In 2021, Venkatesh Iyer suddenly found himself in the arclight with his exploits in the purple and gold of the Kolkata Knight Riders. The side, having experimented with nine other opening combinations since 2019 without much success, finally found the answer to its batting woes in PowerPlay overs in the unheralded all-rounder from Indore.
The arrival of Iyer, right after the five-month COVID-induced hiatus, was like a whiff of fresh air. Opening alongside Shubman Gill, the 6-foot-4-inch-tall left-handed batter helped the team register back-to-back wins against Virat Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore and archrival Mumbai Indians led by the exuberant Rohit Sharma. He scored 41 not out vs RCB, and 53 vs MI. In that edition, he ended up scoring 370 runs in 10 matches at an average of 41.11.
His consistent performances didn’t go unnoticed and November, 2021 was when Iyer arguably lived his best 30 days. Immediately after being fast-tracked into the Indian white-ball team for the New Zealand series, he was retained by KKR ahead of the following season. The figure was ₹8 crore, which translates to a mind-boggling 3900 per cent annual hike in his salary!
All that cash, besides of course making Iyer way richer, even changed his perspective. “Life has changed in a manner where I’ve started looking at things more professionally. Obviously, when you play more cricket, you tend to bring professionalism into everything. But, that’s how life has changed my approach towards the game. I know that I have to be precise and professional when it comes to each and everything. And yeah, I’ve learned a lot... I now feel that I need to be more professional, more focused than I ever was,” he says.
The hefty investment, however, fetched modest returns in the first year. Iyer’s IPL batting average dropped to 16.54 in 2022, his top score being an unbeaten half-century against Mumbai. It was his only fifty of the season, compared to the four he had clobbered in the previous iteration of the league.
Even in India colours, he failed to make heads turn. In seven T20I innings, he scored 133. In two ODIs, he could only get 24.
The hullabaloo had suddenly died down and he was dropped from the national side. The Knights, however, have decided to go ahead with him in the upcoming edition once again and Iyer is thankful. He says, “KKR has faith in me. As a cricket franchise, they understand that you’re not going to have a good season every time. More than performances, they are looking at the attitude a player brings to the team. They look at the approach and see whether the guy is sincere and putting in the hard yards.”
A familiar face in the KKR dugout might help Iyer to quickly find his feet again. The two-time champion franchise has appointed Chandrakant Pandit, who led Madhya Pradesh to its maiden Ranji Trophy title in 2022, as head coach. “I have worked with Chandu sir (at MP) for about three years now. It’s been an amazing journey. And I’m really excited to work with him in KKR. We all know that he’s a taskmaster, a master tactician, so I’m waiting to see how he takes the stage in IPL,” Iyer tells Sportstar.
Venkatesh Iyer’s figures under the tutelage of Chandrakant Pandit at Madhya Pradesh
He added, “Coaching is not just about tactics, it’s about man management. Knowing your players, knowing your resources in and out. We do share a good chemistry and that’s going to help. Chandu sir has been so successful because of the way he man-manages at micro level (sic). The time he takes to understand people is very less. That is a skill. He knows how to get the best out of a certain player.”
While Pandit’s coming on board is good news, KKR has also been dealt a major blow. It would have to start the season in the absence of skipper Shreyas Iyer. His lower-back issue might not see the star batter return this season at all, although it is being widely reported that the 28-year-old has decided to delay his surgery and visit the National Cricket Academy (NCA) to undergo periodic treatment. In the meantime, Nitish Rana has been asked to step in.
Iyer wishes the senior Iyer well. “Let’s hope for the best. More than the IPL or anything else, we all want Shreyas to be 100 per cent fit. We all want him to play everything.”
Although Shreyas’ unavailability will botch the tactical equations to a considerable extent, the team looks forward to the season with a steely resolve. Iyer says, “We’re going to be ruthless this season as always. KKR is known for playing aggressive cricket. We have been given a clear template on how to go about our business. Chandu sir always emphasises on one thing when it comes to cricket and life - that he wants us to be very disciplined.”
Iyer himself had been struggling with injuries. Last September, he was hit on the neck by a throw from the bowler during a Duleep Trophy game. Although he made a quick recovery then, a freak accident in October saw him twist his ankle and miss four months of the domestic season. “I’ve been (unlucky). It was very unfortunate. But then again, these are parts of the game. I couldn’t control it. The only thing in my hand was to do my rehab and get back to playing. I’m really thankful to the staff in NCA, who took really good care of me and the latest update is that a few weeks ago, I was declared 100 per cent fit. I was cleared for all formats.”
On whether he has been briefed about his role in the Knights’ club, Iyer says: “My role remains the same. I’ve spoken to the coaches on how to approach this season, especially since I’m coming back after a long injury gap. The communication has been very clear. I’ve always maintained I want to be flexible as a cricketer - be it batting, bowling or fielding. If I feel that I’m only going to open, then it might be training my mind to a comfortable position. So, I’m ready to bat anywhere in the lineup. Be it opening, middle order or finishing the innings. I’m also ready to provide four overs with the ball to my team. I have the confidence. So as and when required I will not shy away from bowling and maybe picking a few wickets for the team.”
Kolkata had been very active during the trade window.It acquired the services of Afghanistan opener Rahmanullah Gurbaz, and pacers Lockie Ferguson (New Zealand) and Shardul Thakur. During the auctions, it snapped up two proven wicketkeeper-batters in N. Jagadeesan and Litton Das (Bangladesh), while also shoring up the all-rounder department with the likes of David Wiese (Namibia) and Shakib Al Hasan (Bangladesh). Iyer was a happy man when he had a look at the team sheet. “Even before the auction, we already had a set team. We’ve made some very good purchases and overall, I’m really happy with the combination. It’s always a good headache to have multiple players for a single position. We’ve done a great job, the boys are raring to go, ready to prove a point.”
All of Iyer’s four appearances at the Eden Gardens have been in India colours. As the home-away format returns, Iyer will be looking to launch a few maximums into the stands to soak in the “ Korbo, Lorbo, Jeetbo“ cheer. He says, “It’s been my dream to play an IPL game at the Eden Gardens. To play for KKR in front of a packed crowd and hopefully, Shah Rukh (Khan) bhai cheering for us. These are all moments that I’ve seen only on TV. I wanted to live these moments.”
As the next season beckons, Iyer would be desperate to find his superpowers back again. And there can be no better stage than the IPL to witness that epic moment, for here is where the magic happens.
“I don’t play the IPL with the intention of playing in the Indian team. I just go out there and focus on the task in hand. That’s how I function. I don’t set long-term goals for myself. Right now, my priority is to represent KKR and do well. If I have to come back into the (Indian) team, it will happen if it’s meant to be. The only thing in my hand is to go out there and give my best for my team and leave the rest to God.”
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