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Suryakumar and Venkatesh - doing the dirty work, and giving it a good scrub

The two men, entrusted with different but equally difficult jobs, are key pieces to India's white-ball jigsaw

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Suryakumar Yadav has been doing a difficult job with the greatest of calm, India vs West Indies, 3rd T20I, Kolkata, February 20, 2022

Suryakumar Yadav has been doing a difficult job with the greatest of calm  •  BCCI

"The SKY is the limit". Suryakumar Yadav might have had enough of the joke, but doesn't deny anyone the pleasure of saying it at press conferences. He laughs instead, contented at how things are shaping up for him.
In March 2021, he was just like one of many players on the fringes of the national team. At 30, he wasn't sure if the India cap would ever come his way. Blockbuster IPLs since 2018 for Mumbai Indians, apart from tons of runs in domestic cricket for a better part of four seasons prior to the pandemic, hadn't led to any joy. There were no guarantees. But, as he transformed himself, training the mind to be calm and not let non-selection nibble away at him, magic happened.
The call came, and he began his international career by hooking Jofra Archer for six. Life hasn't quite been the same since. From starting off as a middle-order back-up for Shreyas Iyer - his shoulder injury got him much-needed game time last year - he has broken the door down with heaps of runs. He soaks up pressure, carries the team along calmly like a decade-old veteran, without losing his batting enterprise.
The limited-overs matches against West Indies have merely underscored Suryakumar's value in the set-up. He stamped his presence when the team needed it the most in both formats, not just rescuing the innings when needed, like on Sunday in the final T20I, when he hit a 31-ball 65, but also ensuring he was there right till the end to see the team through choppy waters, like in the first T20I when he scored 34* in 18.
The secret to Suryakumar's game is the calmness that allows him to line up bowlers at the last second. He gives away very little until the bowler has delivered, and then uses the last split-second to make minute adjustments, before allowing his famed hand-eye coordination and wrists to take over. When he strikes them, it's like in a symphony - the coming together of all elements in perfect coordination. Like the shot that had Dominic Drakes sit back and watch in disbelief as a perfectly acceptable length delivery on off was dispatched over the fine-leg boundary. Suryakumar stood still until Drakes delivered, and then quickly moved across to get down on his back knee to lap-sweep him deep into the stands.
What makes Suryakumar's approach even more refreshing is his adaptability. When he came into bat on Sunday, India were at 66 for 3 in the 11th over. Then Rohit Sharma fell in the 14th. This didn't affect Suryakumar's tempo. You didn't get the sense that his freedom was being restricted. You didn't get the sense that he was edgy and moving around to manufacture shots. It was as if he was perfectly in sync with India's situation, dropping anchor, rotating strike, running hard and putting the bad balls away at the first opportunity.
"It was important to stay till the end when Rohit got out," he said after being adjudged Player of the Match. "We had a chat in our team meetings as well as to how we are going to react in such situations. I'm just trying to repeat the same things which I have been doing in the last few games. Whenever the situation arrives, I try to stay there till the end. Be a little harsh on yourself in the nets, that's it."
But what's better than having one good finisher in the batting order, is having two of them. On Sunday, they shellacked 86 in the death overs, the most India have ever made in a T20I.
In this case, opposite Suryakumar was Venkatesh Iyer. Unlike his partner, Venkatesh's drive into the big lane hasn't been built on years of domestic success, but on the back of a season-changing IPL 2021, where he was Kolkata Knight Riders' enforcer up top. But when India needed a back-up for Hardik Pandya, following a poor T20 World Cup campaign, they went to Venkatesh, and he hasn't disappointed so far.
Unlike in the IPL, Venkatesh bats at six for India. It's a position where you train yourself to bat five, ten, 15, 20 balls, or maybe 25. It's a position where you have much more to lose than gain. Cheap dismissals in the death overs while looking for the big shots in a high-scoring game could leave you wondering if that's that. It can force you to shun your free-stroking nature in search of consistency. Venkatesh has had none of it, yet.
The first ball he faced in T20Is, against New Zealand, was sent to the boundary, at a time when India's chase was getting tense. Off his second, he tried an inventive reverse scoop, only to be caught.
But he has been given a rope, and he is using it well.
In the ongoing series, twice in three games, Venkatesh finished the innings off smartly, sustaining the late-order tempo. In the second T20I, he combined with Rishabh Pant to hit 76 off 35 balls to set up a match-winning score. On Sunday, he combined with Suryakumar to ensure India found their lower-order muscle. In the first, he saw India home after they lost a flurry of wickets to make a straightforward chase challenging. He finished the T20I series with scores of 24*, 33 and 35*. More importantly, he struck at 179.24.
Venkatesh isn't a blind slogger. He has a method that comes with refreshing clarity of his own game. His first two strokes on Sunday were proper cover drives - one lofted and the other along the ground. He latches on to short balls quickly and uses his long levers to play them with muscle. When he plays the pull, there are no half-measures.
Then, as the sixth bowler, Venkatesh has conditioned himself to bowl the tough overs. As the chase got tense in the second T20I, Venkatesh even walked up to Rohit asking to be given the ball. Rohit didn't go down that route, but later spoke of how impressed he was with Venkatesh's attitude of wanting to be in the line of fire, wanting to take ownership and win games for the team.
On Sunday, India had an unfortunate injury with Deepak Chahar hobbling out after just 1.5 overs. India needed to make up the remaining overs. Enter Venkatesh. He saw his first ball walloped for six, but he held his nerve, backed his strengths, and walked off with the wickets of Jason Holder and Kieron Pollard. It was almost like that was the game, right there.
"He's had a really good series for us. After he played the three T20s against New Zealand, you could sort of see his potential," Rahul Dravid said of Venkatesh. "We kind of gave him the clarity on the kind of role we have for him. I know he plays a slightly different role for his IPL franchise up here in Kolkata, but we were very clear with him as to what kind of role we see him filling in seeing our situation, because in our top three there isn't really a spot. Guys are established and we have guys who have performed in the top three.
"So we challenged him and gave him the role to be able to bat in that position [as a finisher]. Every time he has come back from a break, he has improved, gotten better, and his performances are better and that's pleasing, that's what you want to see. How they improve, get better, and respond to those challenges, and his bowling is coming along every time.
"Even in these three games… he bowled a very good over in the first T20I, got us a couple of wickets here. Like I tell him, the role of a sixth bowler is not always to be called upon to bowl, but in a situation like today, where we lost someone like Deepak, you may be called upon to bowl a few critical overs. That is the role of a sixth bowler, to be able to use when it's required. If you're having a good day and the captain doesn't need you, he doesn't need you. But when he needs you, he will need you at a critical time and he's done a very good job. He has had a great series, I must say that."
Both Suryakumar and Venkatesh, in their current roles, are key pieces to India's T20I jigsaw going forward. And their performances, the consistency, coming at a time when the team is finalising options for Australia 2022, can only mean lesser headaches for the Indian team management.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo