"First international wicket more special than runs" - Venkatesh Iyer on India debut, nailing the all-rounder's spot, Ranji aspirations & more

Venkatesh Iyer scored 36 runs and scalped a wicket in the three-match T20I series vs NZ
Venkatesh Iyer scored 36 runs and scalped a wicket in the three-match T20I series vs NZ

When you speak to Venkatesh Iyer, his remarkable clarity of thought hits you in the face. Being the hardcore Rajinikanth fan that he is, Iyer seems to have foreseen what lies ahead - and is preparing accordingly.

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, the 26-year-old revealed that he came into the Indian team presuming he might have to bat in the middle order - despite having a breakout IPL season opening the batting. In his maiden international appearance, Iyer walked out in a pressure-cooker situation; India needed 10 runs off the final over.

Anyone would be excused for feeling the heat in that moment, but Iyer’s sharp mind told him well in advance that he would be facing either part-time seamer Daryl Mitchell or leggie Ish Sodhi. And as it turned out, Mitchell it was.

Yes, Iyer was dismissed off the second delivery trying to play a reverse-paddle. But there was no fault in his decision-making.

After all, how can someone get his shot-making wrong after a career filled with all the right decisions?

In 2016, the Indore-born Iyer had to choose between his CA (Chartered Accountancy) finals and cricket. Mind you, he had already played white-ball cricket for the Madhya Pradesh senior team and was captaining the Under-23 side. He chose cricket, but he also enrolled for an MBA in finance as back-up.

Iyer again had to turn a sharp corner two years later. This time, the conundrum was between a job with accounting firm Deloitte and a little-more-promising cricket career. Iyer once again chose cricket, and guess what, he made his first-class debut that December itself.

Venkatesh Iyer’s story is one for the ages; it is one that will remind youngsters the importance of prioritizing and of having a back-up plan.

Speaking of back-ups, there has always been plenty of hand-wringing over the dearth of quality seam-bowling all-rounders in the country. There was a need for Hardik Pandya’s replacement, but you just had to cast a net towards the neighboring state.

The Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) scouts did so, and spotted this burly left-hander with a baritone who had been smacking quick runs everywhere – Iyer has strike rates of 98.72 and 134.97 in List A and T20 cricket respectively. And for someone who has successfully balanced cricket and academics for over two decades, it wouldn't have been too difficult to ace all three departments on the field.

With Eoin Morgan’s boys having lost five of the first seven matches, the 6'3" lad was fast-tracked into the playing XI when the IPL resumed in the UAE. Iyer ended up having a telling contribution in KKR reaching the final, amassing 370 runs at a stunning average of 41.11.

His stock has exponentially risen from KKR buying him for INR 20 lakh ahead of IPL 2021 to retaining him for a whopping INR 8 crore ahead of the mega auction.

Iyer might have been slotted in at No. 6 in the Indian team, but he batted with the same authority as he did at the start of every IPL innings. While he had begun his IPL career with a boundary off the second ball, the very first ball he faced in international cricket was dispatched to the mid-wicket fence.

All in all, it was a debut series studded with runs, catches, a first international wicket and some fantastic memories at iconic venues with capacity crowds.

A pragmatic and humble individual, Venkatesh Iyer unsurprisingly reiterated - in the interview with Sportskeeda - how he would have to take the lessons of the three-match T20I series in his stride and continue the same process over and over again. It might have been an interaction, but it seemed as if he was drilling the answers into his head.

Starting as a B.Com graduate, Iyer has come a long way to potentially filling the missing piece of the puzzle with his power-hitting and seam bowling. And he is grateful for everything.

Iyer is desperate to help his state win the Ranji Trophy for the first time (Holkar, the erstwhile form of the team, won four titles between 1941 and 1955), but not because he wants to catch the eye of selectors. Instead, he wants to win it to pay tribute to his coach Chandrakant Pandit and friend-cum-nutritionist Suraj Thakuria.

Venkatesh Iyer is, clearly, on the path to greatness.

Excerpts from Venkatesh Iyer’s exclusive interview with Sportskeeda:

Venkatesh Iyer made his India debut in Jaipur on November 17
Venkatesh Iyer made his India debut in Jaipur on November 17

Q. First of all, many congratulations on your India cap. Do you sometimes think 'Wow, it has really happened!', or has it reached a stage where your parents or childhood friends treat you differently?

