Updated: November 29, 2021 7:52:49 am
Shreyas Iyer is batting, even when he is not batting. Between deliveries, he takes a stroll to square leg, his bat subconsciously twirling in his left-hand, like he is flicking an imaginary ball. He stops and shadow-bats a forward defensive shot. He walks back, the bat again tracing arcs in the air. When he’s at the non-striker’s end, he is rehearsing the pull shot.
When he is engaged in a mid-pitch chat with his partner, when he is gulping water during the drinks break, when he is fielding at mid-on, he is always batting in his mind, his hands are drawing batting patterns in the air. A cover-drive there, a flick here, a leave there, a pull there in his mind, Iyer is living an innings in his mind, as if his sole purpose in life is to bat, and bat.
Another fine knock by @ShreyasIyer15 as he brings up his half-century off 109 deliveries.
— BCCI (@BCCI) November 28, 2021
He has taken ravenously to Test cricket; after compiling a purposeful century on debut, he appended the knock with an even more valuable 65, that handed India the ascendancy in the game. Iyer joined Mayank Agarwal at the departure of Ajinkya Rahane, in the middle of a mini-crisis, before it ballooned into a full-blown strife, when Agarwal and Ravindra Jadeja retreated to the dressing room in the space of three balls.
How he pieced together the broken shards of India’s second innings and assembled the broad canvas for a possible Indian victory, with the stoic support of Ravichandran Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha, formed the crux of the Sunday resistance.
From 51/5, Iyer and his lower-order accomplices navigated India to 234/7, whereupon they declared and set a steep target of 284. In pursuit, New Zealand have already lost Will Young, ending the day at 4/1.
The challenges Iyer encountered were discernibly different, and to an extent tougher too. In the first innings, the strip was at its most conducive to bat; there was his elder-brotherly Mumbai teammate Rahane guiding him at every step and mis-step, smoothening his integration in Test cricket. Here, he was a man of his own, thrust to weather the storm, guide the lower order, and set a competitive fourth-innings target for the visitors. The first innings was a test of his mettle and about adjusting; the second was about his maturity and about asserting, and all are prerequisites for a prosperous dig in Test cricket. Iyer passed the second, just as emphatically as the first.
Maturity stands out
The situation didn’t faze him. In an interview with broadcasters, he said he has been in these situations before in Ranji games. But here, he was facing an international team with two of the finest fast bowlers around. “The idea was to play session by session. Rahul Sir said that I need to stay out in the middle for as much as possible and build on the score,” he said.
There were several instances when those various attributes that make him special stood out. Like his communication with Saha and Ashwin. In the early phase of his association with Ashwin, playing his 80th Test and with more centuries than him, the off-spinner would often come up to and pass on an observation or piece of advice.
But shortly, Iyer looked like the more assertive, composed partner, shielding him from a particularly hostile spell from Tim Southee and walking up to him whenever he was beaten or the ball misbehaved, often extending a pat of assurance or words of comfort.
The pair ran exceptionally well at the start of their match-changing 53-run partnership, dishevelling New Zealand’s plans to target Ashwin. Their first 21 runs changed the game’s momentum, as they struck four boundaries and ran stealthily, as though it were the middle overs of a one-day game.
New Zealand were rattled, their energy dissipated, and suddenly India seemed the more ascendant side. Trading the early blows, they pushed New Zealand onto the back-foot, from where they could not claw back.
With each passing ball, Iyer’s maturity seemed to swell, as if he was growing older with each ball. Caution was the predominant tone of his batting, but he did not sequester into a shell, punishing even the semi-loose balls, ticking a single or brace whenever he could with nudges, clips and deflections, demonstrating that he considers accumulation just as vital as stroke-making.
He resisted temptation, but didn’t slip into abstinence. And when he played his strokes, there was a cadence about it, an un-hurriedness that’s the hallmark of good batsmen. His judgement and clarity were such that he didn’t have to change his shots at the last minute. An example: One of Kyle Jamieson’s back-of-length balls scuttled along the brown carpet, but he didn’t crouch too low, as surprised batsmen often tend too. He was going to play that ball on the back-foot, but readjusted and defended on the front-foot.
— BCCI (@BCCI) November 28, 2021
Once Saha strode out for their 64-run stand, Iyer ensured that he soaked most of the fast bowling. Not because Saha was incompetent, but because he was nursing a stiff neck and New Zealand’s fast bowlers were barraging him with short balls. The visitors embraced bottle-neck tactics like packing the off-side side with fielders inside the circle and feeding him with balls on the sixth-stump line, asking him to slash and swipe, which he prefers. But Iyer wasn’t sucked into youthful intemperance.
Saha endured a difficult start, but Iyer stood by him, like an elder brother to someone who is 11 years and 28 Tests older than him. Sometimes, he would speak at length between overs, perceivably about the field positions, plans of bowlers and the condition of the pitch. Gradually, Saha regained confidence, and produced one of his trademark scraps, a resolute 61 not out.
It was a day New Zealand’s bowlers lost both their physical and psychological battles against Iyer. Absent was a persistence of plan. First, they tried to lure him into the drive, which almost paid off as he edged a Southee out-swinger, only for the ball to burst through the slip cordon. Rather than probing the same method, they tried to hook him with the nip-backer.
They tried to entice him with Rachin Ravindra, the left-arm spinner whom Iyer had punished in the first innings. But this time, he intentionally exercised caution, though Ajaz Patel was not extended the mercy.
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