“10 rupaye ki Pepsi, Yuzi bhai______”

It was a chant that echoed from one stadium to another, far too often in the stands last year. A certain leggie, with his unmatched guile and craft, romped home in the race to win the Purple Cap, rounding off his most successful IPL season and one for Rajasthan Royals to savour. Fast forward to the Royals’ season opener on Sunday evening, it looked like the effects of IPL 2022 were still lingering on. There he was, amidst a sea of orange. Proud in pink once again, ready for an encore. And certainly not ready to give up his crown just yet.

With figures of 4/17, Yuzvendra Chahal came out all guns blazing against the Sunrisers Hyderabad batting line-up, almost as if reminding them of the havoc he wreaked last season. Incidentally, the Royals played their first match last year against the same opponents, and Yuzi had announced himself with a three-wicket haul on his Royals debut. Déjà vu, much?

The 4-fer may have robbed us of that trademark ‘Yuzi pose’ (which he confirms will not change, and will only resurface if he takes a five-wicket haul or a hat-trick), but it set the wheels of victory in motion for the Royals.

“Last year was my first year, but it felt like I knew this team from ages. My idol is Shane Warne sir. I always wanted to work with him,” he opens up in a candid chat before the season opener. It was no surprise then, that the 32-year-old had the season he did. Winning the Purple Cap for the first time, getting his maiden IPL hat-trick, bagging his first-ever IPL fifer. All in Pink. All as a Royal. Maybe it was always meant to be!

The Struggle, the Success

Cut to present day. Chahal has now crossed 300 wickets in T20 cricket, a feat no other Indian bowler managed to achieve before him. At 170 wickets, he has also equalled Lasith Malinga to become the joint-second-highest wicket-taker in the IPL. A T20 legend and now the Royals’ Fast Bowling Coach, it was almost poetic justice to see the ever-smiling Malinga proudly watch on from the dugout, as Yuzi celebrated reaching this monumental landmark with his teammates.

Notably, these records and this success has come on the back of a difficult time over the past 12 months, particularly on the international T20 stage. Since June 2022, Chahal has picked 23 wickets in 20 T20Is, endured a tough Asia Cup and an even tougher T20 World Cup, where he didn’t feature in a single game. Critics suggested he needed a ‘Plan B’, while some wondered if he was still an automatic pick in the playing eleven. The noise had begun. Add to that, the selection humdrum that comes along in an ICC event year, and the pressure only doubles.

But if anything, it has only motivated him to swim past the undercurrents. The skill, still very much there. The intent, only stronger. The self-belief, visible in the way he conducts himself on and off the field, not letting the pressure get to him.

Having his wife Dhanashree by his side has been another contributing factor to his recent success, adding a dash of extra morale. Last year, she made her presence felt at the stadium on almost every matchday, cheering him on animatedly, even backing him in the most difficult times. Sometimes, it’s hard to gauge an athlete’s emotions when they’re on the field, with their family watching on. Do they feel nervous? Are they more pumped than usual?

“When I see her in the stands, she’s always smiling. She gives me strength and positive vibes. I really love that, when your loved ones are rooting for you, and are coming all the way just to see you.”

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Everybody’s friend

One doesn’t need to spend a lot of time getting to know Yuzi, the person. He’s out there, like an open book, the pages of which are filled with fun and anecdotes. A couple of interactions in and you’d already find yourself sitting across the table - sharing a laugh or two - enjoying the company of his harmless humour. Just ensure you don’t leave your phone or laptop unlocked around him. Or you’re in trouble.

It is this maverick personality, this infectious aura of positivity that lights up any room he walks into. Whether it’s a photoshoot he’s supposed to be at, a group activity in the team room, or simply being a notorious spectator-cum-intruder, distracting his teammates while they’re on camera. It also makes him the kind of person you can instantly be friends with, whether you’re an upcoming player new to the ecosystem, or a seasoned international like Joe Root trying to find his footing in the IPL. The chirpiness, the large-heartedness, and the willingness to go out of the way to make those around him feel comfortable and happy. It is what makes Yuzi, Yuzi.

“I just want to enjoy every moment. That’s why you’re here, you enjoy these 2 months and you will learn a lot.”

Take for example, his camaraderie with Jos Buttler, who he’s shared the dressing room with for just one season. But from making Jos his dance partner to exchanging caps with him, to almost becoming his batting partner (albeit in the nets), that brotherly bond has developed into a meaningful friendship that goes beyond borders. So much so that the first three words Jos uttered as soon as he landed in India were, “Where is Yuzi?”

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His relationship with Sanju has been special too. For a bowler, one of the biggest confidence boosters is the faith their captain places in them, no matter the situation. And it shows on those 22 yards, when the same bowler repays all of it with match-winning performances. Yuzi brought his A-game, along with his cheeky self, and enjoyed an exhilarating debut season under his new skipper. This year, he was welcomed with a bone-breaker of a hug from Sanju, and it made even our admin quite emotional, to be honest.

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What followed was an inspiring performance to start off this season, and huge praise from his captain right after the game.

“His presence definitely makes a huge impact. Him being him, wearing this pink jersey has a great role to play,” said a smiling Sanju.

And he doesn’t shy away from giving credit to his teammates where it’s due. In his own words, having Ravichandran Ashwin as his bowling partner last season elevated him to an altogether different level. While Ashwin kept the lid on from one end, Yuzi chipped in from the other, taking advantage of all that accumulated pressure, converting it into crucial wickets. The duo bowled in perfect tandem, not only complementing each other’s skill set, but also their contrasting personalities.

“We have a good bond, I always follow him and how he bowls, especially in T20s. He has really helped me, and has played a very big role in me winning the Purple Cap.”

Off the field, their shared passion for chess is what instantly brings them closer. We asked Yuzi who’d win at the game if they were to ever face off in a game of chess, and his answer was.

“Me only, without any doubt,” he said, letting out a giggle.

Whether it’s at chess or on the cricket field, the champion attitude that he carries is what makes him stand out from the crowd. Spin bowling is an art, and when it comes to leg spin, it’s an even harder skill to master, especially in an era of batting innovations. But from practising on cemented wickets at his family’s farm as a teenager - to now baring his soul on the world stage - this daredevil of a leggie has been a relentless go-getter. He doesn’t mind the grind, as long as he can do it with a smile on his face.

Watch the full interview: