Tim Notke is not a very famous name in the basketball fraternity. He is a high-school coach, teaching kids about the sport, but that’s about it. A Google search about him might not yield much personal information, but what it will yield, is tens and hundreds of iterations of a simple, yet powerful quote.
“Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard.”
Talent, for all of its allure, is the quintessential double-edged sword. If a player undermines it, accusations of ‘not living up to the potential’ are imminent. If it is over-estimated, downfall becomes a certainty.
Every player, for whom words like ‘decent’ and ‘good’ were ever used, is invariably talented. But what separates the good players from the greats is the implementation and utilisation of talent – something that Suryakumar Yadav has mastered.
Suryakumar, or SKY, as he is affectionately called, always had talent. His first coach at the BARC cricket camp, Ashok Aswalkar will happily testify, as he once was spellbound by the hitting prowess of the then ten-year-old child. In an interview with ESPNCricinfo, Aswalkar remembered once asking SKY “Tum itna lamba lamba kaise maarta hai?” (How do you hit the ball so long?)
Aswalkar knew very well that the kid was meant for great things, and in 2010, a 20-year-old SKY announced his arrival at the domestic circuit.
Being Content With Humble Achievements
Between IPL 2012 to IPL 2017, SKY became a known figure in IPL. He had played 55 matches, 54 of them coming for Kolkata Knight Riders, and had accumulated 608 runs. His role was specific – come to bat at number six or seven, play the last few overs and simply hit the ball anywhere he likes.
The aesthetics did not matter, and neither did the milestones. An 8-ball 20 sufficed – the team and the player were both satisfied. Unsurprisingly, he scored only one half-century in those 55 matches.
Yet, five years later, he is the best batter in T20I cricket, India’s most prized asset in the shortest format, and most importantly, the biggest protagonist the team has had in years.
How did the transformation take place?
Essentially, SKY was a character artist in his very own movie – not insignificant, but bounded by its limitations, with no aspiration to emerge as the protagonist.
Behind the Scenes of ‘Project SKY'
Suryakumar met his wife, Devisha Shetty, during his college days. By then, his cricket skills were already well-documented among the local circles, but whilst basking in the grandeur of the next-big-thing tag, he also undermined the most essential trait of greats – discipline.
A few cameos here and there for KKR were enough to provide contentment. For SKY, the sky was not really the limit – it was the boundaries he had set for himself. Unless, in 2018, all of that changed, and SKY became, in the true essence of the word, limitless.
From a purely cricketing perspective, rejoining Mumbai Indians in IPL 2018 did wonders for him, as from a lower-middle order batter, he became a finisher. The change in batting position brought about a significant change in performance, but while that was noticed by all, a much bigger transformation took place behind the scenes.
Around 2018, the once happy-go-lucky SKY let go of his vices, once and for all, but mainly, for his better half.
In an interview with The Indian Express, Devisha recalled asking the batter” As an individual and a cricketer, you are capable of much more than you have achieved till now. So why don’t you push harder?”
The push came to shove, and ‘Project SKY’ was underway.
“He started taking everything a little more seriously. The commitment meant not just signing up to deepen his resolve to play for India, but leaving behind an entire way of indulgent, hedonistic life. He has no vices now; he may have had when he was younger, but he is much more in control of himself now,” Devisha recalled.
SKY was not the most ill-disciplined player one could come across – far from it, rather. He has been utterly committed to the sport and the craft of batting since the very day when he first harboured dreams of becoming a cricket.
However, for any modern-day cricketer, the sport itself is not all, but only a part of a massive professional sphere, which also contains aspects like diet, nutrition and exercise – something SKY was not too attentive to, during his initial days.
“He would work out earlier, but he would not be that strict with what he was eating. There would be phases. He would crash-diet for two-to-three months, he would get into shape, and then he would stop the diet. But now, for him, it has become a lifestyle. It is no longer just a diet that he has to follow,” Devisha stated.
Hedonism to Hard Work
In a year, SKY ditched hedonism for hard work, leaving his comfort world of self-indulgence to achieve what has always been his ultimate target. “After 2018 I realised what I needed to work on in my game. I started batting more towards the off side. I started dieting. Did a few things which really helped me in 2019 and 2020. And going forward, in 2020 my body was completely different,” he recalled, speaking with ESPNCricinfo.
The results are here for all to see, and they are exemplary.
The 32-year-old scored 2036 runs in his last five IPL seasons – more than thrice of his total tally in the first five seasons. Ever since he made his T20I debut in July 2021, Suryakumar has scored the most runs in his format for India.
In a team that features some of the most elegant batters of the game in Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, SKY has not only carved his own existence, but he has also attained the rare stature of being indispensable.
The transformation from being a convenient supporting actor to a protagonist is not only a testament to a player’s might, but it also highlights an underlying message for everyone who had ever dared to aspire – the best use of limit is that as a mathematical function, for as SKY proved, any and every individual could be limitless.