Shreyas Iyer turns promise into performance by seizing a long-awaited window of opportunity

Shreyas Iyer turns promise into performance by seizing a long-awaited window of opportunity

Shreyas Iyer turns promise into performance by seizing a long-awaited window of opportunity
Shreyas Iyer in action against New Zealand in 1st Test at Kanpur. Sportzpics

Shreyas Iyer’s first runs in Test cricket were streaky.

Ajaz Patel, New Zealand’s left-arm spinner, tempted the batter to take him on, and Iyer obliged. He didn’t read the turn correctly. The ball looped over mid-off, narrowly out of the reach of Kane Williamson, who was running back. There was no timing on the shot.

In fact, timing hasn’t been Iyer’s friend in, well, quite some time.

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“The young wiz kid played an exceptional knock today … took the game away from us. Player to watch for the future,” Yuvraj Singh tweeted back in October 2015. The exuberance was for a 20-year-old Shreyas Iyer, who had just smashed 200 in just 175 balls against Yuvraj’s Punjab in the Ranji Trophy.

Iyer was quickly branded the Next Big Thing by an Indian cricket fraternity always hungry for one of those. In just his second season and barely out of his teens, he helped Mumbai to their 41st Ranji Trophy title in 2015-16. His 1,321 runs at an average of 73.38 and a strike-rate of 92.70 were the second-best of all time, only behind VVS Laxman’s record from 1999-2000 for most runs in a Ranji season.

The following season, he was still Mumbai’s best batter, as they finished runners-up. A shy youngster with a penchant for card tricks, he brought along his magic to white-ball cricket too. He was crowned IPL’s emerging player in 2015, after Delhi Daredevils made him the most expensive uncapped player in that year’s auction.

Those couple of years were Iyer’s time to shine. An India cap seemed to be a matter of when, rather than if. And that red-ball strike-rate was especially eye-catching, setting him apart among a crowded bench of Indian prospects.

But even half a decade later, Iyer hasn’t quite been able to establish himself as a definite name in India’s star-studded XI in any format, unable to claim any batting slot as his own. The timing has just not been right, the balance of promise and performance, fitness, opportunity and circumstance always just out of his reach.

Once touted as the answer to India’s No 4 issues in white-ball cricket, he found himself out of the reckoning for the 2019 Cricket World Cup. A captain of a table-topping IPL franchise, he hurt his shoulder, lost his leadership role and was out of the 2021 T20 World Cup.

As for Test cricket, the format he and his father have dreamed of as the ultimate, the closest he got was as injury cover for Virat Kohli back in 2017 after a double-century in a tour game against Australia.

In this Test series against New Zealand too, he wasn’t lined up for a debut in Kanpur. The cap, handed to him by fellow Mumbaikar legend Sunil Gavaskar and which he reverentially kissed, came only because Kohli was rested, KL Rahul got injured and Hanuma Vihari was sent off to South Africa with the A team to get some experience there ahead of the India tour.

This was not supposed to be Iyer’s time – until it suddenly was.

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In keeping with that streaky start, Iyer’s first session in Tests was far from fluent. He went into tea on 17 from 55 balls. The player who had earned a reputation in his first-class career for a keenness to “dominate” the bowling at the start and force the field to spread was rarely seen.

But in the final session of day 1, he finally got his timing right. His 75* on the opening day was a show of calculated aggression, clear in an intent to drive the game forward. He took on the spinners, used the crease well and punished the fifth bowling option, forcing Kane Williamson’s hand. The runs finally came at a brisk pace – a reminder of that 81.54 strike-rate that has defined his first-class career. He treated Will Somerville to a premeditated paddle shot to fine leg, before stepping down to smash Patel over long on. Just before the players went off for poor light, he thumped the ball from Somerville into the midwicket stands again.

Given the abundance of talent, windows of opportunity open so rarely in the Indian cricket team. The busy schedule means there are fewer chances to make one’s case; Iyer, for instance, hasn’t played first-class cricket in a couple of years. One knock may never be enough to force one’s way in (as Karun Nair learned after his triple-century). But, Iyer may just have finally timed his runs right.

In a team in transition, with the pressure on Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane rising with every start they fail to convert, Iyer’s runs in Kanpur might just see him jump the queue. He might still make way for Kohli in the next Test and Vihari later when they reclaim their spots in the XI, but he’s made an emphatic case to be considered for the middle order.

There’s a lovely symmetry to the fact that the turnaround in Iyer’s career could potentially come at the same ground where, back in 2015, he made his first first-class fifty in a match he had described then as “do or die” for him. Coming in at No 7 for Mumbai, when his team was on 57/6, he made a brisk 75, giving his team their first win of the season.

Six years later, he might have just seized the moment again.