Shreyas Iyer re-earns trust with patience and prudence
It’s facile to sweep stuff under the carpet when everything goes your way, for only extra vigilant ones focus on them. India did precisely that when Shreyas Iyer didn’t step up in whatever little India required in the first phase of World Cup 2023. That crowd’s two most favourites - Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli - thrashing the bowling units with derision only facilitated it, even in this non-tolerating social media world.
Obviously, Shreyas Iyer scored a fifty against arch-rivals Pakistan, but Rohit Sharma’s knock had already put the chase in the coffin. It is not to disparage Iyer’s knock; he gave prudent support to Rohit after arriving in the tenth over. But the job was more than done, and Iyer had the easiest of works to accomplish.
It’s World Cup, and the players get exposed to its wrath side sooner or later. Iyer faced it in only the second over of the campaign and succumbed. When India required patience from its No.4, Iyer had thrown it away recklessly to bring those horror flashbacks from 2019.
Afterwards, Iyer couldn’t finish the game against Bangladesh and left India midway to bring the match to balance against New Zealand. The latter could have gone the other way had Ravindra Jadeja crumbled early. The worst was yet to come, though.
His 16-ball struggle against England in Lucknow to leave India and Rohit Sharma in troubled waters transcended the limits. His mode of dismissal exacerbated his case; he got out while pulling a short ball with a faulty technique. Suryakumar Yadav’s timely 49-run cameo in the same game imparted intensity to those ignominious talks.
The team management was always transparent. Iyer was going nowhere, especially with his team rolling ruthlessly over the opponents. But he was under scrutiny, more so with Suryakumar making waves.
The knock against Sri Lanka was valuable, but Shreyas Iyer didn’t earn that trust back for various reasons. Sri Lanka’s bowling attack was toothless, barring Dilshan Madushanka, and the track, while sluggish at times, was better for the batters. The filth bowled with short boundaries all around eased the way for Iyer.
That knock was hardly anything to judge by. The real test came against the high-flying South Africa on a not-so-typical Kolkata track. The dismissal that forced him to the crease was enough to assess the demons on the pitch.
Shubman Gill got a peach from Keshav Maharaj that turned slightly to get past the outside edge and crash the sticks. Maharaj can be as dangerous as anyone on a track with low bounce and extravagant turn. By the looks of it, Shreyas should have been comfortable facing this Proteas attack.
Gerald Coetzee, the enforcer in middle overs, was benched, the track had low bounce, and the opposition had two spinners. But it’s easier to conclude anything by just glaring; reality can be a lot different sometimes. It definitely was with Shreyas Iyer in Kolkata. No matter how well Iyer handles spin, this task was the stiffest; it required several aspects to click in tandem.
Kagiso Rabada was also breathing fire from the other end, going through one of his finest spells of the season. Rabada and Maharaj barely conceded any looseners and stifled Shreyas Iyer to a stretch where he was a shot away from pushing India to a deep hole. Kohli, at least, nudged around to rotate the strike along with occasional boundaries, but Iyer was going nowhere.
His lousy approach and inability to keep himself occupied were also piling the pressure on Virat Kohli at the other end. You could feel that desperation when Iyer tried to run a non-existent single on the penultimate delivery of the 17th over, only for Virat Kohli to rush him back. The staff in the dressing room also felt it and quickly passed on the message via their messenger, Ishan Kishan.
That message must have been not to focus on the dot balls and keep playing. It was necessary to get past Maharaj’s spell unscathed. On that surface, Maharaj was a wicket away from running through the batting order.
Temba Bavuma knew it as well. He struck with Maharaj from one end, who bowled all ten overs on a trot. Maharaj used all the tricks in his bag and created a few chances here and there, but the Indian duo didn’t lose their wicket and were happy to play the waiting game.
That early blitz from Rohit Sharma did wonders, as it didn’t force them to up the ante. Rohit had already scored ample runs, and anything more in the 11-20 over phase was a bonus. After an early chaos, Iyer also gauged the situation and didn’t try anything risky.
Finally, Iyer got one off the middle of the blade on the last delivery of the 24th over. This boundary cut Iyer loose, and runs started to flow rather swiftly. He targeted Tabraiz Shamsi, who appeared as a weak link in that Proteas attack and covered the slow start.
Iyer took 29 runs off him, hitting three boundaries and a maximum and played only 38.1% of dot balls. From 12 (35) to 77 (87), Iyer accelerated like anything. He only had 11 run-scoring balls in his first 35 deliveries, but once he got going, he faced only 40.4% of balls without scoring any runs.
The most noticeable thing was his ability to play out the remaining overs of Mahraj cautiously and technique against the short balls. The latter will be a forever discussion, but Iyer has definitely improved massively. It was fitting he played a crisp pull shot before his dismissal.
Lungi Ngidi tried to extract a false shot, but Shreyas Iyer churned out a perfect pull in front of the square for a boundary. While he got out in the same over, Iyer made sure to take India to the safer shores. It was an innings that would have instilled enough confidence in Iyer while providing solace to the team management.
Iyer was the only doubtful link in an otherwise formidable Indian team. The top three have been consistent like always, and KL Rahul has owned the No. 5 spot as if he was born to bat here. Now that Hardik is unavailable, Suryakumar has done decently as well.
While Suryakumar Yadav did chip in with vital runs at No. 6 in Hardik Pandya’s absence, his overall ODI record was barely inspiring. Hence, the top five have to do the heavy lifting in the batting department. Had Shreyas lost his wicket, a collapse wouldn’t have been far, especially with Kohli’s struggle against left-arm off-spinners.
This knock depicted Iyer’s best version, someone who can bat according to the situation, preserving the wicket and accelerating against the correct set of bowlers. His timely acceleration enabled Virat to stay till the end and take India to an above-par total on a sluggish deck. There were talks about his strike rate in the initial phase; South Africa’s dramatic collapse in the second dig highlighted the importance of staying long at the crease, even if it requires compromises with the scoring rate.
Shreyas Iyer passed the sternest test with prudence and patience. Iyer had done it a few times in the past, but this time stage was larger, and the opponent was fearsome. Matches like these are why he is in the team, occupying that tricky No. 4 spot.
Rohit later confirmed that the team would have persisted with Iyer even if he failed to deliver.
“Even if the faith hadn't been repaid, I would have still stuck to them (Shreyas and Shami). We need to keep the trust. It can't be done every day. For Shami to come back the way he has - shows the mindset. The last two games have shown what Iyer is capable of,” stated Rohit after victory.
It’s easy to speak highly when your team is winning without breaking a sweat at times in a tournament like the World Cup. But Iyer would definitely have been scrutinised had he failed to deliver against South Africa. That this team management backs its players against all the odds also helped him overcome those failures and play a match-defining knock.
India are entering that ominous territory where they have lagged behind several times in recent years. To overcome that barrier, Rohit has adopted a fresh approach, but it can backfire anytime. The way new balls have moved this World Cup, Rohit’s success is not guaranteed, as visible against Sri Lanka.
However, Iyer’s knock would have reinforced his strategy now that Rohit knows he has a potent middle order to cover up even if his shots don’t come off. The talks will revolve around Virat Kohli emulating Sachin Tendulkar and a familiar show from the bowlers, and rightly so. But Shreyas Iyer and his team know the value of this knock.
Shreyas Iyer has his fair share of weaknesses, but he has always found ways to score runs. It’s all that actually matters. His 77 against South Africa might not have as aesthetically pleasing shots as Rohit’s pull or Kohli’s cover drive, but they were runs, very precious runs.