Shreyas Iyer soaks up the pressure to offer reminder of his middle-order chops

It was not a flawless innings, and by his own admission came to an end with a "very bad shot", but he showed glimpses of what he could bring to India's middle order

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Between India's semi-final exit at the 2019 World Cup and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, it appeared as if India had found their No. 4 in ODIs. In this period, Shreyas Iyer hit six half-centuries and a century in 11 innings, on surfaces ranging from the Caribbean to India and New Zealand.
The hundred, his first in ODIs, at Seddon Park in Hamilton, was a terrific effort in dropping anchor and allowing KL Rahul to do the big hitting at the end. He had walked in at No. 4 with India having lost the openers inside 10 overs, and by the time he had finished, India were on their way to 350. They nearly got there.
More than the hundred itself, his soaking up of pressure, strike rotation, and usage of the short boundary to his advantage stood out as he rebuilt the innings and enhanced his reputation. This should've been the start of a long run. Enter Covid-19, and nationwide lockdowns.
Two years later, Iyer is once again in rebuild mode having spent much of the past year recovering from a shoulder injury that has not just cost him match-time with the Indian team but also perhaps his IPL captaincy. He is rebuilding not just an innings, like he did on Friday in top scoring with 80 in the third ODI against West Indies, but his white-ball career too.
India are still searching for squad balance and a new batting blueprint. Of priority has been the search for batters in the top six who can bowl. Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya are currently missing, Venkatesh Iyer, Deepak Hooda and Washington Sundar are all being tried out. This search has left batters like Iyer, who don't bowl, in a middle-order jostle amid stifling competition. Virat Kohli and Rahul are certainties in the middle order. And so, it seems the tussle - even if it may not seem that way on the face of it - is between Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav.
Having wasted three straight opportunities in South Africa, the ongoing ODI series against West Indies was going to be a big test. However, five days from the series, Iyer contracted Covid and was forced to miss the first two ODIs. With Suryakumar grabbing opportunities in both those games, a polished 64 in the second averting a batting collapse, Iyer needed a big knock to make his presence felt upon his return to the XI.
Over the past week, much of the discussions around Iyer have revolved around the upcoming IPL auction, and how franchises could possibly break the bank for him. For Iyer, though, it was a matter of trying to shut out the noise and focus on the "controllables" that players often refer to. And on Friday, Iyer walked in with India in trouble with Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli having fallen in the same over.
"To be honest, I played a very bad shot. At that situation, I had 15 overs left in hand, so I was really disappointed with the shot I played. Obviously there's something to think [about]."
Shreyas Iyer on the shot that got him out
"It was not at all easy to bat [early on]," Iyer told host broadcaster Star Sports. "When I went in, the ball was swinging and seaming. Shikhar Dhawan and I decided to play closer to the body as much as possible, and see one or two odd balls if we get really loose, we will punish it. That's what happened. They were also not sticking to one line, so we had an advantage [in] that. Fifty overs is a long format, and obviously you need to give yourself a little bit of time at the start and later on you can cover it up."
He walked out to a short-ball attack from the pacers. Iyer held his shape and got right behind the line. Twice, he was beaten by late, away movement. At one point, he was half-expecting the short ball to the extent that he wasn't quite getting fully forward. Then when a full one came along, he inside edged to mid-on. Iyer should've been run out as Rishabh Pant turned his back on him but survived. Then as West Indies upped dot-ball pressure, Iyer backed away to try and scythe Odean Smith over point. It was a scratchy beginning.
"It was two-paced but there was some extra bounce on it," Iyer observed. "The cut shots that I usually tend to hit, I was missing it today. It was coming on really good onto the bat and it was quick as well. The bowlers were hitting hard lengths and were short. Definitely, they had come with a plan."
But, slowly, Iyer's tentativeness gave way to some semblance of normalcy as Pant too got his eye in. The pair milked singles and set about repairing the innings. As Nicholas Pooran looked to get some overs of spin out of the way, Iyer shunned his impulsiveness. Without going into his shell, he nudged the ball around at a strike rate of 71.
As he approached his half-century, the white-ball striker in him took over. The first signs of him being in his groove was a ramp over the cordon. When in full flow, this is a high-value shot for Iyer. This time, he was lucky to get away with it because third man had been placed a tad finer. Then, a ball later, Iyer played a gorgeous on-drive all along the ground.
As the partnership veered towards a century, Iyer looked in ominous touch. Joseph was flicked mercilessly to the deep-square-leg boundary and then, in his next over, Iyer brought out the pull. From being tentative early on, he was starting to pick lengths early. He was getting into positions to cut and pull in a split-second. Iyer had seamlessly moved from second gear to fourth. Every time West Indies appeared to have control, Iyer picked up boundaries.
He had started manipulating the fields expertly and hitting bowlers into gaps he was struggling to find early in the innings. And then all that handwork that raised hopes of a second ODI century was undone when he slapped Hayden Walsh straight to long-off. Iyer took an age to walk off, knowing fully well he had missed out on a great opportunity to build past a hundred.
"To be honest, I played a very bad shot," he said. "At that situation, I had 15 overs left in hand, so I was really disappointed with the shot I played. Obviously there's something to think [about]. I had a brief chat with the coaches and my team-mates. There's something to learn from this."
It wasn't a flawless innings, but it was another reminder of the value he brings to India's middle order.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo