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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Faster, stronger, Shreyas Iyer: India’s No. 4 outmuscles New Zealand

Nearly 26 years ago, it was here and against the same opposition that Sachin Tendulkar opened the innings for the first time and scored a breathtaking 48-ball 82, a knock that made the slot his own for two decades.

By: Express News Service | Updated: January 25, 2020 10:18:34 am
Faster, stronger, Iyer: India's No. 4 outmuscles NZ at Eden Park Shreyas Iyer hit five fours and three sixes to help India bounce back after the dismissals of KL Rahul and Virat Kohli. (BCCI)

Years later, Shreyas Iyer would revisit this dreamy night at the Eden Park with fondness. It could well be the night that could define him, the night that could also solve India’s middle-order conundrum in the shorter formats. His unbeaten 29-ball 58 was a superlative exhibition of unbridled hitting that left New Zealand shellacked. For the sense of occasion and the circumstances under which it was orchestrated, it was an epic knock.

Nearly 26 years ago, it was here and against the same opposition that Sachin Tendulkar opened the innings for the first time and scored a breathtaking 48-ball 82, a knock that made the slot his own for two decades. If Iyer goes on to build a great India career, this effort would be reminisced in a similar way.

When he walked out to bat, India was fairly well placed at 115/1 after 10 overs in pursuit of 204, with KL Rahul and captain Virat Kohli getting them off to a rollicking start. The blitzkrieg upfront was followed by a period of lull when Rahul and Kohli would get dismissed in the space of eight deliveries. At this stage, Iyer had barely got into his groove, having scored just 2 runs off 3 deliveries. Neither these twin setbacks nor the galloping run-rate seemed to bother the Mumbaikar. If anything, he was buoyed by Eden Park’s insanely short 65m boundary lines, and a New Zealand bowling attack that looked severely out of depth.

India vs New Zealand 1st T20I, Shreyas Iyer 58, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli, Colin Munro, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, IND vs NZ 1st T20I, India tour of New Zealand 2020 Shreyas Iyer celebrates after hitting the winning six in 1st T20I run chase (Source: BCCI/Twitter)

From then on, he just went into overdrive, taking his foot off the pedal only after he had comfortably taken his team past the finish line with an over to spare. Iyer didn’t resort to the pyrotechnics that was a recurring theme in T20s.

Instead, he would just pick his spots and backed his natural instincts to clear the ropes at will. This was the finest display of clean and controlled hitting. There wasn’t a particular area on the ground that he targeted. If New Zealand bowled full, Iyer would drill it past long-off for a boundary, and if they erred marginally onto his pads, he would launch them over the mid-wicket fence for a six. Not surprisingly, this belligerence put pressure back on the home team.

The spinners, Ish Sodhi, in particular, resorted to a more flattish trajectory. It was a buffet on offer, and Iyer had his full. Despite the carnage, India still required 18 runs off the final two overs, and had to see off a crucial penultimate over from Tim Southee. It was in these tense moments when Iyer unfurled his killer blow, the final nail in the Black Caps coffin that punctured their hopes for good.

Manish Pandey and Shreyas Iyer celebrate the victory over Kiwis. (Andrew Cornaga/Photosport via AP)

He simply backed off to thump a length delivery from Southee over mid-off region for a six. Five deliveries later, Iyer would back off once again, this time to smoke the pacer for another maximum over the mid-wicket fence to complete the formalities. Clearly, the 25-year-old was not a big fan of tense last-ball finishes.

Looking back, Iyer knew that he always had the skill and the temperament to unleash such a match-winning act. The potential was always there and in the preceding 12 months, he had always threatened to unleash himself. In his 18th T20I, things fell in place and the stars aligned for him. This career-defining knock was brought about by having supreme confidence in his own abilities. It cannot be denied that his IPL stints with the Delhi Capitals did play a part in his transformation.

The most comforting factor was the unflinching trust shown by his captain in backing him at the No.4 slot. In recent times, this batting position had given the team management considerable strife.

Between 2015 and India’s calamitous implosion in the 2019 World Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, India had tried out as many as 13 players in this position.

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Iyer was also one among them. It was a hit-and-miss affair. He was not to be blamed though. The constant churn and the lack of continuity affected his morale. Since November 2019, during the home series against the West Indies, Iyer has been persisted in that spot.“One of the areas we concentrated on over the last two years was to blood as many youngsters as possible. Shreyas Iyer, for instance, he is going to stay at No. 4,” India’s head coach Ravi Shastri had said. He responded to the coach’s faith with resourceful knocks of 70 and 53. But you got a sense that a manic knock was just around the corner. He followed it up with an unbeaten 44 in the third ODI against Australia in Bangalore last week. That innings had all the ingredients to match his efforts in Auckland. He was involved in a stellar chase with Kohli, and it was capped with shots reminiscent to the ones he had played in Auckland.

In that sense, Iyer had continued from where he had left off. “It’s amazing coming overseas and it’s a really good feeling to win the game and being not out. We had lost two quick wickets and it was really important to build a partnership. We knew the ground is short and we could cover the run-rate at any time,” he summed up. A dreamy night. The pleasant memories of it would linger on for a long time.

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