As an 11-year-old, Yashasvi Jaiswal lived in tents, sold pani puri's, slept starving for nights and played cricket with the bare minimum facilities but now seven years later, he's a vital cog of India U-19 team at the World Cup in South Africa and already a crorepati with a 2.4 crore contract in the Indian Premier League with Rajasthan Royals.

***

"Life normal hi hai, kuch itna bohot bada change nahi hai (life is normal, there is no big change). I am doing what I was in the past and I have to continue doing the same."

It's an uncharacteristically warm December morning. Clad in an orange-striped black tracksuit, Yashasvi Jaiswal sits in the chair opposite to me, calm and relaxed. Yet his tone is intense and it remains almost the same throughout our chat as he talks about the famous double century that thrust him into the limelight.

We are at the newly launched Mumbai Cricket Club (MCC) in a secluded Anand Nagar, about 10 km away from the Thane district station. Jaiswal is enjoying a well-earned couple of days off post the rigorous pre-U-19 World Cup camp in Bengaluru. Just minutes ago he was handing out instructions and advice to the students of the academy run by his coach and mentor Jwala Singh, but as he settles down and starts off chronicling his life story, he becomes intense, bearing a look of a man who just strode out to bat at 17/4 and is confident of single-handedly chasing down 285 in a World Cup final.

Yashasvi Jaiswal in action for India U-19 team. Getty

Just a couple of months ago, Jaiswal, at 17 years and 292 days, grabbed headlines by shattering the world record to become the youngest player to hit a List A double century. Opening for Mumbai, Jaiswal smashed 203 off 154 balls against Jharkhand at the KSCA Ground in Alur in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. The youngster is the latest name in the long list of prodigies produced by Mumbai maidans.

"Earlier people didn't know me. I was an unknown name but now a few of them in the cricketing fraternity know me," Jaiswal pauses, "Maybe...I don't know.

"But yes, after that innings, I am improving as a cricketer. The double century has instilled massive motivation. It will always keep reminding me during the bad times that I had done well and I can perform much better."

To put things into perspective, Jaiswal beat the previous youngest, Alan Barrow of South Africa, by almost three years, and became just the seventh Indian batsmen to hit a double century in List A cricket. Not to forget, he was playing in his senior List A debut tournament.

It's not all about the double hundred, though. That was just the spark needed for ignition. Jaiswal has been riding the crest of a wave for the last one year through his consistent performances in age-group cricket. In the last 15 months, since that match-winning century in the final of the U-19 Asia Cup against Sri Lanka in October 2018, Jaiswal has averaged 56.44 in all formats combined. (Youth Tests — Inns: 2, runs: 197, average: 98.50, 100s: 1. Youth ODIs — Inns: 16, runs: 727, average: 55.92, 100/50: 1/7. First-class — Inns: 1, runs: 20, average: 20.00. List-A — Inns: 13, runs: 779, average: 70.81, 100/50: 3/3. Overall — Inns: 39, runs: 1919, average: 56.44, 100/50:5/10)

Yes, that double century has given him the recognition but he remains firmly grounded. "Abhi to kyaa hi cricket khela hu mai? Aur bohot aage jaana hai ( How much have I played so far? I have a long way to go)," he says with a straight face.

Hamari zindagi me kuch change nahi aaya,” a smiling Jwala Singh says. “He still makes tea for me in the evening, gives me a massage and buys vegetables from the market.”

Jaiswal comes out as a phlegmatic personality and doesn't get emotional easily even as he talks about his early struggles. His is a classic rag to riches story scripted by the Mumbai maidans.

As an 11-year-old, he lived in tents, sold pani puri's, slept starving for nights and played cricket with the bare minimum facilities but now seven years later, he's a vital cog for the Indian U-19 team at the World Cup in South Africa and already a crorepati with a Rs 2.4 crore contract in the Indian Premier League (IPL) with Rajasthan Royals.

Yashasvi Jaiswal takes a picture with the students of MCC academy. Image courtesy Jigar Mehta/Firstpost

It's a crucial phase in Jaiswal's career. The U-19 World Cup has served as a launchpad in the past for the likes of Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Cheteshwar Pujara, Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill to enter the big league.

It's Jaiswal's chance to grab the opportunity this time around.

"Strength badha, fast bowler hai tu, kyaa kar raha hai, yeh pace nahi chalega (Increase your strength, you are a fast bowler, what are your doing? This pace won't work),” Jaiswal quietly instructs one of the budding fast bowlers in the academy nets as he watches from the sidelines.

"Ande, doodh and kele khaao...saste aur asardaar (Eat eggs, bananas and drink milk, cheap and effective for your body)."

