Venkatesh Iyer: 'I'm blessed I had to struggle to understand the value of cricket'

The Kolkata Knight Riders batter on his call-up to the national squad, his long journey so far, and the people who have helped along the way

Interview by Shashank Kishore and Nikhil Sharma
When he walked out to open the innings for Kolkata Knight Riders in the second leg of the IPL in September, most hadn't heard of Venkatesh Iyer. That isn't the case anymore, not after the role he played in turning Knight Riders' season around. It wasn't just the runs but his attitude, and his approach, and he has now been rewarded with a national call-up for the T20Is against New Zealand. Iyer, 27, talks about his journey, the struggles of a domestic player, changing perceptions, meeting his idols, and more.
Did the opportunity in the second half of the IPL take you by surprise?
I think I was supposed to play in the first leg as well, Baz [Brendon McCullum, KKR coach] had spoken with me regarding my role in the team, but unfortunately I couldn't, because our top order was packed. But as the second leg approached, he thought we needed a change in the top order. He felt we needed some intent, a style of play that could take on the opposition, and I was asked to do that. In all the practice matches that I played, I scored well, scored quickly, and Baz liked that intent. So at the beginning of the second leg, he told me that I'm going to play. Both the nets and practice matches were beneficial for me as it allowed me to get into that role.
Your IPL success has come at the top of the order, but you could be a floater in India's T20I set-up. How prepared are you?
It's not new territory for me, batting in the middle order or lower down. I've done that for Madhya Pradesh, not just in age-group cricket but also at senior level, so it's not going to be difficult to adapt to that position. It's one thing to prepare your body, but another thing to train your mind to accept a role, and I've already accepted that I will be available for any role that is given to me. So, I'm mentally prepared to give my 100% wherever they ask me to bat or bowl.
Last year you opened in domestic cricket for the first time. You have come a long way since then.
Huge credit for my success must go to Chandu sir [Chandrakant Pandit, Madhya Pradesh coach], the way he has handled me. He has all the experience in the world. He has seen thousands of cricketers blossoming in front of him. The way he tackled me, and the MP team, has been outstanding. We've now come to a point where we want to win a trophy for him. That's the level of commitment he is showing. I think it's sometimes good to have a regimented role, where he asks us directly to do things - that is when you don't have any doubts. When he asked me to open the innings, I didn't have anything in mind; I wasn't skeptical. It was just me going out there and doing what the coach asked me to do, and that has worked for me.
How did you find out about your India call-up?
We'd just lost a match to Kerala. I was sitting in my room and reflecting on what went wrong when Avesh Khan came to my room and broke the news. He also said he was picked, and I was happier for him because I've seen him closely for many years. No one deserves it more than him. Then I called my parents and sister to tell them I'd been selected. Then all my team-mates came over to congratulate me. It was a nice little moment where I felt things are getting clearer [for me].
It must be special to have him alongside you now in the Indian side also.
I think as we came into the senior level, we became room partners randomly. Since then, our friendship has blossomed. The good thing is, we always talk about improving each other's cricket. He's also the kind of character, like me, who thinks about cricket on the ground and enjoys life off the field. We don't talk too much cricket, but when we do, we ensure it's a fruitful conversation. I've seen his progress, his rise. That's why when he was picked I felt happier for him. It feels good when people talk about our friendship.
What was it like being part of the Indian camp at the T20 World Cup as a back-up player?
I attended two net sessions but got to learn a lot. I spoke to the coaches, MS [Dhoni], Virat [Kohli], [Jasprit] Bumrah. All of them said, just give the same importance to your bowling as you do with your batting, and if I did that, I'd become an asset. I also spoke to B Arun [India bowling coach] about approaching bowling in different formats. It was time well spent.
Tell us about meeting Dhoni, and Sourav Ganguly, your idol.
I walked up to meet Mahi bhai after the match [against Chennai Super Kings]. He says, "Keep your eyes and mind open to learning. You will evolve as a cricketer when you play these games, you will learn something or the other from every game." Obviously, I want to learn from every game, but when a big player tells you this, it has a better effect on you. And Dada, I've been a big fan. It was a fanboy moment when I met him, I forgot what to talk even!
