“Now show us what you've got. I can't see anything in your game,” David Warner chirped as Shreyas Iyer settled in at the wicket in a three-day warm-up fixture between India A and the visiting Australian side earlier this year.
Iyer isn't one to back out from a sledge. But playing a “senior team”, he zipped up his lips and let the bat do the talking. 306 minutes later, Iyer had lambasted the Aussie spinners — Nathan Lyon and Stephen O'Keefe — and raced to a double hundred at run a ball with seven sixes.
“The most satisfying thing was that I hit a six off my first ball. I wasn't scared of the bowlers or the consequences,” Iyer had said in an interview with ESPNCricinfo.
It wasn't the first time that he chose the right moment to stamp his authority on a match. In the 2016 Ranji Trophy final — playing for Mumbai against Saurashtra — Iyer made a pompous hundred, garnered with exemplary shots all around the wicket, a knock that would help his side grab the title.
Fast forward to August 2017 and Iyer once again played a big-match knock — in the finals of a tri-series tournament in South Africa. He toyed with the South Africa A bowling attack and made 140 in 131 balls to lead India A to the title.
On Wednesday, he took it a step further: walking in at No 3 for India at Mohali against Sri Lanka, in just his second One Day International, and smashing an eye-popping 88. Although not his brutal self, Iyer’s batting looked absolutely breathtaking after he settled down at the wicket and started unleashing his wide repertoire of shots.
That he had a solid platform to start off things helped, but with Rohit Sharma still finding his groove at the other end, Iyer had to play the Shikhar Dhawan role — go after the bowling and ease the pressure on the senior partner. Although he took a bit of time settling in — his first 50 runs came from as many balls — Iyer was unstoppable later.
He brought out the upper cut and a ramp shot, the former fetching him a maximum over point. When the spinners dared to flight the ball, Iyer was quick on his feet and dismantled their plans with his nonchalant flicks and adept timing. His next 38 runs came in 20 balls. It was a phase studded with some magnificent shots all around the wicket.
In hindsight, he probably should have got a maiden hundred but that's just the way Iyer plays. On some days, he can torment the opposition and keep going even after landmarks. On other days, it doesn't quite come off. More often than not, Iyer pulls it off.
While he keeps things simple, there is a kind of fearlessness and swag about his game. The high backlift, swift footwork and rapid hands make him a beast of a batsman to contend with when on song.
How Iyer fits in
His 88 might seem like a one-off knock from a substitute batsman given that Kohli is due to return to his favoured No 3 spot the next time India play ODIs after this series. But on closer inspection, Iyer may not be a scapegoat.
At No 4, India have been playing musical chairs for quite some time now with a lot of players coming in, trying their luck and walking off. In fact, since the start of 2012, India have tried 14 players at the No 4 slot and none — save Kohli who will settle down at 3 now — have grabbed their chances.
As a matter of fact, only two batsmen — Yuvraj Singh and Manish Pandey — have centuries at No 4 for India since 2012 (omitting Kohli of course). India's batting average in that position since the last World Cup has dropped to 35.69, another sign that they haven't found their man for the slot.
Over the last one year, they have tried quite a lot of options in the puzzling batting position — from Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav to MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya — but no one has made the spot his own.
In Iyer, India possibly have an ideal No 4 batsman. He bats at 3 for Mumbai and shifting one position down may not be that arduous a task. The advantages of him at 4 are manifold but most importantly it eases the pressure on Kohli and Dhoni, two players extremely vital in the ODI setup.
Iyer's positive mindset and aggressive approach means that he wouldn't be wasting too much time at the wicket and this works perfectly for a Dhoni walking in at 5 or 6 to settle in and get into his groove. It also reduces the burden on Kohli to keep up with the run rate.
In the past India have had success playing flamboyant batsmen at the No 4 spot — Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh being the cases in point — and the current trend the world over is also to have aggressive batsmen behind the ever-important No 3. South Africa have the man with the Midas touch, AB de Villiers. England have Eoin Morgan, New Zealand Ross Taylor and Australia Chris Lynn or Travis Head.
Iyer being 23 means India have the option of giving him the spot for a longer term and watch him grow into it. His maturity and composure deserve mention in this regard as he isn't all about going hammer and tongs from ball one. This augers well in the middle-overs where he has shown his prowess in the domestic circuit. That he is an equally good player of pace and spin also helps.
There is also the alternative option of keeping Iyer at 3 where he has played all his career and pushing Kohli to No 4 to put to rest all doubts regarding the conundrum. But since Kohli is too vital for India, meddling around with his batting position may not be very ideal.
Iyer's outgoing nature, self-belief and in-your-face attitude are in sync with the current Indian team Kohli is building. With a big match temperament to go along with those qualities, Iyer seems to be here to stay. All signs point toward a mutually beneficial relationship.
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Kohli's only boundary, a sublime cover drive off Neil Wagner, came before lunch but kept the scoreboard ticking with twos and threes.
The youngster, who rose to prominence after his successful stint with IPL team Chennai Super Kings, said he is looking to reconnect with Rahul Dravid, who would be head coach of the team. Dravid has, in the past, coached the Indian under-19 and A teams.
Now in charge of the National Cricket Academy, Dravid has played a key role in producing the next generation of cricketers and a reserve pool which is the envy of India's opponents.