Gautam Gambhir stationed himself at mid-off for the first ball of Delhi Daredevils' match against Mumbai Indians on Sunday. Trent Boult bowled it, and Suryakumar Yadav drove it straight and hard, so hard that Gambhir fumbled it and the batsmen ran two. Two balls later, Suryakumar drove even straighter, further to Gambhir's right, and picked up four.
This was a different Suryakumar to the version Gambhir had captained at Kolkata Knight Riders from 2014 to 2017. Gambhir mostly used Suryakumar in the lower middle order, where he only had time for cameos: in 45 innings for Knight Riders, Suryakumar batted at No. 6 or lower 32 times for a top score of 43 not out.
Now he was opening the batting, and was on his way to scoring only his second IPL half-century. By the time he was done, he had scored 53 off 32 balls, top-scored for Mumbai for the second time in three matches, and become their leading scorer this season. With 124 runs at an average of 41.33 and a strike rate of 134.78, he now sits fourth on the overall list of top run-getters.
"I have always enjoyed batting higher up the order because you get that extra time and go out there and express yourself," Suryakumar said after the match. "You can say that because the few innings I've played in the past, I have not gotten this opportunity to bat high up the order and take it ahead from there. This is a good opportunity for me as well to grab it and take the momentum from here.
"I am hitting the ball well in the practice sessions and as the games are going on, I would really love if I can take it ahead and bat longer for 40-50 balls, it will help me and the team."
Suryakumar sounded happier than he looked because his team had just endured another final-over defeat, their third in three matches. Mumbai have endured a frustrating start to the season, but there has been personal contentment for Suryakumar, who has been given a prominent role at his hometown franchise.
In the first two games of the season, Suryakumar batted at No. 4, ahead of Kieron Pollard and the Pandya brothers, and scored a fluent 29-ball 43 in the season-opener against Chennai Super Kings.
After their second loss last week, to Sunrisers Hyderabad, the Mumbai team management went up to Suryakumar and asked him if he would bat even higher, at No. 3, and he agreed. On the flight from Hyderabad to Mumbai, the captain and team management approached Suryakumar again and this time asked him if he was ready to open in the home game against Daredevils.
The Wankhede Stadium is Suryakumar's home ground when he represents Mumbai in domestic cricket and the decision-makers felt his familiarity with the conditions and knowledge of how the new ball would behave would help them get a rapid start. Suryakumar agreed again and said to himself: "Let's take that challenge and responsibility and go ahead."
And he was on song. At ease against both pace and spin, he collected runs with technically sound strokes that weren't slogs or premeditated. He barely sent the ball in the air during the Powerplay, and when he did, he sent it far from the fielders. The first came in the third over against Boult when a bouncer rose close to his throat and Suryakumar ramped it high and fine for a one-bounce four. This prompted a tweet from Ian Bishop, the former West Indies fast bowler.
Suryakumar Yadav played a duck-ramp shot for four off Tent Bolt. Tells me everything I need to know about how batting skill has accelerated in the modern game. How can critics say there's only power and little skill in T20 batting?— ian bishop (@irbishi) April 14, 2018
Two overs later, Mohammed Shami banged in an innocuous short ball down the leg side and Suryakmar sent it sailing it over the fine-leg boundary, knowing full well the fielder was inside the 30-yard circle.
Suryakumar was at home in more ways than one. He has batted plenty of times at the Wankhede, and had tasted T20 glory here very recently. In March, he had captained Triumph Knights in the Mumbai T20 league - the Mumbai Cricket Association's T20 league - and scored a match-winning 90 not out off 42 balls on the same ground in the final. This, moreover, was his second stint at Mumbai Indians. He had represented them until 2013 too, before he was bought by Knight Riders at the 2014 auction for INR 70 lakh.
"Surya did exceptionally well for us before he moved over to Kolkata," Mumbai Indians batting coach Robin Singh said before the 2018 season began. "He has grown as a player. He has understood his game really well. I love the way he plays spin. He is one of the better players of spin bowling in this part of the world. Plus, he knows the wicket here better than anybody else. It's his home ground. I think he can probably give a few tips to the young guys on how to play here."
Despite being Mumbai's leading run-scorer so far, he may have slipped under the radar somewhat for the spectators at the Wankhede, who have seen pyrotechnics from visiting batsmen such as Dwayne Bravo and Jason Roy. If he sustains his form, however, and if that form helps his team recover from their run of three straight losses, he won't go unnoticed for too much longer.