Lots of former players have praised you. Is there one compliment that you particularly cherish?
One thing that Harbhajan Singh told me when the IPL began, after he saw me in just a couple of net sessions, when I wasn't part of the set-up: "You will be KKR's find this season. I have complete faith in you and when you get the opportunity, you will definitely be able to do it." To be honest, I didn't believe it. I thought, why is this guy telling me so much when he hasn't even seen me in practice games? I thought he was just [being] a good person and comforting me. But I'm happy that it turned out to be slightly true. That's something that warms my heart.
Three months ago, you were unknown to many. Now, you're on the cusp of an India debut. How do you look at this swift rise?
I think it seems swift for those who are watching me now, but I have worked hard for more than a decade. I've put in a lot of effort. Just because I wasn't playing in the IPL or knocking on the doors of the Indian team, it doesn't mean I wasn't competing at that level.
I was playing domestic cricket, which I believe is a wonderful achievement. If you're playing domestic [cricket] continuously, it's full of competition, it's amazing. For people who just know me now, they feel it's a short stint and quick rise, but I have put in the hard steps that every domestic player does. There are a lot of good domestic players who deserve to play [for the national side] but are not playing. It's like only half the story is visible. I already feel that I should have been here a couple of years earlier, but unfortunately due to my inconsistency or other things - so many reasons are there - I wasn't. But I'm happy that I'm getting to play at this level, and I hope it's a prolonged journey for me.
You've had to juggle your studies and cricket, and you turned down a lucrative job to pursue cricket. Did it seem like a big risk then?
It's very unfortunate that we are judged on our results, but I've never felt the urge to score a lot of marks or score a lot of runs to show people that I'm doing well. I'm fortunate to carry a mindset that [is not focused on] numbers. So what I feel continuously is to keep trying and sticking to the process. I didn't have in mind that I should be a big corporate officer. Even with CA [chartered accountancy], I took it one exam at a time, one lecture at a time. Even if it's cricket, I just take it one match at a time and nothing else.
Has there been a go-to person for you for cricketing matters through your career?
My club coach, Dinesh Sharma, has been one of the cornerstones of my journey. The way he has handled me, I'm blessed to have him as my coach. The best thing about him is, he always keeps me grounded. Whether I've played at the highest level or club level, he'll treat me similarly and bring me back to the basics, which is very important. When there was no one to support me in Indore, he put his hand up and told me, "I'll groom you to be someone that you potentially should be." I really trusted him on that, and it came to a point where I felt if I applied everything he said, I'll do well. More than a coach, he's been a father figure, a well-wisher who has selflessly given everything to my progress.
Your mother said when you were a child there have been many days where you've walked long distances to the club grounds. Tell us about that.
It's not just me, all the cricketers who want to make a name in cricket have worked hard. I don't want to say I'm special because I've worked really hard. I've seen players who have struggled much more, and in front of their struggles, mine are nothing. Whoever aspires to play for the country must struggle, it's just that the magnitude of the struggle varies. [When I was growing up] we didn't have the resources that allowed me to take a cab or auto. The desire to play was so high that, carrying my kit, I used to walk. It's no big thing. Whoever has no resources does this. What matters is it helps increase your hunger when you get out onto the field. I'm blessed I had to struggle to understand the value of cricket.
How has life changed in the last two months?
It's definitely been a change, [but] not something that I didn't expect. It's been a beautiful change, but I haven't found it hard to cope. I am not the person who goes around and talks to a lot of people. I'm very reserved that way, but whenever I speak, I ensure I speak with my brains. I am educated, I feel like I should bring out the right things, [make the] right choice of statements, but talking of the change, it comes with the territory. I'm not paying much attention to it. The most important task is to play the game and do it well.

Shashank Kishore and Nikhil Sharma are senior sub-editors at ESPNcricinfo