He already sounds like a 20-year-experienced veteran about to play his fifth World Cup or something. The big boy looks ready to take the first step towards the big league.

***

Mumbai maidans are known to be the breeding ground for cricketing dreams. The Azad Maidan, spread over 25 acres of land, in south Mumbai is one of the more popular ones. This is where Jaiswal's story started. The early chapters of that story were all about his day-to-day struggles.

When Jaiswal, son of a small-time shopkeeper in Bhadohi in Uttar Pradesh, arrived in Mumbai to pursue his cricketing dream, he didn't have a place to live. There was support in uncle Santosh but the lack of space at his house meant that the 11-year-old started living and working in a dairy in Kalbadevi, South Mumbai. Juggling between cricket and work didn’t come easy though, and he was soon kicked out by the owner for not working enough.

He then found a new home at the Muslim United Club’s tent at the Azad Maidan, where the gardener and groundsmen used to live, with the help of his Pappu sir with whom he practiced at the Maidan. That wasn't the end of the struggle though.

At an age when kids go to school, play with friends and siblings, have the privilege of getting unconditional love from parents, Jaiswal was all on his own, fighting for daily survival, selling pani puri's and fruits outside the maidan and umpiring in age group matches to make ends meet. It was "embarrassing" serving food to the kids he used to play with at the maidan, but he didn't have an option. The money sent by parents, who were financially weak, wouldn’t suffice. Some nights were sleepless, many starved.

Yashasvi Jaiswal in his early days.

Image courtesy Jwala Singh
Image courtesy Jwala Singh

“One day, the gardener in my tent assigned me some work,” Jaiswal recalls. "I was extremely tired that day so I declined. We ended up having a fight, he was elder and hit me. I wept and went away. I told myself that day, 'maar liya bhai maar le, mera bhi time aayega' (You’ve hit me, that’s fine. Take advantage of being the elder, my time will come one day)."

There was no electricity or washroom in the tent, the only option was to walk down to public toilets at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, about half a kilometer away. Washing clothes and cooking food added to his daily work list along with playing cricket with minimal equipment.

"Pehle to aisa hota tha ki koi match accha khel liya to bhai koi bat dede, gloves dede, pads dede, aise aise karke mai apna chala leta tha (Earlier if I played well in a match I would ask for bat, gloves or pads from the seniors)," Jaiswal recalls. "The seniors used to give me their extra kit. Today I have the kit so the kids who can't afford it, I provide it to them because once upon a time I didn't have anything and someone had helped me in the time of need."

There was no point in getting depressed with the struggle. So, the 11-year-old started enjoying them.

“You have to battle for everything in Mumbai. Even for water, there is a fight and if you want to go to the washroom, you have to stand in a serpentine queue outside public urinals. There is a fight while catching the local trains. So there is a fight for everything, nothing comes to you easy. So that stuck in my mind. I started taking everything as a challenge. And even if I won the smallest of challenges, it gave me ample happiness and satisfaction. It started becoming fun.

"In my tent there was no water, electricity, washroom, but I used to enjoy it a lot because I was the first one at the ground and the last one as well," Jaiswal gets a bit animated for the first time. "It was an opportunity for me to practice more, I used to do drills at night. I used to practice running between the wickets so when everyone had left and I was the only one practicing, it gave me a different level of confidence: 'Mai sabse zyaada kar raaha hu' (I am practicing more than others). These small things instilled confidence in me. Even now I try to accomplish those small challenges.”

The positivity helped but reality hit hard. It was difficult to manage work, cricket and daily fights, day in, day out. The performance dropped and ultimately there arrived a point when he decided to head back to the village.

***

One fine day Jaiswal happened to meet Singh and life took a turn.

"The first time I saw Yashasvi was in 2013 December," Singh recalls. "I was visiting Azad maidan and there was a very rough wicket where 'A' division level batsmen were struggling but Yashasvi was playing well. I asked one of my friends, who is this boy? He said he's from UP and has some massive problems and struggle. He has no guardian, he stays here at the ground."

Singh could quickly relate to Jaiswal's story because his life story followed a similar path when he came to Mumbai to pursue his cricketing dreams in 1995 which somehow ended abruptly, and that's when he decided to Jaiswal under his wing and brought him home.

"A lot of kids have a decent game. If you go by skills, in Mumbai maidans, you will find a kid batting well every 2-3 nets. But basically, I was impressed with his story. I had started imagining myself. The same village, the same struggle, the same cricket, the same talent. The only and most crucial thing needed was support. So, I told myself I have to back this kid. Shayad uppar wala mujhe ek mauka de raha hai ki tum doosro ke dreams ke through apne dreams ko sakar lo. (God is giving me a chance to fulfill my dreams through someone else's)."

