Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Following India's 3-0 loss in South Africa this January, Shreyas Iyer has batted 11 times in ODIs. In this period, he has racked up six half-centuries and a career-best 113 not out at a strike rate of 92.63. In his most recent outing on a difficult Mirpur pitch that offered both turn and variable bounce, he made a high-quality 82 off 102 balls.
Much of this consistency (refer to the sequence above) can be attributed to a sense of security he's had in a second-string India XI, led by Shikhar Dhawan. Eight of these 11 knocks have come in games Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli haven't played. In their absence, Iyer has either been an accumulator or an enforcer, depending on circumstances.
In an ideal world, given the year he has had - he is the highest run-getter among Full Member players in ODI cricket so far - there should be no debates around Iyer's spot in a full-strength side. But because of stifling competition in India's middle order, Iyer has a constant tussle on his hands.
However, his string of compelling performances have put him top of the list of contenders for now though, and raised hopes of Iyer being the No. 4 batter who could lend stability to the line-up - something India have yearned for since the previous 50-over World Cup in 2019.
Iyer's biggest strengths are his ability to score freely, and access different pockets of the ground. While others may be lacking in terms of their scoring rate against spin, Iyer has gained a reputation of being unstoppable against slow bowling. Among the reasons for that are his footwork and clarity.
But there's also this growing chorus over Iyer's vulnerability against the short ball, and not without reason. It all started at the IPL, when he was repeatedly roughed up by bouncers. He was out to short-pitched deliveries four times, and the demons unleashed by it got him one other time when Umran Malik peppered him with some bouncers before dismantling his stumps with a searing yorker.
In England, these struggles were exposed point blank with that famous Brendon McCullum's go-for-his-throat gesture to his bowlers from the balcony. It's an area that needs work, Iyer has acknowledged, and he is trying to find remedies behind the scenes; he has seldom lacked in effort and willingness to deal with the issue. That quality, in someone as flamboyant as Iyer, will make the team management happy.
When it was known Iyer wasn't going to be part of the travelling reserves to Australia for the 2022 T20 World Cup, he set up one-on-one sessions with Abhishek Nayar, the former Ranji Trophy-winning captain with Mumbai. Iyer and Nayar have developed a fantastic working relationship over the years. The core of these private sessions in Mumbai was to help improve his game against the short ball.
Those who've watched Iyer closely would know about his propensity to back away to slash behind point or over cover. It's one of his release shots against the short ball aimed at the body, one that looks terribly ugly when it doesn't come off. The idea behind the private sessions was to explore more options, and give him enough time to put them into practice by making minor tweaks to his setup.
"The initial part was to understand why he wasn't able to play the short ball well," Nayar tells ESPNcricinfo. "We worked on the technical side and made a slight change in his initial movements. If you watch him closely, you will see small tactical and technical changes, like where he stands, how he stands. The distance between his feet and initial movements change. His feet are a lot wider in his setup, which has helped him play the pull. In New Zealand [in November], he was playing the short-arm pull a lot more.
"We started working on it during the IPL but couldn't address the issue since matches kept coming thick and fast. So, when he had this break, we worked on his technique, prior to the [domestic] Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s. Once he understood the nuances of why he wasn't playing it well and why he'd get into a tangle, it was a lot easier to address it.
"Lately, he's had more success rather than fending or hitting over point or cover point like he did previously. Knowing him and what he's done and his mindset towards attacking the problem, he's not far away from pulling a 150kph bouncer for four or six. Is he there yet? He will be, very soon, but at 135-140 [kph], he's very comfortable playing that. He's worked really hard at it technically in terms of making those changes and understanding why he had those problems and what was affecting his short-ball game. If his numbers are so good with all these issues going around, once it's sorted, he'll evolve into something even more special."
For the record, since the IPL, Iyer has had a control percentage of 77 against short-of-a-length or short deliveries. The balls he's been in control of have helped him score 134 runs at a strike rate of 97.10. Whether the technical changes now translate into a better record against the short ball, only time will tell.
Looking at the bigger picture, Iyer will perhaps compete with Suryakumar Yadav, Sanju Samson and Deepak Hooda for one batting slot in the one-day middle order, if we assume that Rohit Sharma will open with one of Shikhar Dhawan or Shubman Gill, with Kohli at No. 3, followed by KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya.
Among those who could give Iyer serious competition, Hooda is the only one who offers some overs with the ball but has barely had any opportunities to present his case. Suryakumar's case is compelling as well, but he can't be judged without a fair run. While he did feature in the ODIs in New Zealand, he has been rested for Bangladesh tour. With coach Rahul Dravid stating the home season is likely to throw up opportunities to field an ideal first XI, the next few weeks could give us a peek into who India are tilting towards.
It will not be surprising if that someone is Iyer, who has done everything he can to present a water-tight case to be the No. 4 India have wanted for so long.