“We had two three-day practice games against Chhattisgarh. In the first game I got out cheaply, but the second one was the turning point.”
“I had my MBA internal exams, so I went to college, gave the exams, left early, jumped a few signals on the way, and when we got to the ground, we were 60 for 6.
“I was actually thinking about the answers I missed, things I could’ve written better, but as I took guard I went blank. I made a century in the game. Actually I ended on 96 overnight, so I came back the next day, finished my batting, I think I made 130 or 132, and then went back to college late in the afternoon to give my internals the next day. And soon after that game I got to make my Ranji debut,” Venkatesh Iyer told ESPNCricinfo as he shared the story of a crossroad moment in his life, from 2018.
Is anyone else reminded of that montage over the music in MS Dhoni’s biopic?
From Chartered Accountancy to Cricket, via an MBA in Finance
Born in Indore on Christmas Day of 1994, Iyer had actually turned professional as a cricketer three years before the crossroads point in 2018, earning a maiden T20 cap for Madhya Pradesh in March 2015.
A year later, at the cusp of giving his CA finals, he traded a potential career in accountancy for the pursuit of an MBA in finance – which would allow him to continue his nascent cricket career too. Not shy about his academic pedigree, he went on to say in that ESPNcricinfo interview that he “would have landed in an IIT or IIM” had he given up on cricket.
The events of IPL 2021’s UAE leg have cricket’s ledger beaming in green.
2021: The Investment Starts Reaping Its Rewards
This was no instant-gratification stock; as he dabbled career choices, Iyer’s cricket wasn’t moving all too rapidly. Coming into the 2019/20 domestic season – four-and-a-half years after his MP debut – he had played 26 T20s and 12 List A games, to go with three first-class appearances.
Till this point, Iyer hadn’t batted at the top of the order for his state side. Given a go at number three in the last two games of the Vijay Hazare Trophy (50-over), he ended the season with an unbeaten 109 off 117 balls – his first century at the senior level – to seal a 250-run chase against Rajasthan. A similar promotion came his way in the last two matches of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy that immediately followed the 50-over competition, and in his first two T20 innings as a top-four batter, Iyer scored 34 off 30 and 35 off 21.
That would be the last white-ball cricket he played for 13 months, as the pandemic halted all domestic cricket in the country in 2020.
When the action finally resumed, with the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in January this year, Iyer was moved further up the order to open the innings – and he grabbed the opportunity. In his first senior-level game as opener, Iyer hit 87* off 52 balls against Goa; three games later, he hit 88* off 53 against a Saurashtra attack featuring Jaydev Unadkat and Chetan Sakariya.
The Vijay Hazare Trophy followed soon thereafter, and Iyer – who opened thrice in five outings – ended the domestic white-ball campaign with a sensational 146-ball 198 against a Punjab attack comprising Sandeep Sharma, Siddarth Kaul, Barinder Sran, Harpreet Brar and Mayank Markande. Later in the same game, he took 2/24 in four overs, dismissing Punjab’s senior-most batters, Mandeep Singh and Gurkeerat Singh Mann.
Between these two domestic competitions, there had been a notable movement in Iyer’s life. At this point, it is prudent to point out that he also has 21 T20 wickets to his name, maintaining an economy of 6.98 with his medium-pace.
While he didn’t get a game during the India leg of the season, there was clearly lots happening in the background. After KKR’s seventh game – their last before the league’s suspension – had resulted in their fifth defeat of the campaign, a fuming Brendon McCullum had hinted at a shake-up when he said “if you can’t change a man, change the man”.
Four months on, it’s proven to be a famous statement.
Glimpses Against RCB, Bursting Into Life Against MI
Coming as it did in a chase of only 93, one didn’t wish to read too much into Venkatesh's 41*(27), but Iyer showed all the right signs on his IPL debut against the Royal Challengers Bangalore on 20 September.
There were crisp and cracking drives through the off-side – an instant hit to all audiences when looking at any new left-handed batter in town – and a well-timed six over mid-on off Kyle Jamieson.
His captain, Eoin Morgan, showered him with praise for the way the debutant bought into KKR’s attacking philosophy. “I think Venky, the way he came in and played, was outstanding. Certainly the brand of cricket we want to play,” Morgan said.
“Playing the Brendon McCullum (way), that’s the aggressive nature in which we want to play,” the KKR skipper added, in reference to his friend/mentor/coach.
As Iyer razed Mumbai Indians three days later, the man who set the IPL ablaze in its first-ever game watched proudly from the dugout.
Racing off the blocks was a McCullum specialty through his playing years, and his newest ward paid tribute against the IPL champions. The first ball Iyer faced, from Trent Boult, was slapped for six. The first ball he faced off Adam Milne? Six. The first ball he faced off Jasprit Bumrah? Four down the ground.
All told, a 26-year-old playing his second IPL game took the tournament’s most famed and feared pace attack for 35 off just 16 balls.
That it just so happened to come against the side KKR had defeated only once in the last six years, only made it that much sweeter for his team. That it propelled KKR into the top-four – something not the bravest punters would’ve bet on a few weeks back – at the expense of MI, while creating a big net run rate gulf between themselves and the holders, could be even sweeter for his team’s cause.
On IPL debut, Venkatesh Iyer had launched into the team led by India’s outgoing T20I captain – and sought his advice on technical matters later. On his second outing, he took apart the team led by India’s (likely) soon-to-be T20I captain. Next up, for the fresher, was India’s original T20I captain and this time there was disappointment in store for him as he managed to score just 18 as KKR were handed their first defeat of the UAE leg.
Going forward, as the Kolkata caravan soldiered on, pulling off a complete turnaround to qualify for the playoffs, Venkatesh Iyer proved one of the most consistant performers for the team scoring two more half centuries, including a 55 in the knockout Qualifier 2 against Delhi Capitals on Wednesday night in Sharjah. A day that he will have Iyer celebrate on two fronts - for his first IPL final and also his first entry into the Indian dressing room as the BCCI named him among their list of players to help Team India train for the T20 World Cup that starts next week.