Things slowly started falling into place. The first and most important thing Singh did was weed the web of fear out of Jaiswal's mind.

"When he came to me he was very scared, he had so many doubts in his mind. He used to meet weird people and was always discouraged by people who use to scare him saying: Tera kuch hoga hi nahi zindagi me, wapas chale jaa. Mumbai me bahar wale ko khilate nahi hai. (You will go nowhere in your life, go back, outsiders don’t get a chance in Mumbai)."

Devoid of proper nutrition, Jaiswal had already started picking up injuries at a young age, so Singh also worked on his diet and provided him with better equipment on the field.

"I removed all the negativity, there was a lot of it. Once you did that, the skill wasn't an issue," Singh says.

That mental conditioning coupled with the passion for the game and the proverbial 'no option in life' forged steel into Jaiswal's mind. It has made him battle-hardened.

"Har din mai sochta tha, mujhe kuch karna hai...mujhe kuch karna hai…mujhe kuch alag karna hai. Mere dimag me yehi rehta tha aur abhi bhi rehta hai (Everyday I used to think I have to achieve something and it still stays in my mind). The circumstances from which I came through, I knew that I had no option," Jaiswal says. "I had nothing. I didn't have a place to stay, no money. Par mere pass ek cheez tha, mera cricket (But I had one thing: My cricket). I don't like anything apart from cricket. There was just one thing oscillating in my mind, I have to play cricket, and I don't have anything else. Jo mera sapna hai uspe mujhe pohochna hai to mujhe bohot mehenat karni hai (I have to work very hard to achieve my dream). I never compromise on that thing."

Singh further explains how the mental toughness came about.

Jwala Singh (L) with Yashasvi Jaiswal. Image courtesy Jigar Mehta/Firstpost

"In our villages, they keep asking us when are you going to come on TV? They have high expectations. These things are continuously oscillating in our minds when we come to the city. What if I play badly? What will the villagers and parents say? When I was a kid, my mother used to write letters to me saying ‘beta if you come back it will be embarrassing’.

"So for boys like Yashasvi, there is no going back, you have to shut that return path. Because if you go back, your life will be living hell. And secondly whatever we get is a plus and we don't want to leave it. It makes us reach a different level of mentality, where nothing can disturb us. We value that a lot."

Mental strength is one thing while determination is another aspect that makes Jaiswal stand out from the crowd, according to Singh.

"It was 31 May 2014," Singh remembers the exact date. "Yashasvi told me he wanted to visit his village. I said okay but come to practice tomorrow before leaving because the next practice session would possibly be only in October. He didn't come to practice. I was disappointed. I called him and asked where he was. He said at home, packing bags. 'Why didn't you come to the practice?' I asked. 'Was there a session?' Came the reply. I said 'yes, pack your kit and leave now'. I made him remove his shoes and run 10 rounds of Air India ground and then made him bat.

"That night he came to me and said, 'I want to tell you something'.

"What?"

"Aise kaise mai practice miss kar sakta hu? (How can I miss the practice like that?)

"I said, 'its okay, you served your punishment'.

"He said, 'Sir, I won't go to the village'.

"Why?

"Sir, aise kaise mai practice ko nai aaya? (How can I just miss the practice session like that?)

"I said, 'it's done now'.

"He didn’t budge. 'Until I get into the Bombay team, I won't visit my village'.

He stuck to his word and didn't leave the city. It took him about just one year from then to break into the Mumbai U-16 team and it was only then that he finally visited his village.

It’s not just Singh’s punishments, many a time Jaiswal was ruthless on himself too, but with time and experience, he has relented.

"Earlier, if my cricket was going good, I used to like everything in the world but if it wasn't then I didn’t like anything. I tried to divert myself by listening to music, drawing art or reading books.

"Pehle bachpana bhi tha, koi gana sun liya motivation aa gaya to josh me 10-15 round maar liya, but it was of no use. Koi motivational movie dekh li to excited ho gaye, jaise bacche hote hai. (Earlier, I was childish, a motivational song or movie would get me ultra-excited) But I have matured a lot. I am trying to be balanced. I try to stay normal and try to find a solution and ways to become better."

***

How many centuries has Yashasvi hit so far?

'61' comes a reply in about macro seconds.

Singh will tell you every minute detail of Jaiswal's cricketing journey, right from his school days, in one breath.

Jaiswal has had a meteoric rise. At 12, he made it to the Limca Book of Records for most runs and wickets in a school cricket match after hitting an unbeaten 319 and scalping 13/99 for Anjuman Islam Urdu High School against Raja Shivaji Vidyamandir in a Giles Shield match in 2014.

