Iyer sticks to nuts and bolts of middle-order batting

13Aug 2019
Correspondent
The Guardian
Iyer sticks to nuts and bolts of middle-order batting

SIX matches, five innings, two fifties. Average of 42.00, strike rate of 96.33. Not a bad start, you'd think, to life as an ODI batsman.

And yet, Shreyas Iyer didn't play another 50-over game for India in the next 18 months. He didn't get a game on the 2018 tour of England, and didn't even make the squad for the Asia Cup later that year. By the time the 2019 World Cup rolled around, India had played 27 straight Iyer-free ODIs, and he was no longer a real contender for a middle-order slot.

Selection is a subjective thing, and selectors can have many reasons for picking one player and leaving out another, not all of which can be explained by averages and strike rates. There may have been something in Iyer's game that didn't quite convince them. Or something in his game that needed working on away from the glare of international cricket. Perhaps they liked what they saw, but felt other batsmen offered more.

Whatever it was, Iyer is back now, part of India's line-up at the start of a fresh four-year ODI cycle. KL Rahul, who began the World Cup in the middle order and ended it as opener, and did pretty well in both roles without quite hitting peak form, is back on the bench.

So it goes, perhaps understandably, in a crowded field without any one standout choice, where convincing arguments can be made for pretty much every candidate. Until someone stakes an undeniable claim for a permanent spot, the spectator is best advised to sit back and enjoy the talent on view, and ignore the selection question.

On Sunday, there was one shot that particularly summed up what Iyer is good at. You might have seen it in the IPL, and you'll definitely have seen it if you've watched him bat for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy.

The ball, from Carlos Brathwaite, was respectable enough, not quite short or wide, and the field West Indies had set showed an awareness of Iyer's strengths: deepish gully, backward point and cover point forming a tight ring square on the off side, and third man on the boundary, also square. There are no unknowns in international cricket anymore. And yet, Iyer found a gap, meeting the ball on top of the bounce with a shot that wasn't quite a cut or a punch, and is perhaps best described as a stab. Shimron Hetmyer turned to his left at backward point and shaped to dive, before deciding it was pointless. Chris Gayle expended no such effort at gully, but the ball would have beaten even Roger Harper.

Iyer excels at this sort of thing, needing less width and shortness of length than most to cut, punch, stab, chop, slash, carve, flay, steer, guide or dab the ball through the off side, square and fine. A slowish pitch at Queen's Park Oval gave him plenty of time to sit back and pick off runs in those areas. Four of his five fours came in the region behind square on the off side. One of them was a ramp almost exactly over the keeper's head; he crouched in response to a short ball from Kemar Roach, and kept his eye on the ball as it rose, the slowness of the bounce allowing him to meet the ball precisely when, and where, he wanted to, with the bat face angled just so.

The ability to pick off boundaries in that region allowed Iyer to chug along at a run a ball while otherwise simply sticking to the nuts and bolts of middle-order ODI batting: nudges off the legs, checked drives down the ground, slaps to the off-side sweeper. It was precisely what India needed when he joined Virat Kohli at 101 for 3.

"Brilliant," was Kohli's verdict on Iyer during the post-match presentation. "Stepping in, not having played many games in the past, but I think he's a very confident guy, he's got the right attitude, and his body language was brilliant. Beautiful hands on the ball, and really kept the tempo going, took a lot of pressure off me, so I could play myself into a tempo like I like doing, and after I got out he got those extra runs for us as well. Really good start for him, hopefully he gets another one."

An excellent return to the ODI team, then, with a third half-century in only his sixth innings. What it means for Iyer beyond this game, and this series, and what it says about how he might do when faced with challenges unlike this one, are questions for another day. For now, it's perhaps best to simply sit back and watch him do his thing. AGENCIES

 

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