The making of a marauder
It's easy to find Yusuf Pathan's house in Vadodara. All you have to do is tell the nearest taxi or rickshaw driver to take you there. No address required, just his name is enough. Along the way the driver is also likely to let you know that Yusuf is the kind of player who can take any bowling attack apart, anywhere in the world - an assertion that those who have watched Yusuf's last few innings would be hard-pressed to deny.
I met Yusuf at his family home a couple days before he was due to leave for South Africa. He was dressed in a dark green kurta and sat on a wooden swing in a small rectangular garden running alongside the driveway. He exuded a quiet confidence, and for a big man with a violent game, was very soft-spoken. He grew up playing cricket with his half-brother Irfan. The two boys would play in the mosque where their father is an Imam, taking turns bowling and batting, but people complained they made too much noise. So they moved to the street, playing with a tennis ball, before they joined the Baroda Sports Club and found themselves under the tutelage of Mehendi Sheikh and Bashir Sheikh.
From there they quickly moved on to age-group cricket and continued up the ladder to first-class cricket. Along the way they received plenty of encouragement from senior players such as Jacob Martin and Connor Williams. "They would keep telling us to keep practising hard, keep putting in the effort and that one day you will play for India," Yusuf said. "So we kept working and now we are playing for India."
Bashir died in 2002, and to this day Mehendi remains one of the few people that Yusuf will listen to about cricket. Snehal Parekh, the secretary of the Baroda Cricket Association, says Yusuf is the kind of player who has his own inner circle and does not take kindly to anyone outside that trusted group giving him advice. "You can't guide them," he says. "You can't tell them much. They have they have their own friends and one or two mentors."
Pinal Shah, Baroda's 23-year-old captain, agrees with that assessment, saying, "Yusuf is very aggressive in his approach to the game and not only in his batting. He can lift the team with his performance. But you have to handle him well; he needs a lot of independence. But I can still go and tell him, 'Yusuf bhai, so-and-so needs to be done'."
One person with whom Yusuf does talk cricket all the time is Irfan. The brothers share a close bond and are constantly encouraging each other. "It is beneficial to both of us to share our thoughts on the game," Yusuf said. He says Irfan always told him he would do well in South Africa and Australia "because the bounce is good and the ball comes on to the bat well. So there I can play my strokes".
He certainly did that in the recent ODI series against South Africa, making a match-winning 59 in third game before uncorking a vicious hundred in Centurion that almost stole the game and series from South Africa.
"I never have any doubts," Yusuf said that day in the garden. "I know what I can do. The team also knows that if I am still at the wicket, then I can win the game."
It is why he also dismisses those who question his ability to handle the short ball. Prior to the tour there were reservations about his ability to handle such deliveries on hard pitches outside the subcontinent, especially since he prefers to commit to the front foot to take advantage of anything pitched up. For the time being at least, Yusuf has answered those questions.
His approach in South Africa was simple: wait for anything that was in his zone and then club it to the boundary. He was hit on the body twice in Cape Town and once in Centurion, but he didn't let it bother him. Like a heavyweight boxer who doesn't need a jab because he has a devastating knockout punch, he waited for his opening. It proved to be a singularly effective strategy, as poor Lonwabo Tsotsobe can testify. In that Centurion game Yusuf hit him for two fours and two sixes in the same over, including one that was effectively a flick off his toes, yet the ball sailed over the long-on boundary. It was a sign that he is beginning to make the most of his strengths, which reflects his growing maturity as a cricketer.
"With experience, he is getting better," Irfan said. "He is learning what to do and what not to do. He knows that even if he waits for two balls, the third ball will give him a chance to hit it. That is how he practises as well. He goes in the nets and makes sure to be aggressive." That aggression is Yusuf's hallmark, and the reason his aura will always be greater than his numbers. He may get out cheaply but he can also grab the game by the scruff of its neck and leave the opposition wishing they had taken up a different sport.
"He knows his game very well," Irfan said. "So even if he gets out playing a shot, he will continue to play his shots in the next game. Some batsmen play defensive shots and get out, but that doesn't mean they don't play defensive shots in the next game. If he [Yusuf] thinks he can hit the ball, he will hit the ball. And more often than not he is successful."
