The giant steps of Yashasvi Jaiswal

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Author 2019-10-31 13:55:32

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MUMBAI: Yashasvi Jaiswal couldn’t be sure. After he had secured a century, his exact score eluded him, as it normally did in matches with no on-ground scoreboard. As the opening batsman for Mumbai, he had seen off a tricky, swinging spell from Jharkhand’s opening bowlers, stepping things up once the wicket improved. As he approached 186, after an interlude of flashy play, his coach and teammates began to indicate that this was not the time for heroics. He calmed down.

Though he didn’t know it then, when he crossed the 200 mark, eventually finishing on 203 off 154 balls in that Vijay Hazare Trophy game on 16 October, he would become the youngest player to score a double century in List-A cricket, at 17 years and 292 days.

It also marked his 59th century since he began playing at the school level in Mumbai and add to his tally of at least a dozen double centuries.

Jaiswal, born in Suriya, Uttar Pradesh, the son of a shopkeeper and a teacher, has played for India’s Under-19 and Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy teams, and was player of the tournament at last year’s Under-19 Asia Cup. With a burgeoning reputation as a promising all-rounder, the slender, 6ft-tall boy is already having greatness thrust upon him.

On a Friday afternoon, a fortnight after the record-setting effort, he was at the nets above a small gym in Santacruz; a first-floor space shrouded in blue tarpaulin, white lights and ceiling fans that did little to dispel the humidity.

He had woken up at 6 that morning, meditated for an hour and turned up for the usual 4-5 hours of daily practice. In blue shorts, an aquamarine T-shirt, and pads with “believe" and “become" emblazoned on them, Jaiswal went through his repertoire. He swept, he drove, he pulled, he cut.

“Cricket is a game where 40 out of 50 times you aren’t successful," he says. “Ten times you succeed. The best thing is to enjoy. The day you get runs it’s important to be happy because other days it’s not so easy. You need to be normal whether it’s going well or not."

At the moment, life is mostly going well for Jaiswal, and his phone hasn’t stopped ringing as the buzz around him gathers momentum. Mumbai’s cricket grounds have given India Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rohit Sharma, and for the emerging left-handed wunderkind, there is already talk of a possible IPL (Indian Premier League) bid, and a future India cap.

His coach and mentor Jwala Singh monitored the morning’s practice, periodically intervening with words or gestures. Jaiswal lives with Singh, whose carefully calibrated approach is centred on one principle: Don’t overdo it. “It’s about doing the right things. Doing more tires out your muscles," says Singh, 37, who runs his own academy, Mumbai Cricket Club. “Every player should know how much fitness to do, their diet, how much to focus on skill. Balanced practice is more important."

Hearing the word diet, Jaiswal chuckles. “When I was young, I wasn’t thinking about a diet, I was thinking, how do I eat food?"

When Jaiswal, the fourth of six children, first arrived from Uttar Pradesh to play cricket at the age of 10, the immediate challenge wasn’t how to hit cover drives or score centuries, but more basic: where to sleep, how to eat, where to bathe. In the early months, he stayed with an uncle, then worked briefly at a dairy, from where he was turfed out two months later for working less and playing more.

Eventually, he started staying at the Muslim United Club’s tent at Azad Maidan, Mumbai, where the gardeners and ground staff lived—he spent about three years there. He had to use the public toilets at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and served pani puris in the evenings, at times even to his teammates to earn a spot of cash. “Who would like this?" he asks. “It didn’t feel good. But I thought it’s okay, let it go."

His kit was borrowed or donated. Meals were a gamble. Literally. Every day he would wager against coaches and other players: “If you get me out, I will give you ₹100, if I get you out, you have to give me ₹100". Plenty of people came to the maidan to play, so there were enough bets to place and win, usually enough to pay for food. “It used to work out for me," he says.

What worked out even better was when Singh happened to be at Azad Maidan one day in December 2013. Now it was Singh’s turn to gamble—on a youngster who was fluently stroking the ball that evening. “Another batsman said it was a rubbish wicket but (Jaiswal) was batting well," Singh recalls. “I told the boy, look at him, it should be bad for him too."

Something about Jaiswal’s temperament and backstory struck a chord with him. Singh, an all-rounder, had also come to Mumbai 24 years ago from Uttar Pradesh hoping to play. Both men had slept in dairies, foraged for a livelihood and struggled to stay afloat. Singh never made it big, but he was determined that Jaiswal would.

What set Jaiswal apart wasn’t his skill, the coach says, but something that was harder to teach: determination. “I don’t look at the cricket," says Singh. “Technique we can teach, we are coaches. The main thing is attitude…. I knew this guy won’t give up."

When Singh first started training Jaiswal in 2013, the boy was weak, and suffered constantly from knee injuries. Because instead of resting when he needed to, he would train harder in the mistaken belief that he wasn’t fit enough.

But at that physically formative age, Jaiswal needed proper nutrition rather than misguided determination. “Underprivileged kids, those without facilities, their muscles don’t develop correctly and when you put pressure, they give trouble," says Singh. “This was a big challenge with him. But luckily we intervened in time."

In a personal highlights reel that is awash in runs and wickets, Jaiswal believes his strength is his staying power, his ability to not just play big shots but persevere through an innings. It’s a fortitude built out of struggle, of living through uncertainty. “In any situation I can manage, nothing frightens me," he says. “I keep fighting, that’s my goal. That mindset was built from there; there is nothing you get for free. You have to do everything for yourself."

The transition from age-bracketed games to a higher level has been swift, but also instructive; the players he faces now are fitter, stronger, smarter. “I had to adjust, it’s not that easy playing international (level) bowlers," he says. “It’s important to believe in yourself. No one is going to give it to you easily. You have to earn it."

Often teenagers anointed as the “Next Big Thing" shine brightly for a brief time and burn out, wilting under outsized expectations or early success. It’s part of the reason why Jaiswal is completely off social media, on the instructions of his coach. “I tell him, everyone is successful but to be a legend you have to compromise a lot," Singh says. “There are so many T20 leagues, youngsters start earning well, they get fans, people send messages. You can get carried away or distracted."

Now, aside from working on technique and fitness, Jaiswal, who speaks Hindi and Marathi, is working on his English-language skills by reading newspapers and watching movies.

When he first arrived in Mumbai, there wasn’t much on his mind apart from the burning urge to play. When things seemed rough, Jaiswal often thought of giving up and going home. But he didn’t. “I had come with the thought I should achieve something here."

Now there is the possibility of playing for India, like his idols Tendulkar and Wasim Jaffer.

But the boy with the record, the boy on everyone’s radar, still feels like the boy who just came to play. “What has to happen will happen," he says. “I have to concentrate on the process, and the next tournament, the Deodhar Trophy. That’s it."

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

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