The chance that Shreyas Iyer deserves
An opinion piece on Mumbai-born cricketer Shreyas Iyer.
It's a hot April afternoon in Delhi. I am headed towards the Kotla to watch the Delhi Daredevils play the Rajasthan Royals. On the roads leading to the stadium, there are massive hoardings, with the faces of Delhi players plastered all over them. Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Angelo Mathews, JP Duminy. The stars, the big fish.
But there's also Shreyas Iyer. The holder of the current "next big thing in Indian cricket" title. He has hype. And it's one of the reasons I'm here. To watch him bat.
It's the Daredevils' second match. In the first, he struggled to meet bat to ball during a rather ugly 7. He has the burden of expectations. And a price of 2.6 crore to justify.
He walks out to open with Mayank Agrawal next to him. It's the first time that I am watching him bat. Tall and lean. His movements, almost languid. There's an air of serenity, of indifference which he carries. The more you watch him, the more it shows.
He seems quite interesting, I think to myself. He most definitely is.
Two overs into the innings, he unleashes a very flowy, yet assured cover drive off James Faulkner. It's a phenomenal shot. But it's what he does afterwards that's fascinating.
Now, he's a twenty-year-old rookie who has just smashed one of the cleverest bowlers in world cricket for a boundary. You expect a smile, some expression of happiness. But you get none. He walks with a sense of ownership. The face as straight as it can be. The indifference, the detachment much more apparent now.
With this shot, Iyer stamps his name all over the IPL. He follows it with a flick, a slog-swept six, a couple of pulls, a stupendous hook. And then, as if to show the world that his lean frame has a lot of strength in it, there is a violent thump off Pravin Tambe to long on. So violent that it wouldn't seem unfair to press manslaughter charges on him. He eventually departs for a 30 ball 40, to a standing ovation.
He's definitely going to set the stage on fire, I tell myself as I leave the stadium. And he's right there, staring at me from three different hoardings. Straight-faced, detached, indifferent.
Shreyas Iyer. Age 21 years, sixty-eight days. First class average, 56.05. Five centuries and eleven half-centuries from 23 matches. Highest score, 200. Second youngest to 1000 runs in a Ranji Trophy season. List A average, 40. One century and 3 half centuries from 15 matches. Highest score, 105 not out. Twenty20 average, 28.37. Strike rate, 131.61. Six-half centuries. Highest score, 86. 439 runs from 14 matches in the 2015 IPL season, eighth highest scorer overall.
These are Shreyas Iyer's numbers. Brilliant. Magnificent. Almost surreal. More than enough to warrant selection into the Indian team. But then, it's not always about the numbers. They are not always the best indicators. Mark Ramprakash comes to mind. So do Graeme Hick, Ravindra Jadeja and many others.
It's about temperament. It's about the ability to stand up on the big occasions. It's about the strength to believe in yourself when your back is to the wall.
And Shreyas Iyer has that temperament, that knack of scoring runs in big matches. Be it the under 19's, be it the Ranji Trophy, be it the IPL, he has always made the stage his own. He has always been the headline grabber, the show stopper in teams which have much bigger players than him. Only because he scores runs when it matters. Only because he stands up when no one else does.
More than any other statistical feat, it is this quality, it is this habit that should get Iyer into the Indian team.
After a long time, they have a player whose temperament will never defeat him. They shouldn't make him wait too long. They can't make him wait too long.
The question now is not whether Iyer will get a chance in the Indian team. It's not even when. It's how.
The only place up for grabs in the Test match team is at the top, where Shikhar Dhawan has failed to inspire any confidence against top quality attacks.
Iyer is not an opener, but then India can't afford to keep a batsman like him, in scintillating form, on the bench until a middle order spot opens up. He can adapt as we saw in the IPL, where he opened the batting throughout the season.
The self-belief. The mental strength. The big match temperament. A different batting position won't change that. It can't.
The ODI's provide a bit more room though. India is still undecided about numbers four and five. While Manish Pandey scored a century in the Sydney ODI, it remains to be seen whether he can continue in that vein over a longer period of time. And as for Ajinkya Rahane, captain MS Dhoni is himself not convinced about his ability to score quick runs on slow tracks.
Iyer can easily be given a run in the ODI's. And it's a run he thoroughly deserves. He has that oomph, that indescribable X-factor, that everything.
It's a cold January morning in Kanpur. Iyer is playing for India 'B' in the final of the 2015/16 Deodhar Trophy. I am sitting comfortably placed under my blanket in Delhi, watching him on TV.
Assam fast bowler Krishna Das, playing for India 'A', bowls an away swinger that pitches on off. Iyer shuffles. And then, with utter disdain, he thrashes it to the long on fence. It's at once both so fluid and violent, both so black and white.
And then, there is the lord-like walk, the straight face, the pursed lips, the indifferent look in his eyes. That Shreyas Iyer trademark.
I have watched a lot of him since that IPL game in Delhi. But he still never fails to amaze me. Not even once. I take another sip of the hot chocolate that I'm having. For the umpteenth time, I tell myself that this man is going to be a superstar at the international level. There’s no way he won’t.
It's just about a chance. One chance. Shreyas Iyer's chance.