Venkatesh Iyer: Not really, I am not thinking of it from this perspective. Obviously I wanted to play for the country, not just to play for the country but win games for the country and do well for a longer period of time. So parents still backing me to go a long way. Of course it was a good moment but nothing very, very special.

Q. How did it feel when you entered the dressing room for the very first time? Did that 'pinch me' moment happen when you stayed back in the UAE as a net bowler, or did it happen in Jaipur?

Venkatesh Iyer: It didn’t happen in either place, to be honest. But yeah, when I entered the dressing room for the first time, the reception was very good. Everyone welcomed me, there was warmth in everyone’s welcoming, so obviously it was a good moment. But nothing over-the-moon kind of stuff, it was very normal for me.

Q. Going back a bit, the opening partnership and the spin duo played major roles in KKR’s journey to the final. After such an impactful season, which was also your debut one, did you feel you might be in the reckoning for a national call-up - especially when it was evident some of the big guns would sit out the NZ series?

Venkatesh Iyer: Yeah, obviously. When I got the call that I’d be staying back as a net bowler, I knew that selectors do have an eye on me. IPL is a platform where if you perform well, you get attention – not just from selectors, but a lot of people. So I thought if I do well in the Mushtaq Ali Trophy, which is obviously one of the premier tournaments in our country, I might get a call. And that’s what happened.

Q. Was there any hint from the management that they wanted you to be ready and that was why they sent you back from the UAE to participate in the Mushtaq Ali, or was that your decision?

Venkatesh Iyer: There weren’t a lot of net sessions for the Indian team. Obviously we all being all-rounders, they realised that we cannot get batting and that might hamper our batting. So that’s why they asked us to go and prepare for the Mushtaq Ali, and that was the right call – me coming back and practising my batting and all.

Q. Were you a bit surprised when you were asked to stay back in the UAE as a net bowler? In domestic cricket as well as in the IPL, you obviously batted more than you bowled.

Venkatesh Iyer: I am an all-rounder, it’s just that I didn’t get a lot of bowling in the IPL. But obviously, they looked at my domestic performances and my bowling in the Ranji Trophy and all. So I was asked to just groom my bowling skills and learn with all the greats like Bumrah and Bhuvi and Shami bhai.

But yeah, it came across as a surprise that I have been asked to stay as a net bowler when I was doing well with the bat. That element was a surprise, but when it comes to me, I really felt that like, ‘Okay, I can learn a lot of bowling skills there’.

Q. When were you told you'd be making your debut? Also, can you talk a bit about the emotions you felt on receiving that coveted cap from Rohit?

Venkatesh Iyer: The day before the game, I was told that I was going to play and I was very happy and I was looking forward to it. Obviously I wanted to create an impact, look at it as just another match that I am going to go out there and try to give my best and make my team win. And when I got my cap, obviously that’s what everyone told.

Rohit bhai told me to go out there and enjoy the game and put my best foot forward. And that’s exactly what I was feeling – whatever happens, irrespective of me getting runs, irrespective of results and all – just try and enjoy the game.

Q. You open for both MP and KKR. Of course you have to adjust to different roles when you are playing for India, but what sort of mental preparation did it take to come to terms with the new batting position?

Venkatesh Iyer: I have been opening only for two years now. Before that, I was a middle-order batsman only. So it didn’t take a lot of time for me to come to terms with the fact that I am going to bat in the middle-order, it’s not a new territory for me. And it was evident, when there are already four openers, Rahul sir clearly told me that I am going to bat in the middle order.

So yeah, I was prepared and honestly it did not take a lot of time, I was mentally prepared for this only. Even before going to the Indian team bubble, I knew there are very slim chances of me actually opening.

Q. With 10 needed off the final over, you walked out for your maiden India appearance at the crease. What was going through your mind at that time?

Venkatesh Iyer: Even before that, I knew that one over was left. So one over either Daryl Mitchell will bowl or they have to get in a leggie. So I was confident that if I get the strike, I will be able to finish it.

Yeah, I should have finished it, but it’s fine, not a lot of emotions. Once I went out to bat, it was a task in hand to get 10 runs off 6 balls.

