The Indian team management seldom refers to selection calls on social media. But in November, after the team was picked for the Australia T20Is and Suryakumar Yadav, widely touted to earn a maiden call-up, missed out, head coach Ravi Shastri tweeted: 'Surya Namaskar. Stay strong and patient'. An aching Yadav, not for the first time, had to patiently read tons of consolatory messages. Among those, Sachin Tendulkar's stood out. He is said to have told him: 'This is your final hurdle. Surrender yourself to the game.'
The next day, Yadav squared off for Mumbai Indians against Royal Challengers Bangalore in Dubai. Virat Kohli tried to unsettle him, constantly chirping to his in-fielders about Yadav's apparent discomfort against Yuzvendra Chahal. Yadav remained poker-faced, almost as if he couldn't hear what was being said. Yadav batted through to make an unbeaten, match-winning 43-ball 79*, and gestured to the dressing room afterwards, as if to say: 'Keep calm. Why worry when I'm here', even as a fuming Kohli stormed off. It soon became a meme that spread like wildfire on social media.
It's this calmness that has also defined the second coming of Yadav, who at 30 could become India's latest T20I debutant. Some teams have no hang ups in picking players at this age. But in India, it's particularly rare. Among specialist batsmen, you'll have to go as far back as 1981 to TE Srinivasan for a 30-plus debutant in international cricket. In T20Is, the last such instance was in 2011, when S Badrinath played his first - and only - game in the format. But Yadav's won't be an unlikely cap when he gets it. He has been an IPL regular since 2012, has an un-ignorable domestic record: a T20 strike rate of 140 across 150 innings; a List A average of 37.55 and a strike rate of 103 in 87 innings, 5326 first-class runs with 14 centuries and 26 half-centuries.
"He's mentally very tough now, but a few years earlier, I did feel he could have had someone to guide him along the right path," Chandrakant Pandit, for whose team Yadav turned up as 21-year-old and scored 182 in a club game a day after he was supposedly ruled out for Mumbai with a finger injury in the 2011 Champions League T20, says. Yadav's career began with this brush of controversy - fit one day, unfit another.
Then there were complaints about his "hot headed" avatar when he got involved in an on-field altercation with team-mate Shardul Thakur in 2014. Then there were reports of infighting and indiscipline, and Yadav was stripped of the Mumbai captaincy across formats. It was the lowest ebb to a promising career that appeared to be hitting a dead end.
"He was distracted, demoralised. It was a phase, but you define someone by how they bounce back"
Chandrakant Pandit on Yadav's earlier temperament
But somewhere in 2016, Yadav decided to break the rut, transform his attitude, fitness and batting and mental discipline. That discipline even stopped him from playing certain shots in matches until he knocked off targets set by Pandit. He changed his eating habits, started to develop muscle-strength to hit big, apart from spending hours at the nets. All these changes over the years have contributed in an India call-up. His selection isn't a punt, but a reward for churning big runs consistently season after season, both in the IPL and for Mumbai. A bit like what Mayank Agarwal did four seasons ago in the Ranji Trophy - breaking the door down and barging his way in.
"He was distracted, demoralised," Pandit says of the bad times. "It was a phase, but you define someone by how they bounce back. He acknowledged there were issues and he worked on it. That is the first step. To know there's a problem. Hats off to him."
Since the transformation, Yadav made his first big push towards the India cap in 2018-19, when he made 392 runs at a strike rate of 168 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s. In the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he batted only four times in eight games, 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 made three centuries, including a double-ton in six innings. It was higher than that of one of his middle-order competitors Manish Pandey, who kept piling on runs for fun. Yadav's strike rate (154.79) was better than anyone else. It made him genuinely believe he was going to "push the door open".
In the IPL too, Yadav has been a key player for the Mumbai Indians since 2018, now having made 400 plus runs for the last three seasons and counting. However, while his role at Mumbai Indians has been that of an anchor who steadily builds, allowing Pollard, Ishan Kishan and Hardik Pandya to don the finisher's hat, it's hard to envisage a similar setting for Yadav in the Indian team - given their potentially power-packed top-three in KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma and Kohli.
Then there's Shikhar Dhawan, who has had a phenomenal IPL, and Shreyas Iyer, an IPL franchise captain, for competition. Rishabh Pant's recent exploits in Tests - he wasn't part of the T20Is in Australia - may have virtually sealed his middle-order spot. So Yadav could well be in a situation where he may not get regular opportunities to build an innings. He could find himself having to go from ball one, with Pant and Pandya to follow. It's not ideal, but it's the reality for anyone looking to break into India's middle order. There's just too much competition.
But while some of the other middle-order contenders may still get picked ahead of him, Yadav has the advantage of having gotten used to multiple roles. He opened at Mumbai Indians in 2018 until Sharma made that spot his own, played as a finisher for Kolkata Knight Riders for much of his five seasons there, and then adapted to anchor the innings on his return to Mumbai. What works for Yadav is also he's an excellent player of spin. He hardly ever gets out to them - a variety we could see a lot of at the T20 World Cup - and scores quickly. His numbers since IPL 2018 are only behind David Warner and Kane Williamson, as he averages 54.54 while striking at 130.
At IPL 2020, he added another dimension to his batting: that of a finisher. He not just averaged 40.22 but struck them at 155.36. He counterattacked in the powerplay and showed the ability to accelerate in the death overs. He struck at 235 between overs 17 and 20 last season, faster than Pandya and just a shade off Pollard, who has struck at 210.25 at the death. Yadav has all the textbook shots and scores a lot of runs with drives through the offside, but he has also used the lap and ramp shots effectively - ask Jofra Archer who was reverse-ramped for six - scoring nearly half his runs behind the wicket this season. The change in gears is significant in Yadav's push to be an India regular.
History hasn't been too kind to India's most-recent 30-plus debutants. Three of them - Faiz Fazal, Naman Ojha and S Aravind played all of one game. Stuart Binny left the scene within two years of his debut. But for Yadav, it's a take-off point. Potentially a good series against England followed by a productive IPL could strengthen his hold of a middle order berth for the T20 World Cup. And with two more World Cups in the pipeline, he could well become a trendsetter for other 30-something players for whom the fire still burns.