On his Kanga League debut, he played out 137 balls against senior players like Pravin Tambe, Iqbal Abdullah in A division.  "It was a very big thing. That was the time I thought he will achieve something big," recalls Singh.

Image courtesy Jwala Singh
Image courtesy Jwala Singh

Yashasvi Jaiswal's fanboy moment with Dilip Vengsarkar and Ajinkya Rahane.

He was a consistent performer in age-group cricket as well, that propelled him to the India U-19 team. The turning point, however, arrived in August 2018 when he was asked to open for the first time on the tour of Sri Lanka. After failing in the first two ODIs in the middle order and getting dropped in the next two, the chief selector Ashish Kapoor along with then-coach WV Raman promoted Jaiswal to open in the final ODI. He ended up hitting 114 not out, in his personal battle for survival, to help India chase down 214.

Jaiswal's temperament coupled with a wide range of shots is his biggest strength according to Singh. "Runs bananeki habit hai usko. Pehle mai bolta tha neeche se khel, ab bolt hu uppar se bhi maar. (He has the hunger for runs, first I used to tell him to play along the ground but now I ask him to hit aerially as well)."

"He's also a useful leg spinner. It's just that it doesn’t get highlighted because of his batting," asserts Singh. "He has a lethal googly and what helps him is he thinks like a batsman while bowling."

***

"It's a big platform and opportunity and a proud feeling when you represent your country. It's a chance for me to learn as much as I can."

Jaiswal knows the importance of the U-19 World Cup which will take place in South Africa. Along with the captain Priyam Garg, he forms the cornerstone of the batting line-up and is crucial to India's chances who play all their group stage matches in Bloemfontein. Sometimes the weight of massive occasion can force you into overthinking and over-preparing but that's not the case with Jaiswal. He hasn't tried to do anything different. The country, conditions and pitches are secondary, the process is paramount.

“I am following the same process that I used to follow, the daily routine, practice, everything,” Jaiswal explains. “Because I have a lot of confidence and trust in that and it’s worked well every time. I am not thinking about the result. I am just doing my work, fir baaki dekhte hai, jo hoga so hoga (Let's see what happens)."

Apart from the process and mental strength, what will come in handy are words of advice from Rahul Dravid and Shreyas Iyer.

"Rahul sir has helped me a lot mentally. He's told me a lot of things because of which I can keep myself relaxed and in control while batting. It helps me in building big innings. He said focus on what you can control, the things that have already happened are not in your control."

The experience of playing in the senior Mumbai team has made him value singles a lot more.

"Chakke to 11 number ka batsman bhi maar sakta hai, par wo singles nahi le sakta. (Even a No 11 batsman can hit a six but he can’t take singles)."

These words from his Mumbai team captain Iyer have stuck in his mind.

It was through the U-19 World Cup that the likes of Kohli, Yuvraj, Kaif entered the limelight. However, it's a different case with Jaiswal. He's already in the recognition with that record-breaking double hundred and a million-dollar IPL contract.

So does this spotlight add extra pressure heading into the World Cup? For Jaiswal, his ability to shut himself off from the outside world makes it relatively easier.

Yashasvi Jaiswal. Image courtesy Jigar Mehta/Firstpost

"I understand myself really well mentally," Jaiswal says. "I always feel that I can wade through any situation, no matter how worse it is. Bas mujhe ek hi cheez pata hai ki cricket accha khelna chahiye. Aaju baaju kyaa ho raha hai uspe dhyan nahi dena (When I go out in the middle, the only thing in my mind is to play good cricket). When I go out, I automatically get into my zone and shut the outside noise.

"Pressure toh responsibility wala hai (The pressure is that of responsibility). There is a responsibility that I give my team a good start and win matches. That pressure will always be there and I enjoy this pressure. Mai chahta hu ki mai ye responsibility lu. (I want to take this responsibility)."

"Sometimes he talks things that belie his age," Singh beams. "Just now he was telling me, 'Sir, so many players played in the last U-19 World Cup but don't know where they have disappeared. Cricket to bada risky game hai sir. Bohot run banane padenge, bohot perform karna padega' (Cricket is a very risky game sir, I will have to score heavily to survive)."

Jaiswal understands that the U-19 stage is just the stepping stone, not the final destination.

"I tell him, if you want to play cricket in India and want people to remember you, then you have to play at least 20 years of good cricket," Singh says. "Anything less and you are forgotten.

"Itihaas likhne wale kabhi itihaas padhne ki koshish nahi karte. Wo logo ko padhne ke liye hota hai (Those who write history don't try to read it. It's for others to read)."

By the look of things, Yashasvi Jaiswal looks all set to pen another chapter of his own remarkable life in South Africa.

Banner artwork by Shweta Chodnekar

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