While Yusuf can make decimating an attack look easy, what people don't see is how hard he works on his craft. He often spends hours practising at the Baroda Sports Club. After Baroda had eliminated Railways in the quarter-final of the Ranji Trophy on the basis of a first-innings lead, Yusuf stayed on the field and asked the groundsmen to put the nets up on the same pitch. "He was taking batting practice for an hour," Parekh said. "He is very focused."
Parekh, who is the only man to have made a first-class hundred on debut for Baroda, said three years ago the association decided Yusuf was ready for more responsibility and made him the vice-captain of the side. "What I told him was, 'You should be ready for the match as if you were the captain, as Jacob Martin (then Baroda captain), could get injured and leave the ground and you have to be ready. Be involved in the game.'"
He believes the leadership role has spurred Yusuf to mature and show a willingness to take responsibility for his team's performance; a willingness that is reflected in Yusuf's own comments about the season. "There was a need this year in the Baroda team because Irfan was not playing. As a senior player I needed to take more initiative. Everyone was watching. It is good that we have success and have gotten good results."
Another influence on Yusuf's development has been Shane Warne, under whom he played for three years with the Rajasthan Royals. "He told me always when I am batting to play my shots," Yusuf said. "He would say, 'If you feel like the first ball is one you should hit, even if you get out on the first ball, if you feel you should play your shots from the first ball, play them. Don't worry about getting out.'"
His epic 37-ball hundred against the Mumbai Indians in their opening game of the 2010 IPL is the direct result of that philosophy - an innings that Warne called the best he had ever seen. "That innings told me that we can win from anywhere," Yusuf said. "We lost that match, but the way I played - 100 from 37 balls - made it a contest. And I have played these kinds of knocks before. From positions of no hope, I have won matches.
"Unfortunately I was run out. Otherwise we would have won that match. I guess the lesson is, when I have made a hundred and I'm batting well, I shouldn't leave the crease."
The IPL turned out to be the perfect showcase for Yusuf's talents and, in his opinion, hastened his rise to the international ranks. "The way I performed in the IPL, I got a good platform. Because I was playing well in Ranji Trophy before that also, so probably it would have taken me longer to get here. The IPL gave me a name. It gave me a new identity." That identity was rewarded many times over when the Kolkata Knight Riders bought him for US$2.1 million in the 2011 player auction earlier this year.
Success in the IPL, however, has not dimmed or muddled his ambitions one iota. Yusuf wants to play for India in all three forms of the game. "Everyone who plays cricket, their goals are to play the highest standard of cricket and all formats of cricket. Obviously those are my goals also. I want to play everything."
He says he is comfortable batting in whatever position in the order the team needs him to bat in, because "I have come to understand that whatever position I play, from there I can carry the innings or the team. I have won many matches that way." It might sound arrogant to say, but for Yusuf it is merely a self-evident truth.
Not that it has always been smooth sailing for him. He made his ODI debut in 2008, but lost his place in the side in late 2009 after some mediocre performances. Here too his innate self-belief stood him in good stead and helped him keep things in perspective. "These things happen. Sometimes people are dropped. Sometimes people are in the team. Sometimes you do well. Sometimes you don't do so well. These things go on happening in a cricketer's life, so you can't think something is wrong. You just have to keep putting in the effort and things will take care of themselves."
Yusuf's other advantage is his offspin. He has been working hard on his bowling, and this Ranji season took as many wickets, 24, as India offspinner R Ashwin did in the same number of matches, but with a significantly better average and strike rate: 17.75 and 37.70 to Ashwin's 24.20 and 54.50. If Yusuf can continue to develop his bowling to the point where he is a genuine wicket-taking allrounder, he will be that much more valuable to the team, especially in the shorter versions of the game.
He is eager to play in the World Cup, saying he "will go mad if we win". He considers playing at home a big advantage and does not think the expectations of the fans will put added pressure on the team. "How can there be pressure when you are playing in front of your own people, who give you so much support?"
I tell him what the rickshaw driver told me on the way over and for a moment he loosens up and lets out a big laugh. "Bring the driver in here. I'd like to meet him". He is careful not to take his fans for granted.
After the interview is over Yusuf heads for namaaz, but stops to take pictures with two teenage boys who had been waiting outside his house.
Off the field, he likes to keep a low profile. The high life is not for him. He prefers to stay at home and spend time with his family and friends ("I like family time"). He is also grateful for all the support he has received from the people around him. "My father, my mother, my friends, everyone supported us. It can't happen without family support. Nobody has ever said not to do this."
The way he is going, nobody ever will.
Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo