Venkatesh Iyer burst onto the scene after a stellar IPL campaign in 2021 and made his India debut soon after. He sits down with Shashwat Kumar, shedding light on his maiden India call-up, his learnings along the way and his commitment to featuring as an all-rounder.
Ahead of the second phase of IPL 2021, not many had heard of Venkatesh Iyer. His impressive displays for Kolkata Knight Riders in that edition cast him into the limelight, and earned him an international cap during the home series against New Zealand in November, close on the heels of India’s dismal T20 World Cup campaign.
It was also the start of a new era, as Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid took over as captain and head coach, respectively. Iyer did not have things easy to begin with. He had risen to prominence while batting at the top of the order for Kolkata, but for India, he had to bat in the middle order. However, with support from his captain and coach, he gave an excellent account of himself, scoring 133 runs in seven innings at a strike rate of 162 and taking five wickets, one every 11 balls.
“When I started playing for India, it was a new era starting with Rohit-bhai taking charge and Rahul-sir was head coach,” he tells Wisden India. “We kind of had a roadmap and the way things were communicated to me, it gave me a lot of confidence. Rahul-sir first asked what mindset I was carrying into any tournament, irrespective of the position I am batting, and then he communicated to me what role I was going to play in this setup. I remember one day the nets were getting over, and Rohit-bhai came searching for me. He then spoke to me about how I was doing, how I was feeling, my role and how he was going to back me. These things give you a lot of confidence.”
It took Iyer some time for the news of his India call-up to sink in. Back then, he had been quietly aware of his performances being noticed, but it was only after returning home did he actually grasp the gravity of his achievement.
“I was on a call when this call-up happened, and I was like, ‘okay, fine’,” he explains. “It really didn’t hit me that I was called up to the Indian team. On the contrary, Avesh Khan came into my room and he was jumping out of joy. I thought okay, now that I am in the Indian team, I have to play against New Zealand. I have to go back home, pack my stuff, figure out my kit. When I went back home and saw the response of my family, the media, that is when I realised kuch hua hai life mein (I have done something in life). You obviously know when people are talking about you. You just know it is somewhere round the corner. It did not make me feel that something extraordinary has happened but obviously I felt very good. It brought a smile to my face, which is very tough to do [chuckles] and brought a lot of happiness.”
Iyer’s level-headedness is infectiously endearing. He seems sure of whatever he is doing. Not long ago, he had been offered a job at Deloitte while pursuing his MBA degree. He took his time before choosing on cricket. And once the decision was made, he backed it to the hilt: “One thing I feel was existent then and is present now is my decisiveness. I take a lot of time in deciding things but when I do, I go full-fledged with it. I am ready to accept the good and the bad with any particular decision.”
This comes through in his cricket too. A left-handed batter capable of bowling medium-pace, he has always committed to featuring as an all-rounder. He has made a pact with himself that if he is not fully fit and cannot function at 100 percent efficiency in all three departments, he will not play, irrespective of whichever team he represents.
“I have played good cricket only as an all-rounder,” he says. “With multiple skills, I feel more confident. If I don’t perform with bat and ball, I try to make it up in the field. If that does not happen as well, I try to go to the captain and help out with suggestions, based on my understanding of the game. It would be wrong if I don’t get back to 100 per cent fitness and don’t play as an all-rounder.”
India’s embarrassment of batting riches – and a curious anchor-heavy approach – ensured Iyer was not recalled after being dropped. Rather than sulking over it, he spoke of having to embrace the ups and downs in his career, of having no regrets of not being picked to play for India since February 2022.
“The feeling I have is that of gratitude. I am extremely fortunate to have played for India. There are no regrets. I never worried about my selection before getting into the Indian team, why should I worry about it now. Now I know what it takes to play for India and it is in my hands to do it consistently. If that happens, I am sure I will get my call-up. Runs and wickets might come, they might not. I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I do belong here and that I am ready – that is the mindset I carry.”
Along the way, there have been obstacles, most notably a freak ankle injury that ruled him out of the Vijay Hazare Trophy and a chunk of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Until then, he was in fine form, registering two fifties in four T20 innings and picking up a six-wicket haul against Rajasthan. It took him “72 hours” to accept the accident. Over those excruciating three days, he cried in his room over the mishap. Now, he seems to have seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
He has not set a timeline for his return but when he does, he knows he will be ready for whatever challenges come his way. He derives much of this confidence from his ability to observe the game keenly – a trait he says he picked up from MS Dhoni. Enlightening conversations with India teammates Dinesh Karthik, Rishabh Pant and R Ashwin have also helped him become the cricketer of today.
Hardik Pandya’s all-round brilliance has added significant balance to the Indian side. Despite not having played as much international cricket as Pandya, Iyer has demonstrated his abilities to bat inside the powerplay as well as at the death, and chip in as a fifth or sixth bowler. In many ways, he could give India the flexibility they crave in their T20I setup.
He is not afraid to do things that do not come naturally to him either: “I never want to play my cricket in my comfort zone. Cricket is not just a game for me. It is such an adventure. I want to keep exploring within the game.”
At the T20 World Cup, that was an ingredient India missed. They did not try things, and thus were not aware of how far they could push their usual boundaries. Adding Iyer to the mix will not magically make those problems disappear, although it will help alleviate them.
Iyer may not be thinking along those lines at this point, but it is certainly an enticing prospect from those outside. There is a reason why he was fast-tracked into the squad ahead of many others. His traits – his versatility and adaptability – are in short supply.
Form, runs, and wickets, as he says, may come and go, but his effort will always be unwavering. And having captured the imagination once, it might not be very hard to do so again, as long as he continues looking at himself in the mirror and keeps telling himself and everyone that he belongs at this level.