Venkatesh Iyer and Shreyas Iyer have the potential to make for a dynamic middle-order duo
Venkatesh Iyer and Shreyas Iyer have the potential to make for a dynamic middle-order duo

Q. How do you stay in the moment in such situations? There are some who block out whatever's happening outside once they step onto the field; they just focus on the delivery, with nothing else on their mind. Do you do that too?

Venkatesh Iyer: That is the normal routine. Once you are going out there, there is a lot of noise, there are a lot of things happening. But since we’re professional cricketers, once we take guard, I think it’s just a ball that comes and we have to react to it. Nothing else is going on here and there, so that is how it has been.

Q. Did you look back and regret, 'I should have finished it off, why did I try that reverse sweep'?

Venkatesh Iyer: No, not really. I thought that I should have finished it, but I don’t have any regrets in playing that shot. A couple of meters here and there, and that would have gone for a four. So I don’t really have any regrets why I played that shot, it’s my percentage shot and it just found a fielder.

Q. After the first T20I, Surya spoke about your bowling sessions; that you were spending a lot of time with Paras Sir and having long conversations with Rohit. So I am intrigued to know whether, when you are bowling in the nets, you work on anything specific - like yorkers, bowling with wet balls, or anything else?

Venkatesh Iyer: Yeah, the usual things that all bowlers work on. Because when I bowl, the onus is on me to deliver at that time. So it’s important that I work on all aspects – bowling in the middle, bowling in the powerplay and at the death, with the wet ball, working on my variations.

So yeah, I have been in talks with the bowling coach regarding my all these variations and various aspects of the game.

Q. You said in an interview that you are not here to fill anyone's shoes. But deep down, are you yearning to make that all-rounder's spot your own? Were your hands itching to bowl during the first two games?

Venkatesh Iyer: Yeah I was waiting for my opportunity. Once I get to bowl, I just wanted to make an impact and try to execute whatever was asked of me. As an all-rounder, your bowling does matter a lot. It’s not like, you can only bat and field and get away with it, you really have to bowl.

But the good thing is, all the five frontline bowlers did their job perfectly. So Rohit Bhai didn’t need a sixth bowling option.

Q. For a bowler, is there a possibility that you can go and approach Rohit and suggest rolling your arm over?

Venkatesh Iyer: You can, but see, it’s ultimately the captain’s call. Once your frontline bowlers are doing the job, they are doing what the captain is asking them, then it gives so much clarity to the captain. Like, he doesn’t have to put his mind somewhere else. If someone gets hit or someone’s having a bad day, then there’s always a sixth bowling option that a captain can count on. That’s what happens generally.

Q. Coming to Kolkata, you hit that huge six over mid-wicket, got set, but then were dismissed against the run of play. In such a situation, does Brendon McCullum’s philosophy kick in, that players shouldn’t feel bad getting out while trying to score? How big a role has McCullum played in you hitting the ground running?

Venkatesh Iyer: That’s what T20 cricket is about; you shouldn’t regret playing shots. It is actually the form of cricket where you can openly express and play your shots. And higher the risk, the reward is higher. That’s what Baz always mentions; he just wants us to go out there and express ourselves.

He backs us to go out there and play freely, play attacking cricket, because that’s how he has played most of his cricket. So yeah, that’s what he wanted from us when we were batting for KKR. There is that ‘Baz factor’ which has been really prevalent.

Q. Is that ‘Baz factor’ there in the Rahul Dravid reign too?

Venkatesh Iyer: Even with Rahul Sir, being the stalwart that he is, he knows how to handle situations and how to handle players. He knows that I am someone who likes to nice shots, so he has given me the freedom to go out there and do that, not really restrict myself.

Venkatesh Iyer dismissed Adam Milne and returned impressive figures of 1 for 12 from 3 overs in the 3rd T20I
Venkatesh Iyer dismissed Adam Milne and returned impressive figures of 1 for 12 from 3 overs in the 3rd T20I

Q. You capped off a memorable debut series with impressive figures, which included the wicket of Adam Milne. At that moment did you feel something to the effect, 'Yes, I have justified my all-rounder's tag'?

Venkatesh Iyer: Even if I had not gotten to bowl, I would have been happy. But it feels good to get your first international wicket, right? More than my first runs, a first international wicket is always special.

That third over I got and the first ball was out, so it was good that I got my first wicket and it’s something that I will remember for a long time.

