Where Shreyas Iyer falls short
Does he have a short-ball weakness, or is his issue more specific?
At first glance, it appears as if it's a left-hand batter playing a falling hook, a la Roy Fredericks. But a closer look reveals it to be Shreyas Iyer, a right-hand batter, his limbs all contorted as he tries to deal with a short ball from Marco Jansen during IPL 2022.
Fast bowlers around the world know Iyer doesn't fancy the short ball. During the IPL, he was out to short-pitched deliveries on four occasions. On another, Umran Malik peppered him with the short stuff before shattering his stumps with a yorker.
On Thursday, in the first T20I against South Africa in Delhi, Iyer raced to 24 off eight balls, smashing three sixes off Tabraiz Shamsi in the process. In all, he looted 23 runs off ten balls against the spinners. But when the fast bowlers came on, he could manage only 13 off 17 balls. As per ESPNcricinfo's logs, out of those 17, nine were pitched short of a good length, and Iyer scored eight runs off those nine balls.
And while South Africa's quicks bowled nine short-of-good-length balls to Iyer, they didn't bowl a single ball in the "short" category; a pattern that suggests they were looking to bowl what are commonly known as "hard lengths" rather than bounce him out. There's a certain amount of subjectivity to this data, but if this was South Africa's plan, they had a reason for it. More on this later.
As a result of Iyer's slowdown against pace, his innings, which began in fifth gear, ended with a strike rate of 133.33 (36 runs off 27 balls). It was the slowest innings by any Indian batter other than Dinesh Karthik, who faced only two balls, in the match.
"I think when Shreyas gets stuck [against fast bowlers], he moves around the crease a lot," Wasim Jaffer said on ESPNcricinfo's show T20 Time:Out. "He goes outside leg stump and wants to access the off side. Otherwise, you don't see him hitting a lot of boundaries or sixes off fast bowlers. He did take down the Shamsi threat but I think looking at the future, he needs to develop some of the shots where he is dominating against fast bowlers because he is batting in the top four; he is not somebody who is going to come at the back end.
"I think he does need to improve his game, especially the boundary hitting against fast bowlers. If you look at the way he batted, that innings probably could have been a little bit better if those 10-15 runs would have come, if he had hit a couple of boundaries [off the fast bowlers]."
Dale Steyn, who was in Sunrisers Hyderabad's dugout as their fast-bowling coach when Jansen had Iyer in a tangle, agreed with his co-analyst's assessment. "It's something he has to work on, just finding areas where he can score more boundaries off the seamers," Steyn said. "I have seen him getting into some pretty strange positions when it comes to speed, especially this past IPL. Knowing that the World Cup is going to be in Australia at the back end of this year, he will have to combat that - facing a lot more seamers than spinners."
Iyer's case is an interesting one. If you look at his T20 numbers in isolation, he fares better against fast bowlers than spinners. Since January 2021, he averages 41.75 against pace while striking at 135.77. Against spin, those numbers drop to 35.77 and 130.89.
However, when you compare him to other batters around the world, you realise there is scope for improvement. Since January 2021, where ball-by-ball data is available, 75 batters have faced 400 or more balls of pace in T20 cricket. When arranged by strike rate, Iyer appears in the bottom half, in 46th position.
If you zoom in further, you can pinpoint Iyer's specific weakness. While the outright short ball can get him out (he only averages 19.00 against that length), he scores quickly against it, as a strike rate of 180.95 suggests. Against the short-of-good-length ball, however, he averages 97.50 but only strikes at 118.18. It has, in short, been a reliable defensive length against Iyer. Among the 78 batters who've faced at least 100 short-of-good-length balls from fast bowlers since the start of 2021, his strike rate puts him in 48th place.
Go even deeper, limiting the line of these short-of-good-length balls to "at stumps", and you have almost zeroed in on Iyer's problem - he really struggles when fast bowlers aim at his body without giving him much room, with his strike rate dropping to 109.09. His counter to this mode of attack, often, is to back away, clear his front leg, and aim to hit through the off side. He tried one such shot against Kagiso Rabada on Thursday and was successful in clearing mid-off. But it's unclear whether it's a sustainable approach. Moreover, fast bowlers like it when they see batters moving to the leg side and exposing their stumps.
In the current series, Iyer will most likely continue batting at No. 3, where he can be the anchor or aggressor depending on the match situation. But once Virat Kohli returns, and if India still want Iyer in the XI, he will have to bat at No. 4 or lower. In that scenario, he may not have the luxury of going at a middling strike rate against pace.
Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo