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Match Analysis

Allrounders-turned-specialists Venkatesh and Vijay put on shows worth the wait

The Impact Player rule has allowed their teams to give the two players a run of games, and in Ahmedabad, they showed what they can do with that opportunity

They've played 14 ODIs and 18 T20Is between them, scoring 481 runs and taking 14 wickets. They're adept at using their reach to strike a long ball, and they bowl brisk medium-pace. They're multi-dimensional cricketers with great utility value, and that's been both a blessing and a curse for Vijay Shankar and Venkatesh Iyer.
Vijay famously went to the 2019 ODI World Cup ahead of Ambati Rayudu, a specialist middle-order batter, and came back early with a fractured toe. He got to bat only three times, scoring 15*, 29 and 14, and bowled 5.2 overs, all against Pakistan, taking the wickets of Imam-ul-Haq and Sarfaraz Ahmed.
He didn't get enough of a chance to succeed or fail in any real way, and played no part in the semi-final defeat to New Zealand, but fan discourse turned him into something of a scapegoat for India's failure to win the tournament.
Vijay hasn't played for India since.
Venkatesh came into India's squad after their early exit from the T20 World Cup in 2021, at a time when Hardik Pandya was recovering from a long-term back issue and bowling very little. Seam-bowling allrounders who can bat in the top six are a scarce resource in Indian cricket, and Venkatesh had shown promise in both departments over the course of his debut IPL season.
He played 11 times for India between November 2021 and February 2022, and showed glimpses of his potential - his 133 T20I runs came at a strike rate of 162.19 - without putting in a headline-grabbing performance. Soon after, Hardik enjoyed a triumphant IPL campaign as Gujarat Titans' captain, batting up the order and bowling regularly with immense skill and smarts.
India had no need for Venkatesh anymore.
Neither Vijay nor Venkatesh is at Hardik's level, but not being as good as a once-in-a-generation talent doesn't necessarily diminish an allrounder's value.
Even so, both Vijay and Venkatesh began IPL 2023 with their utility under threat, thanks to the introduction of the Impact Player regulation, which gave teams the ability to substitute a specialist for a specialist - usually a batter for a bowler or vice-versa - vastly reducing the need for allrounders. Both Vijay and Venkatesh had endured poor 2022 seasons with the bat, and with their secondary skill no longer quite as important to their teams, they were under pressure to contribute with their primary skill.
On the flip side, though, having the Impact Player option might have enabled both their teams to keep giving them opportunities. On Sunday, Gujarat Titans picked Vijay for the third time in three matches this season, and Kolkata Knight Riders used Venkatesh as their Impact Player for the second time, which meant he had featured in all three of their games as well.
In a sport with as much variance of outcome as T20 cricket, it's a blessing to get a solid run of games. Given enough chances, a gifted player will put on a display worth the wait.
Both Vijay and Venkatesh did this on Sunday in Ahmedabad, lighting up a cracking contest full of incredible hitting, and demonstrating why India selectors have shown interest in them over the years.
Vijay adopts a baseball-style power-hitting set-up in T20s, and it doesn't always seem a natural fit with the lines of his bat-swing. It can make him look a little ungainly sometimes, as he frequently did during the first half of his innings - his first boundary was a flat-bat swipe past the bowler, and his next three came off the inside edge, the inside half of his bat, and the top edge respectively.
But having rushed to 34 off 16 in that manner, a switch seemed to click inside Vijay, unlocking the effortless power he can summon while in full flow. His hitting began to be defined by the stillness of his head, and by how well he held his shape through his bat-swing.
A lofted off-drive off Lockie Ferguson - one of four sixes he hit off the last six balls he faced - was a prime example. He moved his left leg out of the way well before the bowler released the ball, but kept his front shoulder closed: he had the room he needed to free his arms while being perfectly aligned to hit straight through the line of the ball. It's a difficult balancing act, clearing your front leg without losing your upper-body shape, and when he spends time at the crease and gets into rhythm, Vijay does it as well as anyone.
Venkatesh, loose-limbed and left-handed, took no time getting into his groove when he walked in with Knight Riders 20 for 1 in their chase of 205. He's more of a square-of-the-wicket player than Vijay, preferring to hang back and either lash the ball through point or muscle it over square leg or midwicket. On this day, these shots pinged unerringly off the middle of his bat: a flamboyant, one-legged carve over deep third off Mohammed Shami set the tone as he clattered his way to 83 off 40 balls with a control percentage of 90 - an incredible figure in the smash-and-grab world of T20 cricket.
Interviewed post-match, Venkatesh spoke about the pitch giving his back-foot game full value.
"I am really not surprised that we have scored 200 in these last two games because of the role clarity that has been given to us," he said. "I have not been in great form but tonight, I just wanted to go out there and execute my plan of playing late. When the bounce is good, you tend to hang back and use the pace. Their bowlers were quick so I tried to use their pace and it worked to my advantage."
It's worthwhile to examine what Venkatesh said about role clarity. It's certainly beneficial for a batter to have no doubts over how to approach their innings, and it's easier to have that sort of clarity when your team bats deep. Both Titans and Knight Riders batted deep on Sunday, and everyone bats deep in the IPL now, thanks to the Impact Player rule. Where teams once had to strike an uneasy compromise while deciding whether to pick the extra batter or bowler, they are now able to name a batting-heavy or bowling-heavy team after the toss, and sub in a bowler or batter to address their balance as required.
It's likely, then, that the Impact Player regulation will give gifted ball-strikers such as Vijay and Venkatesh more opportunities as well as more freedom to play their shots. It's also likely, though, that it'll turn their secondary skill redundant.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo