Big-hitting Shreyas solves an India World Cup problem

To have a settled middle order batting unit, a high performing No.4 is very important. Among the lessons India learned from the 2019 World Cup, the most important is not being able to secure this crucial position. Despite trying different players in that role, the team’s management failed to confirm their intentions at that time. And the selectors’ final choice of Vijay Shankar as the one who could do the job was a comical chunk.

Shreyas Iyer during a practice session at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on Saturday. (AFP)

During that tournament, it became a case of musical chairs. After starting KL Rahul in the tournament opener against South Africa, Hardik Pandya was promoted to No.4 in the second and third matches, against Australia and Pakistan. In the fifth and sixth matches, against Afghanistan and the West Indies, Vijay Shankar was involved. After the experiment progressed, Rishabh Pant came in at No.4 for the remaining matches, including the semi-final.

With their top-class shot led brilliantly by Rohit Sharma’s century spree, the weak spot was covered during the robes phase. However, India’s injury-riddled top-order was too dependent in the semi-finals when it misfired against New Zealand after openers Rohit and Rahul, and Virat Kohli got out for one run each at Old Trafford. There was no recovery from that; No. 4 Pant made 32 and No. 5 Dinesh Karthik was out for six as India were reduced to 92/6.

The difference a settled No.4 can make to the side is what we are seeing at this World Cup. With a shaky start to overcoming the competition, Shreyas Iyer excelled in that role, scoring 526 runs at an average of 76.11.

“Since the last World Cup, we have been looking for a No.4 batsman and Iyer is the answer. I’m not saying because he’s my student, but the stats are showing that he’s done justice in that role, the consistency he’s shown. It’s a different feeling when you contribute to the team. It’s just one more game now. I have told him that (the final) is a new challenge, a new game. To do justice to whatever role you play, personal milestones don’t matter,” said former India batsman Pravin Amre, who coached Iyer from his early days at the Shivaji Park Gymkhana Academy, Dadar.

Middle-order batting in one-day cricket is a different challenge compared to the top three. Often your job is to maintain the scoring momentum from over 20 to 40 when the ball has gone softer. The bowler has extra cover on the boundary so finding the gaps is not easy. The best option is to have the power to clear the fence.

Iyer’s advantage is his big hitting. He has scored his runs at a strike rate of 113.11 thanks to 24 sixes, the most in the tournament apart from openers. Rohit has hit 28 sixes and David Warner 24. “In the middle overs you really have to hit the big sixes for impact, that’s what we practised. How else will he dominate in the finals, how will he look different from others, he is capable of hitting six,” said Amre.

There are many batters who have performed well at No. 4 of their teams in this World Cup, but Iyer is way ahead. In the last four overs, he has overcome his issue against the short ball with scores of 82, 77, 128* and 105. South Africa’s Aiden Markram (406 at 45.11), Pakistan’s Mohammad Rizwan are the other 4s who have done well . (395 at 65.83), England’s Ben Stokes (304 in 6 innings at 50.66) and Afghanistan’s Hashmatullah Shahidi (310 runs at 51.66).

Going into the final against Australia, the Mumbai batter will offer India a huge edge because of his ability to have a huge impact against the spinners. Leg-spinner Adam Zampa is the main bowler for the Aussies while part-timers Glenn Maxwell and Travis Head are doing well in supporting roles.

Why is he so good against the spinners? “It’s his bat speed and his height; he has the reach, so he doesn’t have to take off all the time, he can stand and deliver. Also, his ability to pass the middle of the day gave him a lot of confidence. Against the spinners you usually go to the side, which is natural, but he likes to go over the middle of the day,” said Amre.

Before the spinners come on, he will have to tackle the short ball. Despite handling the pacers of South Africa and New Zealand well, Australia’s fast bowlers will test it tall with bouncers. “They will bowl short balls (at Iyer). That doesn’t mean they won’t bowl short balls to Kohli or anyone else. Even if you are good, they will test you. It’s about how he finds a way to deal with that and be successful.”

In the series match against Australia, India’s first of the tournament, Iyer got out with a wicket. The final is the perfect situation to make amends.

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