Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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"I was a bright student, inclined towards academics. It's generally the other way round, especially in orthodox South Indian families, where parents push kids to focus on studies. In my case, my mother pushed me towards playing cricket."
Venkatesh Iyer, 26, couldn't have been more thankful to his mother on Monday, after being handed his IPL cap by the Kolkata Knight Riders.
Iyer, who bats in the top order and bowls handy medium pace for Madhya Pradesh in the domestic circuit, started like most kids in India - playing for fun. "Honestly, I started playing when my mother would often nudge me to get outdoors and burn energy rather than being cooped up indoors with books all the time," he laughs. And then life happened, and academics would soon take over. Cricket wouldn't make an appearance until he was nearly 19.
Iyer enrolled for a B.Com degree, alongside a chartered accountancy degree. Once he cleared the intermediate examination in 2016, Iyer had a decision to make. Attempting the CA finals would mean giving up the game, or at least temporarily putting his cricket career on hold.
He had already made his T20 and 50-overs debuts for the Madhya Pradesh senior team and was captain of the state's Under-23 team. A first-class debut was imminent, and he let his instincts take over.
"I decided to give up my CA and pursue an MBA in finance," Iyer says. "I gave a lot of entrance exams, had decent scores, and enrolled into a good college. I was fortunate the faculty liked cricket, and they saw I was doing well, and gave me the cushion by taking care of my attendance, preparing notes and rescheduling exams.
"Honestly, I didn't have to put in a lot of effort to manage both. I'm not bragging, I've always been a bright student, I can't say the same about my cricket. That is the kind of confidence I have in my academics. Had there been no cricket, I would have landed in an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) or IIM (Indian Institute of Management).
"If it came down to training or classes, I'd often choose training, because my grasping power was good. But if I went to college for just two hours, I'd ensure my focus would completely be on those two lectures. They anyway gave me the cushion of lower attendance. That helped me pursue an internship too.
"During the off-season, when it rains in Indore, I'd play weekend league cricket in Chennai, and focus on my studies during the week. Everything was very smooth, there was nothing even worthy of time management. If anything, maybe I could have worked on my fitness better."
Iyer landed a job with the "Big Four" accounting firm Deloitte, at their India headquarters in Bengaluru in 2018. It was decision time again, and Iyer let go of the offer, which he eventually wouldn't regret, because he soon made his Ranji Trophy debut for Madhya Pradesh in December that year.
"I knew I wasn't going to take up the offer," he says. "I would've had to move cities, and that would've meant the end of my cricket. We all need a Plan B in life, right? So my MBA was just that. My parents anyway wanted me to complete a basic degree. Dad is a Human Resources consultant, mom has spent many years in hospital administration. A basic degree is all they asked of me. With their help and of course the faculty at college, I was able to focus equally on both academics and cricket."
While letting the job go was tough, Iyer justified it in his own way. "I had a good one-day season, I hadn't got a hundred, but then we had two three-day practice games against Chhattisgarh. In the first game I got out cheaply, but the second one was the turning point," he says. "I had my MBA internal exams, so I went to college, gave the exams, left early, jumped a few signals on the way, and when we got to the ground, we were 60 for 6.
"I was actually thinking about the answers I missed, things I could've written better, but as I took guard I went blank. I made a century in the game. Actually I ended on 96 overnight, so I came back the next day, finished my batting, I think I made 130 or 132, and then went back to college late in the afternoon to give my internals the next day. And soon after that game I got to make my Ranji debut."
While he has been around the domestic circuit since 2015, Iyer came into his own in the truncated 2020-21 season, when he had a prolific white-ball season. He topped the run-charts for his side in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, with 227 runs in five innings at an average of 75.66 and a strike rate of 149.34. Then in the one-day competition, the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he came into his own, hitting a blistering 146-ball 198 against Punjab that helped Madhya Pradesh amass 402 for 3.
In the first half of the IPL, match time eluded Iyer, but he says time spent with the team helped him gain a perspective around his cricket. He credits the hierarchy of communication at KKR for this, and the openness with which he could communicate with the senior leadership group. He also derived great satisfaction at being able to play the likes of Pat Cummins and Sunil Narine in the nets.
"It's a great set-up, you learn so much being in a team environment," he says. "Sometimes as young players you tend to get overawed, you tend to feel 'oh, but can I go up and talk to them.' For me, I looked at all this very normally. And in this set-up, I quickly realised you could have a conversation with just about everyone. That is the best part of the group and I've enjoyed the time with the franchise."
Off the field, Iyer loves reading, and watching cooking shows and movies. He is a huge Rajinikanth fan. "A Thalaivar (boss) devotee," he laughs. "I can watch his movies 'n' number of times. He's a legend."
Iyer doesn't believe in looking too far ahead, but wants to make the most of his opportunities as they come. For starters, he wants to make a mark in the second phase of the IPL and then translate that into success in the upcoming domestic season.
In the Tamil blockbuster Padayappa, Rajinikanth's character belts out the punchline "Yen Vazhi, Thani Vazhi." It translates to something like "my way is unique."
"That line has become my punchline too," Iyer says. "It's been a fabulous journey, hopefully with many more learnings and good experiences along the way."