In the third and final T20I of the series against South Africa at home, there was a rather queer, funny incident. After India lost their second wicket, both Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer walked out to bat at no 4, a clear case of miscommunication as Virat Kohli later pointed out.
But it was perhaps indicative of Iyer’s predicament in this Indian side. The Mumbaikar has always had tough initiations to all levels of cricket but has eventually gone on to ace them all.
Sample this, for instance (extract from an interview on ESPNCricinfo) – He wasn’t picked at any level of age group cricket for his batting. So, despite being well aware of his batting potential, Iyer honed his leg-spin skills and in a selection tournament for Mumbai under-19, picked up 34 wickets. In the Cooch Behar Trophy in 2012, he grabbed his first chance at being promoted – albeit as a nightwatchman – and made a century.
This has been Iyer’s story at every level of cricket. But what stands out is that he has managed to fight the odds by staying in form and doing all the right things. Backing himself is a big part of Iyer’s game.
In the first T20I against Bangladesh this series, Iyer walked in at the fall of KL Rahul’s wicket and was immediately countered by Aminul Islam’s leg-spin.
Now, Iyer is a fantastic player of spin. Those who have watched him in first-class cricket know how he loves to drive the spinners down the ground and in the ‘V’. In the tour match against Australia for India A in the Brabourne Stadium in 2017, Iyer notched up his game one level, clubbing seven sixes against the same Aussie spinners – Steven O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon – who would bowl Australia to a win at Pune in the first Test.
When Aminul tossed the ball up in his arc off the second ball he faced, Iyer was unflustered and casually whacked the leg-spinner over cover for six. Next over, he would thump another loopy delivery straight back over his head for six. He was, however, soon dismissed attempting a similar shot in Aminul’s third over.
It’s easy, and natural, for a young player to go back into his shell and play more cautiously next game, at least against the same bowler. This is especially true if you have had an ordinary start to your T20I career like Iyer had before the 2nd T20I – an average of 18 and a highest score of 30 in 9 games.
But Iyer is cut from a different piece of cloth, something he has time and again stressed with his performances for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy and Delhi Capitals in the IPL. The common notions don’t apply to him and he finds a way to stick to what works for him.
If Aminul came in hoping to be treated with respect, he was in for a rude surprise. Second ball Iyer faced from him at Rajkot, he watched the leg-break dip before his eyes and tonked the leg-spinner over long-on for a six. In what was a resounding win for India with Rohit Sharma’s outrageous innings hitting headlines, Iyer showed there was no need for India to send somebody else ahead of him in the latter stage of an innings with a blistering 13-ball 24.
The reason for both Pant and Iyer walking in at the same position against South Africa was because India had decided Iyer would walk in if a wicket fell before the 10th over and Pant would, if a wicket fell post that.
Even if these were impactful performances by the youngster, it could easily have slipped under the radar given the manner in which the others performed. It is standing out from amidst the crowd that Iyer strives to achieve time and again. His extraordinary 147 off 55 balls against Sikkim in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Tournament earlier this year was studded with 15 sixes and is the highest score by any Indian in T20s.
This year Iyer has been a beast in T20s. Aside from showcasing his talent in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Tournament and the IPL, Iyer has also started to find his groove in International cricket. In 31 T20s, he has amassed 1076 runs at an average of 41.38. More importantly, he has turned into this extraordinary middle-order batsman who can take on the spinners.
Starting 2014, his sixes/innings tally is 0.33, 1.16, 0.78, 0.69, 1.5 till 2018 in T20s. In 2019, it is 1.87 and he has slammed 53 sixes in the year, 32 more than his next best.
The intent against the spinners has been critical to this surge. At Nagpur, it was yet again on display. After an early reprieve, Iyer settled in before his trademark loft came against the leggie Aminul. He was hit over his head for a six as Iyer and Rahul went about resurrecting the innings.
When Rahul was dismissed and Bangladesh sniffed a chance to get back into the contest, Iyer whipped Soumya Sarkar over mid-wicket for a six to transfer pressure back onto the visitors. Next over, when Mahmudullah made the mistake of bowling a part-time off-spinner (Afif Hossain) at Iyer, he responded ferociously.
Three sixes on the trot – all in the ‘V’ – followed as Iyer toyed with himself in hitting the biggest six – 97 meters, 91 meters and the last one out-doing them all at 98 meters. In the series, Iyer finished with the most sixes – eight of them, seven of which came against spinners.
The momentum India gathered from that surge he created by taking on Afif lasted the entire innings as they made a match-winning total. Iyer, in his maiden T20I half-century, underlined what he has been screaming out for years with his performances – “that he belongs”.
It was evident in his two ODI half-centuries in the West Indies (he also hit the most sixes by an Indian in that ODI series), it was evident in his IPL 2019 and it is becoming more vivid after every game in national colours. India have started seeing it now and he is seen as a long-term no 4 option.