Shreyas Iyer: From white-ball shadow to red-ball spotlight

Shreyas Iyer looks set to make his Test debut against New Zealand
Shreyas Iyer looks set to make his Test debut against New Zealand

February 2017, Australia arrive on Indian shores hoping to right the wrongs of their previous Test series (away) against India. On paper, the Aussies seem stronger than they did in 2012-13 and seem to have done their homework (pun intended).

This time, they also plan to play a warm-up fixture to acclimatize themselves to their surroundings and to get a better idea of what might work when the Test series starts proper. Unsurprisingly, a game against a select group of Indian cricketers – each looking to impress the top brass, beckons.

The visitors begin the game extremely well and pound the hosts into submission. Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith craft dexterous tons, with Matthew Wade and Mitchell Marsh pulverizing the bowling attack a little later.

With the ball, Australia get off to an even better start, reducing India 'A' to 19/1 in the 12th over. The tourists have found their voice. They feel that this tour is finally going to be when they overcome their past demons.

A strapping young lad then walks to the center. He isn’t fazed by the verbal volleys and the excitement Australia have generated. He isn’t even bothered if this game is being looked upon as an audition for a future India gig. He is out there, and he just wants to bat – bat as if he knows no one is watching but bat in a manner that makes millions sit up and take notice.

Over the next few hours of cricket, Australia finally meet their match. This right-handed batter hasn’t just taken the wind out of the Aussie sails, he has notched up a delightful double ton. The next day, the headlines revolve around this youngster. Rather unsurprisingly as well.

Remember, not many domestic cricketers are able to make a mark against the Australians – that too in a warm-up fixture. But this batter had reversed that narrative. So much so that when India crumbled against the Aussies in Pune, the visitors were left thanking their stars for not having to confront Shreyas Iyer again.

That masterful knock didn’t go unnoticed, though. A few months later, Shreyas was handed his India debut, albeit in the shortest format against New Zealand.

At first, Shreyas didn’t really set the world ablaze – at least not like he had done against Australia. There were a few decent essays but none that catapulted him into being a certainty in India’s white-ball sides.

Shreyas has struggled to nail down a place in India's white-ball teams
Shreyas has struggled to nail down a place in India's white-ball teams

The most damning indictment was probably when India were furiously rummaging for a middle-order batter at the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. A plethora of options were explored, including an all-rounder (Vijay Shankar), a relative greenhorn (Rishabh Pant) and a veteran longing for his last dance (Dinesh Karthik).

Shreyas, meanwhile, didn’t even warrant a mention. Though things have improved since that omission, notably in the ODI format, there is still a feeling that Shreyas might fall behind in the pecking order when all the other big guns return.

Shreyas Iyer hasn't been able to nail down a place in white-ball cricket

As things stand, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan are the de-facto ODI opening pair, meaning that KL Rahul has to be accommodated in the middle order. With Virat Kohli batting at No. 3 and Ravindra Jadeja and Pant being nigh-on irreplaceable (at the moment at least), there aren’t many openings for Shreyas.

In red-ball cricket, though, there seem to be plenty of opportunities for Shreyas. Not because Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara haven’t covered themselves in glory lately, but because Shreyas, owing to his stellar first-class record, seems much better equipped for the longest version anyway.

Shreyas averages a whopping 52.18 in first-class cricket. Remarkably, his strike rate hovers around 81.54. He has 12 hundreds and 23 fifties too, indicating that he has a tendency to play impactful knocks and take the game away from the opposition.

Apart from that, a lot of Shreyas’ first-class tons have come against excellent bowling attacks. In addition to the 202* against Australia A, he also has a century against a New Zealand 'A' side that comprised of Ish Sodhi, Lockie Ferguson, Matt Henry and Todd Astle.

In domestic cricket, Shreyas has 100-plus scores against Baroda (twice), Bengal, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab (twice), Saurashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, suggesting that he knows how to perform when the going gets tough.

Of the 12 times Shreyas has gone past the 100-run hurdle, he has breached the 130-run barrier on nine occasions, hinting that he has an appetite for scoring mammoth tons.

Most importantly, though, Shreyas’ game just seems more suited to the red-ball format, wherein there aren’t as many fielders patrolling the boundaries and just enough gaps to keep the momentum ticking.

In white-ball cricket and T20s specifically, his ability to shift gears has been called into question. In duration games, that might not be an issue at all, which, coupled with his propensity to pile on truckloads of runs, should hold him in good stead.

A few technical flaws might still exist in Shreyas’ batting. But with him only being 26, there is enough time for him to rectify them. To that end, the best exposure seems a decent run with the Indian Test side.

From an Indian perspective, it is quite surprising that they’ve taken so long to unleash Shreyas in Test cricket despite his first-class record holding an edge over his corresponding numbers in white-ball cricket.

Even in ODIs and T20Is, a case could be made that his talents haven’t been utilized to the fullest. He has often had to play a role that he isn’t comfortable with – something that has subsequently left him on the fringes in ODIs and T20Is.

I guess with KL Rahul ruled out, the team more or less picks itself for the first test. Agarwal, Gill, Pujara, Iyer, Rahane, Jadeja, Saha, Ashwin, Axar, Yadav, Siraj. Maybe Ishant but this looks pretty much it. Would have been a great opportunity for Vihari.

Shreyas Iyer could make his Test debut at Kanpur

Now, though, he has the opportunity to show that he can be a sensational red-ball batter and one who isn’t willing to meander in the shadows like he does in white-ball cricket. In other words, he has the chance to embrace the Test spotlight and illustrate that India have been missing a trick all along.

He knows how not to be fazed by the occasion and seems to understand the risks of putting undue pressure on himself. The only difference this time is that he can’t bat assuming that no one is watching.

A billion people will be glued to their television sets, make no mistake about it. But he can make a billion people sit up and take notice, right? Seems to have a fair bit of experience on that front too!

Edited by Sai Krishna
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