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Match Analysis

Venkatesh Iyer's chaotic innings highlights value of attacking intent in T20 cricket

He started in fifth gear and largely stayed there even as the rest of his team-mates struggled

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Venkatesh Iyer writhed around in agony on the Wankhede pitch. He had raced to 19 not out after eight balls, lofting the debutant Arjun Tendulkar for four and six before upper-cutting Cameron Green for six. And he figured that, with fine leg inside the ring, he could shift across to the off side and look to scoop Green over that fielder's head to pick up his second successive boundary.
But, as Venkatesh later put it with a smile: "Unfortunately, I didn't connect; and the ball connected to my knee." Kolkata Knight Riders' medical staff rushed on to give him treatment, causing a lengthy delay as he weighed up the merits of retiring hurt. "Honestly, the first emotion was to go out, because it was unbearable," he said at the press conference after Knight Riders' five-wicket defeat to Mumbai Indians.
He opted to continue, and inside-edged his next ball past short fine leg for four. In the following over, he twice shuffled down the track to hit Duan Jansen for sixes down the ground; when he miscued, the ball landed just out of the back-pedalling Tim David's reach.
According to ESPNcricinfo's metrics, no batter in the last decade of IPL cricket has scored more runs while 'out of control' than the 38 Venkatesh managed on Sunday afternoon. But if this was a streaky, chaotic innings, it was one which highlighted the value of attacking intent in this format - particularly on a small ground, and against an inexperienced bowling attack.
Venkatesh was measured against Piyush Chawla, who he seemed to mark out as Mumbai Indians' main attacking threat, but scored at a 200-plus strike rate against their other five bowlers, hitting each of them for at least one six. As his team-mates struggled to find their tempo on a slowish pitch which got better under lights, Venkatesh started in fifth gear and stayed there.
He was dropped in the 80s, while attempting to loft Hrithik Shokeen over cover, but scored increasingly heavily square of the wicket, twice pulling Riley Meredith's slower balls over the leg side for six. "This was a red-soil pitch, so you have to play much squarer and not straighter," he explained.
When Venkatesh brought up his hundred off 49 balls, bowing towards his team-mates in the dugout as he celebrated, it seemed to mark his return to the big stage after what has been a difficult year for him; a year which saw him suffer second-season syndrome in IPL 2022, lose his India place and suffer a broken ankle that threatened to rule him out of this tournament altogether.
It also brought to an end one of the IPL's more bizarre statistical quirks. Venkatesh became KKR's second centurion, 15 years - almost to the day - after Brendon McCullum blitzed 158 on the tournament's opening night. There was a circularity to it: McCullum, after all, was the man who brought Venkatesh into his side in the second half of IPL 2021, and who retained him ahead of the following year's mega-auction.
There have been moments in which that decision has looked unwise: Venkatesh lost his place in the KKR side last season, struggling to make an impact as he moved up and down the order. Meanwhile, Shubman Gill - who signed for Gujarat Titans for INR 8 crore, the same wage that Venkatesh is on - has made a breakthrough in international cricket, blossoming into a more dynamic T20 batter than the one who once opened alongside Venkatesh.
This century - and his brilliant 83 off 40 in Ahmedabad last weekend, an innings which slipped under the radar due to Rinku Singh's heroics - was a reminder of his ability. With his long, gold chain hanging out of his untucked, long-sleeved shirt, Venkatesh can appear almost insouciant when he bats, but it is clear that he cares deeply.
"I just have gratitude for whatever I have," he said. "I just want to go out there and explore what I can do on a cricket field. As far as this season goes, it's Venkatesh Iyer doing what's correct for the team, not individually. The clarity of role given to me is absolutely amazing, and I'm just looking to go out there and execute that plan."
"Shreyas [Iyer] is injured, so someone had to take up the No. 3 role which is a very important role, and I've maintained that I want to be flexible as a cricketer. When they told me I'm going to bat at No. 3, obviously the intent didn't change: you have to go after the bowling in the powerplay, and that's what I've been doing."
He has been used as a specialist batter in every game this season, via the Impact Player rule, as he continues to recover from his broken left ankle, so is yet to take the field with his team-mates. "Injury doesn't take a toll on your body just physically, but mentally as well. It makes you go through a lot," he said. "I'm really happy that I'm back on the field, doing what I love the most."
But given Venkatesh's focus on intent, there was one lingering question: why did it take him seven balls to move from 94 to 100? "The scoreboard was not working so I couldn't see how many runs I was batting [on]," he said with a smile. "But if that happened, that's something that I have to correct and keep moving from there."
And in truth, Venkatesh's slight slowdown was the least of KKR's problems in their defeat. Following back-to-back wins, they have now lost two games in the space of 48 hours and it is clear that they have major issues which could prove difficult for them to address.
With Venkatesh watching from the dugout, their fast bowlers leaked 80 runs in 6.4 overs as Mumbai cruised to their target. And their openers again failed to fire: they have used three different combinations already this season, but their opening partnerships have been worth 70 across five matches.
Their other seven batters managed 67 runs off 69 balls between them, with Andre Russell's unbeaten 21 off 11 only begging the question as to why he was not given the opportunity to face more. Instead, Shardul Thakur was promoted and made 13 off 11, while Rinku struggled when Mumbai took the pace off, eking out 18 off 18.
Perhaps moving Venkatesh up to open could solve their opening woes, though he has clearly benefited from the clarity of a settled role this year and such a move would amount to compromising a strength to address a weakness. "In hindsight, we can talk about us scoring 15-20 runs less [than we should have] or the wicket getting better," he said, "but we have to accept that they batted really well; they outbatted us."
Yet even if KKR fell to a heavy defeat, Venkatesh will look back on this Sunday afternoon with fondness. For several long months, he wondered if he would be fit enough to feature in IPL 2023; now, he is the tournament's leading run-scorer, back centre-stage after a year in the wings.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98