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Venkatesh Iyer's journey of fire and ice

The allrounder was a key figure for Madhya Pradesh after they endured a shift from boiling Puducherry to freezing Dharamsala

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Venkatesh Iyer and MP coach Chandrakant Pandit at the snow-clad HPCA Stadium  •  Venkatesh Iyer

Venkatesh Iyer and MP coach Chandrakant Pandit at the snow-clad HPCA Stadium  •  Venkatesh Iyer

Venkatesh Iyer can't remember playing a game in India in sub-zero temperatures. That's until earlier last week, when he landed in Dharamsala for Madhya Pradesh's Ranji Trophy Group D fixture against Himachal Pradesh.
"My first thought was: I shouldn't be out here playing," Iyer tells ESPNcricinfo.
The HPCA Stadium was covered in snow. There were sheets of rain and icy-cold winds. A day earlier, Madhya Pradesh had finished a game in 32-degree Celsius heat with over 90% humidity in Puducherry.
"Temperature-wise, the chill in Ireland two years ago [when Iyer was part of an India squad that toured the country for a T20I series] was a lot more, but this was unique, a first for me in India. Even three layers of sweaters didn't help," Iyer says. "It was freezing, the entire ground was covered in snow. There was heavy rain as well."
MP's situation was compounded by logistical challenges. From Puducherry they had to drive down four hours to Chennai and board a flight to New Delhi before reaching Dharamsala. A three-day break between games was whittled down to two.
"From extremely hot, we came into freezing conditions, but weather can't be an excuse for poor performance," Iyer says. "That said, it was tough. That's why we had to go there a couple of days prior to know how the body is going to react, how we're going to recover. Else we would have been caught completely off guard. The two days of training was very crucial to our conditioning."
So what did it entail?
"It was more about mobility exercises and warming up our muscles," Iyer explains. "We also tried to leave the hotel for the ground a lot earlier than usual. If we used to leave usually at 7.45am, we left for the ground at 7.30.
"Even 15-20 minutes of extra warm-up time was massively important in that weather. You can't enter the ground and immediately start running in that weather, it can take a toll on your back. The entire schedule was superbly planned by our trainer."
What were the key aspects to training in such weather?
"A lot of stretching for starters," Iyer says. "It's normal for muscles to cramp, they tend to become stIff, so it was important to keep them loosened in that cold. Even whe we were in the hotel, we were called to the gym for stretching more than any other form of conditioning because you never know which muscle you will end up pulling.
"In the room, we were advised to use heaters at all times, and keep our bodies warm throughout."
On the field, Iyer had a memorable performance. He first picked up a three-for to help skittle Himachal out for 169 and then contributed a vital 72 in tough conditions to help MP eke out a first-innings lead. This earned him the Player of the match award in a drawn, weather-impacted fixture during which no play was possible on days two and three.
"The forecast is very accurate there," Iyer says. "The first day we arrived, the ground was covered in snow, but the first day's play, the sun was shining bright, and we got in a full day of cricket. Overall, we knew we'd get probably 2-2.5 days to try and push for an outright result.
"They got a good partnership lower down the order [Himachal recovered from 36 for 6 on day one]. Had we bowled them out for 70-80, and we got what we did, it would have been game on." As it turned out, Himachal were 42 for 5 in their second innings, still six runs short of making MP bat again, when the game was called off.
"Batting-wise, this is an innings I'll remember for a long time," Iyer days. "I had to battle the conditions. It was so difficult that you were never set. But once you know which direction you need to head to, the clarity makes this slightly better. I knew we had to make 170-180, that gave me increased focus."
Iyer found himself struggling at different times. He was recovering from a back spasm, which made it tougher given the conditions.
"There was genuine travel fatigue" he says. "You're on the bus for a long time. And then with the distances we had to cover, it took a toll, but you have to take care of it as a professional and ignore things you can't change."
Iyer is driven by the desire to win the Ranji Trophy, having missed out on the team's journey to the title in 2022-23 due to a combination of injuries and being on India duty.
"We now know what it takes to be champions, we have the ability to win," he says, with MP potentially one win away from entering the knockouts. "That belief has come since our win. For someone not part of the set-up there, to come in here, I find this an amazing place to be.
"More than the team goal, it's my burning desire to do something special to help us win the Ranji Trophy. Some things complete you as a cricketer. A Ranji Trophy win will complete it for me."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo