Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Even Jacques Kallis was impressed. Having an informal discussion about their dominant victory over Mumbai Indians on Wednesday evening at Eden Gardens, Kallis, now the Kolkata Knight Riders' mentor, singled out Suryakumar Yadav's dashing 46 that came off 20 balls and included five sixes. "Kallis was talking about batting, and suddenly he looked towards Surya and said, 'Man, you've to teach me how to play that shot.'" Vijay Dahiya, Knight Riders' assistant coach, says.
That shot was the lap shot. Suryakumar unleashed that stroke immediately on taking guard when, off the second ball he faced, he quickly moved inside the line of a fuller-length ball from Vinay Kumar and flicked it over backward square leg for a six. Suryakumar made the shot appear effortless, but it was a stroke that sent the message to the bowler: I can hit you whatever you bowl.
Regardless of the match situation, struggling or dominant, Suryakumar always wears the same face mask: a combination of bravado and confidence. "His body language is a huge plus point because he gives you the impression that he is always in control of things," Dahiya says.
Knight Riders were aware of the previous instances when they had lost the match from winning position despite having wickets in the bag. On Wednesday, they adapted quickly deciding not to stretch the match to the last over just because they had more batsmen like Shakib Al Hasan and a powerful hitter in Andre Russell yet to come.
Manish Pandey triggered this positive approach which was taken further by Knight Riders captain Gautam Gambhir who trampled on the Mumbai Indians spin pair of Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha to swing the momentum quickly into the home team's favour. But such a bold strategy has to be laced with risk. As Pandey lofted Harbhajan into the hands of Kieron Pollard at long-on, Suryakumar walked in quickly. It was a bit of surprise to see him bat ahead of Shakib, who was their fifth-highest run-scorer last season.
But the move to promote Suryakumar was part of the plan. "At that time we wanted to send somebody who could rotate the strike and has ability to hit the big fours every over. And that is what you need in the middle overs. He is a very busy sort of a player," Dahiya points out.
These days, especially in compressed format like Twenty20, every player is handled particular roles. Last season Suryakumar was performing the finisher's role. This season it is more flexible where he has been asked to bat in the middle order and play according to the match situation.
Incidentally Yadav does not bat in the nets the day before the match. Instead, he sets himself a challenge while taking throwdowns from Dahiya. "We always plan. For example you are playing last 24 balls of an innings. He sets the target, say 35-45 runs." And that is how Suryakumar puts on the match-face in the days leading to the actual match.
Understanding your role is one thing. But coaches also value players who mature over the years and start taking their own decisions. Suryakumar has improved steadily from least season in that respect. "Let us not forget about the kind of knocks [he played] for us last year. The franchise values him so much because in those crunch situations where there is so much of a pressure he would go out and take off the pressure from the other guy as well," Dahiya says. What also helps is Suryakumar is never shy to walk up to Gambhir or the coaching staff to figure out what his role is and what the team needs, so he is aware what is needed of him.
According to Ajit Agarkar, former Mumbai and India fast bowler, who has led Suryakumar at Mumbai in first-class cricket, there is a marked difference between the way the youngster prepares in domestic cricket compared to the IPL. So Suryakumar's ability to adapt across formats is one big change that people, who have seen for long, point out.
According to Praveen Amre, the former Mumbai coach under whom Suryakumar made his Mumbai debut, for this format he has a distinct style. "He has his own approach. Even if opposition captains put fielders to challenge him to go for the lap shot, Surya still takes them on," Amre said recently. When Amre returned to coach Mumbai last season after a gap of three years, he immediately noticed the change in Suryakumar. "He seems more calmer now."
When Suryakumar walked in to bat on Wednesday, the asking rate was nearly nine per over with Knight Riders needing 71 runs from the last eight overs. By the time Gambhir left, 48 runs were still needed from 34 deliveries. The very next ball Suryakumar flicked Mumbai's young pace bowler Jasprit Bumrah over long leg for his second six. He would hit Bumrah for two further sixes and when Lasith Malinga tossed a full toss, Suryakumar lustily clubbed it for a straight six to reduce the margin to four runs from the final two overs.
Domestic cricket brought Suryakumar to the notice of the franchises but it is at Knight Riders where he is polishing his skills especially in terms of mental discipline which he is steadily taking back to his Mumbai cricket. He is still far from a finished product. Having started off on a confident note as Mumbai captain last seaon, Suryakumar was asked to step down from the leadership position because of disciplinary measures.
Last IPL Suryakumar remained unbeaten on five occasions, the most for an uncapped player. Out of those five times, Knight Riders finished thrice as winners - twice while batting first and once while chasing. He was also the only uncapped player to score 100-plus runs in the last five overs of the innings last year.
Of all his innings the most crucial one came against Rajasthan Royals in Abu Dhabi. Knight Riders were under pressure at 85 for 3 while chasing 153. Only seven overs were left. The match finished in a tie with Suryakumar making 31 from 19 balls.
One big reason last year's IPL was a transformative one for Suryakumar also because Knight Riders gave him continuity. He was part of the group of players that played all 16 matches. This was in contrast to a single match he played during his three years at Mumbai Indians. "That [continuity] gives you confidence and a sense of responsibility and you think the team is banking on me and I need to go out and execute," Dahiya says.
Players like Suryakumar now understand that one good over is what can turn a match. A few bad balls from the opponent can swing momentum in your favour. Against Mumbai, batting on 26, having hit a six on the third ball off Bumrah, Suryakumar was hit on the helmet by a well-directed bouncer. The next ball Suryakumar stayed still, and when Bumrah delivered a full toss, Suryakumar sent it into the stands behind long-on. Nothing changed. No pressure.