Q. The academic background you come from is well-documented. After the six years of domestic cricket and now the India series, do you feel academic qualities like calculative approach and sharp thinking help you see cricket through a different lens as compared to your peers?

Venkatesh Iyer: It does give me an edge over others, that’s what I feel. Because see, for me, up until now, it was not like academics and cricket should be differentiated. If I am studying, then I’ll be studying and not thinking about my cricketing skills. And if I am playing, there is nothing else going on around the world, it’s just my cricket. That’s how I have always kept it, I have managed both.

But yeah, sometimes it does help me – things like smart decision-making, assessing and stuff. Both were important to me and that has taught me a lot of things – how to balance things, time management, discipline.

Q. People always talk about your IPL exploits and that 198 against Punjab. But if I were to ask you what your favorite knocks are – performances that you feel gave you confidence and belief – what would those be?

Venkatesh Iyer: Two innings really stand out for me. Last season, after COVID, Mushtaq Ali happened for the first time. And in the first practice game against Chattisgarh, my coach Chandrakant Pandit Sir, he just asked me to open the innings. Not a lot of discussion about it, but he just told me to go out there and open.

That came across as a surprise, but actually I was ready. I scored a hundred in that practice match; that actually was an innings that I really enjoyed.

Then in the Mushtaq Ali last year, we were chasing 180 and I scored 90 not out against Saurashtra. I finished the game, which is more important. That is when I realised that even while chasing, when there is a run-rate that needs to be chased down, I could be there till the end, I could finish games.

So that feeling was very good. And that Punjab game, you know, I was dropped on 0. That’s why it’s not very special for me.

Q. Baz told us that you were supposed to play the match against RCB, but then COVID struck. During the four-and-a-half month break, what was going through your mind?

Venkatesh Iyer: The first four days were tough because I thought, again starting from scratch, I have to go back to the drawing board. But after four days, there was this announcement that IPL will resume and there will be matches. That’s when I thought of it as an opportunity; I thought I’ll keep my preparations on.

I knew, being the coach that Baz is, he would definitely give me an opportunity; it was just about me earning his confidence again. So I was ready, and I got back to preparation. And even if the IPL had not happened, I would have been positive about my process again. Because I know that if I stick to my process, then one day things will happen.

Q. What are your takeaways from the international series? How has the experience helped you as a person and cricketer? Do you feel, dare I say, that it has given you a reality check?

Venkatesh Iyer: Yeah, obviously. The role that I was given, obviously I need to do a lot of work. I need to go out there and get set quickly and get on with it. Being the international class bowlers that they are, they won’t give away nothing. Obviously there are more challenges to come. So I need to prepare accordingly.

I know how to prepare and how to do things; we have a wonderful set-up not just with the Indian team but also in our MP setup. So I have a task in hand and also my bowling skills. It is actually a process that will never stop; even if I end up playing 100 matches for the country, still there will be scope for improvement.

You have seen Jimmy Anderson; he has taken so many wickets, but still he’s developing something new. Same for Tim Southee. So this will never stop, but I know have a clear path to head to.

Venkatesh Iyer has scored 545 runs at an average of 36.33 in 10 first-class matches so far
Venkatesh Iyer has scored 545 runs at an average of 36.33 in 10 first-class matches so far

Q. Will you give more importance to the upcoming Ranji Trophy, now that another Iyer has scored a hundred on debut?

Venkatesh Iyer: One hundred percent. For me, the ultimate objective is to play Test cricket for the country. And I am really happy for Shreyas, the way he batted, unbelievable knock on debut. These things do inspire us as cricketers; it makes us feel we can also be in that position and do well for the country.

Obviously I want to have a good Ranji Trophy. Not just personally, but I really want to make MP win this year’s Ranji Trophy. That is something that I will put my sincere effort towards.

Q. Do you feel you have grown both physically and mentally over the last few years? What or who would you credit for your rapid progress?

Venkatesh Iyer: Yeah, but this is something that I want to credit to Chandrakant Pandit. And this process really started with someone called Suraj Thakuria, who happens to be my best friend and my nutritionist. So this guy has completely transformed me in the past one year.

After his advice and nutritional consultancy, I have drastically changed. Not just because of that, but the attitude that he has shown and the confidence that he has given me, it’s unbelievable. So a lot of credit should go to him.

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Edited by Sai Krishna