Ian Chappell, former skipper under whom Australia transformed themselves into a team of world champions, had written last week in his column in Cricinfo that under the leadership of Virat Kohli, Indians have started looking to win matches. As a player and close observer of the game for more than five decades, Chappell would have seen the transformation that has taken place in the Indian side during this period. It was this intense zest for winning matches that saw India emerge out of near impossible situations in the Twenty20 International (T20I) series against New Zealand to script remarkable victories. The side runs on immense self belief, supremely confident about their skill and abilities, that they are able to brush off the occasional loss as a minor occupational hazard that needs to be taken in their stride.
There cannot be a better example of the new attitude that envelops the national side than the statement of Shreyas Iyer after India lost the first One-Day International (ODI) to the Black Caps by four wickets. Iyer himself had scored a brilliant hundred, his first in ODIs, to help the side reach a total score of 347/4 in 50 overs. But New Zealand, powered by a stroke-filled, unbeaten 109 by Ross Taylor, managed to reach the target with four wickets in hand and 11 balls to spare.
After this match, Indian team management sent Iyer to meet the media where he calmly told the members of the press: “Honestly, it does not matter………it is just a loss….. we just sat and found everyone was in their normal zone….. this is not the first time…. we have been through this before…… we have the confidence that we are going to bounce back soon…..”
On his own maiden century in ODIs, this was what he had to say:
“Of course I am happy…. this is the first of the many…..”
These words from a young and upcoming player who is only cementing his place in the national side indicates the change that has come in the mindset of present-day cricketers. There are no thoughts of failure nor are there any feelings of apprehension or self doubt. There are no attempts at humility or self-abnegation either. These cricketers have tremendous faith in their abilities and do not see any reasons for being modest. It is this conviction and confidence that has helped the side to overcome even those barriers that seem insurmountable, to set up miraculous wins.
Iyer, one of the new stars on the Indian cricket horizon, hails from Mumbai and made his way through the ranks of junior cricket to make his first class debut in 2014. He had hit the headlines during the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction, when he was bought by Delhi Daredevils for Rs. 2.6 crore. Iyer did not let his franchisee down and went on to score 439 runs in 14 matches at a strike rate of 128.36 which won him the “Emerging player of the year” award. He followed this up with scintillating performances in the domestic first class circuit, where he helped Mumbai to the Ranji Trophy title in the 2015-16 season. This, in turn, led to the call from national selectors and Iyer found himself in the playing eleven when India took on New Zealand in a T20I at Delhi on November 1, 2017.
Though Iyer did not get a chance to bat on his international debut, selectors persisted with him and he made his bow into the world of ODIs on December 10, 2017, against Sri Lanka at Dharamsala. India’s search for a reliable batsman at the critical No. 4 spot in the batting order for ODIs did not reach Iyer in the period prior to the ICC 2019 World Cup. The team management was more keen on projecting Ambati Rayudu as the ideal candidate for this slot, which meant that the likes of Iyer were not given many opportunities in the pre-World Cup phase. Iyer had equipped himself credibly in the few chances that he got and must have wondered what more he was required to do to win the confidence of the selectors.
Grabbing the chance
When the squad to tour the West Indies after the 2019 World Cup was chosen, selectors decided to look for new blood while filling up the critical posts in the middle order. This time Iyer grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Putting behind the disappointment at being overlooked for the World Cup, Iyer focussed on making his willow do the talking. In the second and third ODIs, he played the supporting role to captain Kohli, partnering in stands that fetched more than 100 runs on each occasion. At the end of this series Kohli made special mention about his junior teammate's batting, saying “Iyer was brave under pressure” and would be a “strong contender and regular feature in the middle order” if he continued to bat in that fashion.
These words of appreciation from his skipper would have gone a long way to boost the confidence of Iyer and served to allay any fears he might have harboured about his place in the side. He also realised the importance of batting as per the needs of the side rather than relying on his instincts, as he used to do in the past. The result was that during the matches at home, Iyer showed that he could not only hold fort and anchor the innings in case early wickets were lost but could also sustain the momentum without dropping a beat if the side was cruising along at a five run plus scoring rate when he took guard in the middle. This makes him the ideal choice for batting at the crucial No. 4 slot in ODIs, thus ending the massive hunt launched by national selectors for a suitable batsman in this position.
The fact that the flexibility and ability to shift gears comes easy to Iyer stands as proof for the enormous talent that he is blessed with. Iyer praises his IPL side Delhi Capitals' coach Ricky Ponting for helping to realise his potential. Ponting impressed upon him the importance of taking his batting to the next grade by incorporating the necessary skillsets to play according to the requirements of the situation. This has helped Iyer to mature from a free stroking batsman into a capable middle order batsman who could evolve into a complete batsman, in the lines of his skipper.
Consistency and adaptability have been the highlights of Iyer’s batting after his comeback to the national side. He looks a certainty to be a part of the national side for T20 World Cup that is scheduled to take place during the latter half of this year. But a player of his calibre should not be restricted to white-ball cricket alone, he should be given opportunities to test his mettle in the most demanding format of the game - the cauldron of Test cricket. This would give him the necessary challenge to raise his game to higher levels, which, when it happens, would benefit Indian cricket in an immeasurable manner. One hopes that selectors would give him the required break in Test cricket soon and persist with him long enough to do justice to his potential.
Iyer struck a half-century in the second ODI of ongoing series against the Kiwis, after the top order caved in before the pace attack led by Tim Southee. The fact that he could not guide his side to a win should not be held against him but must be seen as a measure of his inexperience in tackling such situations in conditions outside the sub continent. He can only benefit from such exposures which would help to fast track his metamorphosis into a world class willow-wielder.
There is no place for “if” and “buts” in life but one could not help wonder how India would have fared in the 2019 World Cup if they had Iyer in the squad, rather than players supposedly blessed with “three dimensional ability”, who have not been seen since wearing national colours.
(The author is a former international umpire and a secnior bureaucrat)