Walking in at an extremely comfortable 124 for 1 in the first ODI on Friday, Shreyas Iyer tried something inexplicable. To just his third ball, from the pacy Lockie Ferguson, he backed away from the stumps and tried to play his go-to slash. There was neither the length nor the width for the shot, though, and Iyer was lucky the ball missed the stumps.
It was as if Iyer wanted to make a strong opening statement against what has become opposition teams’ default strategy for him as soon as he comes in to bat — go after him with the short ball. But in this case, New Zealand hadn’t even tried the ploy properly yet, but Iyer was so sure they would that he even tried to pre-meditate an attacking response.
Of course, New Zealand would test Iyer out with the short ball presently. In fact, his first scoring shot would be a ramp over the wicketkeeper for six off a Ferguson bouncer. To his credit, Iyer settled down and stretched his knock until the very last over to top-score for India with 80 off 76 deliveries, reviving the innings from 160 for 4 despite a few more hiccups along the way.
And despite his well-known issues with the short ball, he is averaging 63 in 12 ODIs this year at a strike-rate of 96.75. Compared to T20s, the 50-over game does allow more space for Iyer to try and battle it out when teams target his shortcoming, and still leaves room for him to accelerate later with his preferred slogs and slashes.
And considering the 2023 World Cup is in India, where batting conditions are more benign usually – although there can be the odd spicy wicket – Iyer could be a useful component of the middle order, given his ability to attack spin in the middle overs. At home, he averages a healthy 56.72 in ODIs and strikes at 97.65.
“There is more time (in ODIs),” Iyer said after India’s seven-wicket loss in Auckland. “One can plan his batting looking at the wicket and deciding in his mind what a par score would be. One needs to adapt. Fifty overs can change from time to time. Sometimes there can be sunset, there can be dew at other times and you don’t know how the wicket will play.”
The wicket wasn’t at its best at that point, with the ball holding up and timing hard to find, especially for a new batsman. What also makes the job harder for Iyer in such conditions is that the short ball is invariably on his mind in the early stages of his innings, like it would be at a point for Suresh Raina. That makes him stuck in the crease even when the ball is pitched up, and he is late in getting forward, resulting in inside edges and some missed scoring opportunities. A few times at Eden Park, even balls that were there to be driven past the infield, he ended up guiding to cover as he was a touch hesitant and could not fully commit to the stroke.
Meanwhile, the short ball kept posing questions every now and then. Iyer was even put down by the keeper – a not straightforward jumping chance – when he edged an attempted ramp off Adam Milne. However, he would grow in confidence eventually to back away and slash Milne for six over third man, and then went after the slower speeds of Tim Southee at the death with pulls and slogs.
Former New Zealand pacer Simon Doull remarked that he was “disappointed” with the way Iyer had begun, but had fought and found a way to get the runs. “I was really disappointed with the third ball. It’s not the Shreyas Iyer I want to see. I want to see him fight through those couple of moments but it is tough, I get it. It’s hard. And when you have got the reputation of not playing the short balls well, it is not easy. It’s a horrible place to be in,” Doull told Cricbuzz. “But I want to see him fight a bit harder for that.
“But then he just finds a way to score runs and he scores them all around there. He is particularly aggressive against spin and tries to be. But I just like him when he shows a bit more composure. It was a good innings. I thought it was a very good innings after a really rough start.”
Iyer has been given a decent run in ODIs under the team management of Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid. And while he has found it hard to break into the first-choice T20I side after the rise of Suryakumar Yadav, he is targeting consistency in the 50-over format. That is hard to attain, of course; such is the nature of the modern game that Iyer was in the middle in the New Zealand T20Is after just a couple of net sessions. But with all the competition around ODI spots – and no question mark over the seniors in the top order unlike in T20Is – reliability is certainly what Iyer will have to keep delivering in the World Cup build-up, even as he tries to tackle his continuing issues with the short ball.
“I want my fitness levels to be good despite the back-to-back games. I want to perform consistently. I want to stay in the present. The players will come and go but consistency will matter,” Iyer said.