, otherwise I'll hit him behind [the wicket].
"It was a fun conversation. But no chance! I've told him clearly."
Clearly, it's not only while batting out in the middle that Yadav sees the gaps. He knows how to pick his spot in the nets too.