International batters come in different hues. There are the imperious monarchs, such as Vivian Richards, whose mere presence is enough to drive a scare into the opposition. There are the stylists, like David Gower and V.V.S. Laxman, whose finesse charms even the most ruthless of opponents into developing a soft corner. There are the perfectionists, such as Sachin Tendulkar, who once reminded the legendary Don Bradman of himself.
Suryakumar Yadav is among batting’s dazzling innovators. He is in his 30s, when techniques deteriorate, bowlers work batters out and the hunger for runs subsides. But for Suryakumar, who smashed 904 runs across two title-winning seasons in 2019 and 2020 for Mumbai Indians, the opposite is proving true. As Twenty20 cricket evolves, he is a player who is continuously rising to meet the challenge rather than being dragged down by it.
So much so that in July, during his sensational 117 (55b) against England, a straight four off Chris Jordan ended with such an extravagant flourish — head still, elbow high, bat at the high point of the upswing and the front leg springing up and down like that of a prancing horse — that the commentator exclaimed, “it’s like Victor Trumper”.
The shot may never be immortalised like Trumper’s was, first through George Beldam’s camera and then Gideon Haigh’s prose. But in most Indian cricket fans’ minds currently, it is that image of Suryakumar that is firmly etched. As India gears up for the ICC T20 World Cup in Australia, it’s the Mumbaikar who appears most crucial to the country’s chances.
“He has the game to bat in any conditions,” Virat Kohli, the high priest of batting, said during the recent T20 series against Australia. “He got a hundred in England, then batted well in the Asia Cup. He is striking the ball as well as I have seen him. It’s just the array of shots, and to play the shots at the right time is such a good skill to have.”
T20I batting mainstay
In a line-up that has Rohit Sharma, K.L. Rahul and Kohli, Suryakumar has come to be the mainstay. In T20 internationals this year, his 801 runs (from 23 matches) are the most in the world, and his strike rate of 184.56 (minimum 15 innings) the highest.
In six hitting — the quality that most epitomises a successful T20 batter — the 32-year-old is again No.1, hammering 51 of them. The next best from among elite sides is Rovman Powell’s 37.
“This is the kind of player he has always threatened to be,” says Abhinav Mukund, former India opening bat and now a commentator, about a player who debuted for Mumbai way back in 2010 but arrived on the international scene only in 2021.
“We have played a lot of cricket together, in the A-tour set-up, since early 2012. He has always been one of those very rebellious characters. But he is a lot calmer now and crucially has not lost his fearlessness.”
The game’s shortest format has made many a great batter’s art, Kohli’s included, seem anachronistic. But Suryakumar plays eminently futuristic cricket. If a large part of T20 tactics is about shrinking the size of the field, he manipulates space and unlocks areas of the ground like no other.
Dexterity is a standout feature of Suryakumar’s batting. In an era where bowling straight and on the stumps is one of the key tactical plays, and where fielding teams place enormous focus on defending the boundaries, especially down the ground, his ability to hit shots across the entire arc on the off-side is unparalleled.
Rival captain’s nightmare
He who can hit an inside-out drive off a short-of-a-length ball pitched on middle- and off-stump for six is special. To shuffle across, go down really low and hit a similar delivery that’s slightly pitched up over fine-leg for six is extra special.
“He has got phenomenal wrists,” says Abhinav. “And he has figured out that playing shots over fine-leg or over wide long-on is something most teams don’t have a fielder for. And he plays the cut shot really well. More importantly, he has figured out a very good stable base from where he can generate great power.”
And he is arguably the best player of spin in the World Cup squad which makes him a feared batter across the entirety of a T20 innings. The clearest evidence of this is the unbeaten 71 against Chennai Super Kings in Qualifier-1 of the 2019 IPL on a slow, turning Chepauk track against an attack comprising Harbhajan Singh, Ravindra Jadeja and Imran Tahir.
“You will hardly find him stepping out and lagao [whacking] a ball somewhere into the deep,” says Abhinav. “You will see him hit a shot over cover beautifully. You see him sweeping very well, probably the only Indian batter in the top-six who sweeps consistently. DK [Dinesh Karthik] does it a bit. It is a very good shot to have if you want to succeed [against spin].”
Fast-bowling in T20 has also evolved. Apart from the deceptive slower ones and yorkers at the death, bowling length deliveries at good pace on hard pitches — like the ones Down Under — is a tactic teams are increasingly employing. India quick Prasidh Krishna, who also plays for Rajasthan Royals, is adept at this. But the 26-year-old has often found Suryakumar incredibly hard to bowl at.
“His ability to access 360 degrees of the ground is something a bowler will be wary of,” says Prasidh. “He has a few more shots than a normal batter. [But] more than skill, it’s his confidence. He is willing to try those [shots] in the nets, and in match situations they come instinctively.
“I don’t think anybody can practise these unorthodox shots. But it is your instinct and the confidence that ensures you go through with them.”
The role of premeditation
Suryakumar has admitted that a lot of these shots, like the ramp and the scoop, are premeditated, a feature that further deepens the notion purists have of T20 cricket being morally and intellectually inferior. But their execution requires high skill, which the right-hander seemingly possesses in abundance.
“Batters will play their shots, no matter what the line or length is,” says Prasidh. “As a bowler, I would say, just try and execute the plan that the team has set for the batter and leave the rest. There is no other substitute.
“Bowlers don’t really have a step-out or a scoop, so there is no mental advantage to be had. In a way it is very simple. You try and bowl to the field and that’s about it.”
It’s part common sense and part helplessness, and teams’ success against India at the World Cup will hinge on how they negotiate this duality. Suryakumar is a known quantity and yet an enigma; a cheerfully exuberant personality who strikes fear in the bowler’s heart.