IPL 2021: Venkatesh Iyer, KKR's surprise hero

The arrival of Venkatesh Iyer has changed KKR’s fortunes as the team registered back-to-back wins against RCB and MI in IPL 2021.

Venkatesh Iyer slams his maiden IPL fifty off 25 balls to dominate Mumbai.   -  SPORTZPICS

Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) may have finally found an answer to its batting woes in the Indian Premier League (IPL) Powerplay overs in an unheralded all-rounder from Indore after trying 10 opening combinations in the last three years.

Sedate starts, irrespective of conditions, have troubled the franchise for some time. Kolkata (121.1) is doing marginally only better than Chennai (107.7) in terms of the average strike rates of batters since IPL 2019 in the first six overs of a match.

However, the arrival of Venkatesh Iyer -- a 6-foot 4-inch-tall left-handed opening batsman – has changed KKR’s fortunes as the team registered back-to-back wins against the Virat Kohli-led Royal Challengers Bangalore and Rohit Sharma's Mumbai Indians. Iyer made his Twenty20 and List A debut for Madhya Pradesh in 2015.

READ: Who's Venkatesh Iyer? Meet KKR's new all-rounder

“I was the director at MPCA [Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association] then and I received a call from Venkatesh, who was not keeping well and had to be admitted to the hospital. He told me since the trial matches were after 10 days, he would be able to participate. He was determined,” former BCCI secretary Sanjay Jagdale told Sportstar.

Venkatesh Iyer has been a member of the Madhya Pradesh team since 2015.   -  Special Arrangement, MPCA/Parag Jain

 

Jagdale later spoke to the selection committee chairman Kirti Patel and former Madhya Pradesh (MP) captain Devendra Bundela to convince them to play Iyer in a couple of trial games.

“I have seen him since he was 12 or 13. He would play regularly at the Khanuja Club... He (late Kamaljit Khanuja) saw a lot of potential in Venkatesh and promoted him. He was convinced of his abilities. Initially, he was a wicketkeeper-batsman, but slowly, he focused more on his batting and developed his medium-pace. I have always liked his attitude and determination. He played in a couple of trial games and eventually made it to the Ranji Trophy squad in 2018,” Jagdale said.

In the same year, Iyer rejected a job offer from accounting giant Deloitte to pursue his dreams. And former MP coach Syed Abbas Ali is thankful that Iyer took the road less travelled. “I understood what he was capable of. In one of the matches, I promoted him to No. 3. He was reluctant and gave in hesitantly. But later, he went on to score a hundred,” he said.

"I saw both his innings in the IPL [41 not out vs RCB, 53 vs MI]. The best thing about his performance is that he was very positive from the word go. Bolte hai na IPL ka pressure hai, ye sab kuch nahi thha uske upar [There seemed to be no pressure on him considering he was playing for an IPL team],” Abbas added.

Abbas isn't the only one tracking Iyer's progress. Bundela, who has known Iyer since he was 10, is enjoying his batting as well. “The bat is coming closer to the body and there is a nice flow. There have been some minor tweaks in his batting technique which has benefited him,” he said.

READ: Iyer, Tripathi fifties secure big win for Kolkata over Mumbai

“He has always been a sincere cricketer and even now, he trains regularly at the [Holkar] stadium in Indore. We are very happy with his progress, and he is an asset for MP cricket. He always had the ability to hit the ball hard, but over the last couple of years, he has improved tremendously across formats,” Bundela, who is now the head coach of Chhattisgarh, said.

Former India international Naman Ojha was the captain of MP when Iyer made his debut for the state team in 2015. He too is happy to see the 26-year-old come a long way. “The growth has been very good. I have seen him very closely as he debuted under my captaincy, and from there till now, he has improved a lot. My best wishes are with him,” Ojha said.

Although Iyer has been around in the domestic circuit for a while now, he only came into his own in the 2020-21 season, when he topped the run charts for MP in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy with 227 runs in five innings at an average of 75.66 and a strike rate of 149.34.

10 days after KKR picked him up at the mini-auction on February 18, 2021, Iyer had bludgeoned a full-blooded Punjab attack to notch a match-winning 146-ball 198.  

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