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India’s middle-order batsman should stand and deliver

CHENNAI: Let the No 4 talks begin once again.They should. Especially after how Friday ended at Eden Park in Auckland. The stakes were high; who wants to lose the opener of any series? New Zealand didn’t have their gun bowlers, but they’d still erected a 200-plus run-mountain.

KL Rahul and Virat Kohli did what they always do, but India were still 80-odd runs away from the finish line. The required rate was on the verge of going into double digits. In walked Shreyas Iyer at two-drop, bossed the chase, notched up his second T20I fifty, gave the Men in Blue a 1-0 lead, and also took home the Man of the Match trophy. Solid reasons for Netizens to reassert that the 25-year-old is the man for that jinxed slot, no?

“The thing about him is that though he is a naturally aggressive batsman, he’s become calmer and more assured over the last few years,” remarked Mumbai skipper Aditya Tare, who’s seen the right-hander evolve into an India player. “That doesn’t mean that he curbs his instincts completely. For instance, he has this habit of shuffling around the crease, especially against swing bowlers. Even with the red ball. But he chooses his battles more wisely now.”

It’s well known that Iyer is aggressive. The 4,000-plus runs he has in first-class cricket have come at an 80-plus strike-rate. But like Tare observed, the No 4 didn’t go all guns blazing with his eyes closed. He knew exactly whom he was about to target: New Zealand’s main swing-bowler in Tim Southee, and a weak link in debutant pacer Hamish Bennett.

On a coin-sized ground, Bennett did go for the logical choice — take pace off the ball through knuckle balls — and make batsmen manufacture power. But Iyer was crunching more variables than the speedster: namely, angles.

Bennett came around the wicket. Iyer’s premeditation was spot-on. Walk across the stumps, and target the zone behind square on leg-side. Result? Boundary. Bennett compensated, switched his length outside off. Iyer knew he would. A bigger shuffle across stumps, another four.

That Iyer can thump the ball is also well known. But he did struggle against the short ball during the ODI series against Australia, even though he carried India over the finish line in the last match with an unbeaten 44 in Bengaluru.

Southee tried what Pat Cummins did in that match. Perhaps it was the encouragement that his skipper had given him from the non-striker’s end in Bengaluru, despite a miscued pull falling in no man’s land. Perhaps it was just Iyer sticking to his approach of taking the bull by the horns. But the Kiwi pacer’s plan was torn to shreds.

Iyer stood his ground and pulled out his biggest warhead: stand-and-deliver whacks. A six behind the wicket. Another one over long-off with a tennis forehand. A third with a brutal swipe over deep mid-wicket, the shot that handed his team the match.

“The USP of his batting is six-hitting,” observed Mumbai coach Vinayak Samant. “But he knows when to use it: mostly after throwing the bowler off length. Even against New Zealand he did exactly that. And that ended up making a difficult chase look easy.

“What Shreyas brings to the table is a mix of attacking shots and excellent awareness of the situation. These traits make him the perfect fit for two-down. He needs to change nothing. Going by the encouragement that he seems to be getting from the team management, he just needs to keep backing his natural game.”

He seems to be. And so is social media. Brace yourself for permutations and combinations of the words “No 4” and “Iyer” to keep flooding your feeds for the days to come.