The most instructive aspect of Shreyas Iyer’s knock, a finely crafted 71 on his ODI return, was how he constructed those runs. A top-order batsman who had built his reputation on dazzle, flowing drives and thumping cuts that saw him being hailed as the latest inheritor of Mumbai’s batting legacy, he demonstrated considerable maturity to tailor his game to suit the situation.
Like his ability to rotate strike, smother and milk the spinners like the 90s subcontinental batsmen used to — as many as 45 of his 71 runs were hoarded through singles and twos. A push to the covers, an extended push to long-on, a tap to third man, a tickle to fine-leg, the shots that are the staple of accumulators rather than aggressors.
The best of batsmen seamlessly combine both worlds. Like Virat Kohli, who was batting like a dream from the other end. So much so that when you filter through the highlights package, one would struggle for strokes that wow you for their daring or flamboyance, a stroke that you would archive. Maybe Iyer’s ramp or the clump of Kemar Roach towards the death might linger on, but not beyond these.
But Iyer’s primary currency were strokes many of India’s middle-order batsmen, tried in the prelude and through the World Cup, seemed to have forgotten, or not quite well-schooled at. Most of them seemed to oscillate between the blocking and blasting. Not the middle path, not the old-fashioned way of wearing the bowlers and fielders down with clever field manipulation and thus making it difficult to strangle the run rate.
MS Dhoni, at his peak, was masterly at that, but not any longer. Neither were Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, Rishabh Pant and Vijay Shankar. All of them could accelerate but not accumulate. And accumulation, like acceleration, is such an integral part of the game.
It’s equally fascinating how Iyer does it. He doesn’t try to manufacture a single or a two. Full outside off-stump, he just pushes it towards cover, slightly into the body, he drives them through mid-off. Anything on middle-and-leg, he crunches it through long-on. And on most instances, it doesn’t matter where the fielders are, he seldom hits straight at them. With a tilt of the wrists at the last moment, he directs the balls away from them. It’s as if a surgical knife is somewhere fitted in his bat. All but seven off his 33 singles were accrued in front of the stumps. There was just one behind the stumps on the leg-side.
A singular player
Nothing reflects his strike-rotating proficiency than the dot-ball percentage. He soaked up just 23 dots off 68 deliveries. In comparison, Pant had the same in less than half the balls Iyer faced. Rohit Sharma ate up 24 dots. Even Kohli couldn’t score off 58 balls. In comparison, Iyer’s numbers were magisterial, and the foundation of the challenging score India put on the board.
He’s not just an adept single-predator, but also a good judge of it. The moment the ball leaves his bat, he knows whether it’s a single or it could be converted into a double. And it doesn’t bother him to disoblige the skipper either. There was an incident when Kohli tapped the ball and began running, but Iyer immediately sent him back and only a full-fledged dive (and a wayward throw) prevented a calamitous run-out. Several other youngsters would have felt hesitant to turn down the skipper’s call. But Iyer was clear and firm in everything he did.
In between, he ferried boundaries, more through placement and precision than power. There was a gorgeous one off Carlos Brathwaite, when he rode the bounce of a short-of-length ball and precisely split the gap between backward point and gully. There also was a squarer third-man, but such was his placement that the boundary was unstoppable. Then the ramp off a short ball. The ball didn’t rise as much as he expected, but Iyer didn’t panic and arched his body further down to middle the delivery.
The skipper would have been mighty relieved too — after all, one middle-order spot seems to be getting closer to being solved.
But less so with the No. 4, where walked in Pant. In fact, Iyer’s value only glows in the arclight of Pant’s failure. It was a ripe opportunity for the keeper-batsman to stake his claim, to show he’s temperamentally as much as technically adept at handling the demands of what has been the most gaping vulnerability in the batting line-up. Pant came in just into the 16th over, after Rohit Sharma and Kohli had resurrected India from the damage inflicted by Sheldon Cottrell in the first over.
The strip was placid, the attack curiously flaccid despite encouraging bounce and a hint of lateral movement, and at the other end, Kohli was motoring along. It was neither too early for Pant to bat — as were a few instances in the World Cup — nor too late, when he’s fundamentally expected to throw the bat around. But Pant was uncharacteristically cagey, like his 29-ball 0 at the Rose Bowl, when he batted with affected circumspection, trying hard to fit into the classical Test mould.
Likewise, he tried to manufacture himself into a No. 4, but at the peril of shackling his natural game and in the end. He played out as many as 23 dot balls, and it was a matter of time before his patience wore thin and he attempted a silly stroke, a flick-pull off a ball that kept marginally low. He was aghast with the stroke, but could be more appalled of his approach. Why tamper with a successful approach? Also suspect was his strike-rotation against spinners, which is such an indispensable part of a middle-order batsman’s game. Sure, he can compensate with big strokes later in the innings, but the hard-run singles and twos are such an integral aspect of the game.
Later, Iyer showed exactly how to do it. The difference between the two batsmen was evident — one clear of the way he wanted to bat and the other cluttered. A re-run of Iyer’s innings could be instructive for Pant.