A golden opportunity wasted, ft. Venkatesh Iyer

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In IPL 2022’s second half, Venkatesh Iyer approached batting for KKR as if he was an explorer trying to uncover hidden lands. But this year, when there is a chance to elevate his own game for a place in the India squad for the next T20 World Cup, he completely failed to live up to the expectations.

Despite being a consistent performer with both bat and ball for the last few years, Venkatesh Iyer was given his first proper run in the Indian Premier League (IPL) by opening the batting last year. That too came in the second half of the season, when Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) were hoping to get someone who could get them off to a blistering start to change their fortunes. Iyer came and delivered immediately, promptly smiting 41 not out from 27 balls on debut to help his side chase down a meager target of 93 against Royal Challengers Bangalore.

From there on till the end of last season, Iyer seemed like an extraordinary cricketer in an extraordinary phase, as he was getting better and better with his timings and techniques. He scored 370 runs in 10 innings, increasing his average to 40 and strike rate to just behind 130. It helped KKR reach the final, only to finish as runner-ups following a 27-run defeat against Chennai Super Kings (CSK).

Chasing a challenging target of 193 in the summit clash, Iyer did his part, scoring 50 off 32 balls, but the others failed to provide him with support.

Ahead of the 2022 mega auction, KKR retained Iyer ahead of Shubman Gill, who is considered one of the next big things in Indian cricket. It was a debatable choice by the KKR think tank, led by Venky Mysore, but they would probably make the decision considering his all-round ability. His call-up in Team India’s limited-overs set-up, as well as some impressive performance in national colours, was also a key factor.

There are two more seasons to go, two-and-a-half more seasons to go [before the next scheduled mega auction], so let's not jump the gun, and you can't always judge a decision based on how things are panning out. You do the best at that point in time, whatever you think. "But I think, personally, they had a choice. They had a choice of paying a couple of crores more to Shubman Gill and retaining him, and then invest in him as maybe a long-term captaincy candidate. I think it's not about Venkatesh Iyer getting retained, and maybe he was worth more or worth less, we don't know, but Shubman Gill, I think letting him go was a mistake, because it's important to know when to hold on to, and when to let go of [a player]. I think the best of Shubman Gill is going to come in the next three years for Gujarat Titans and not KKR."

Aakash Chopra (To ESPNCricinfo).

However, KKR’s gambling move has not worked, at least as of now. All Iyer managed in IPL 2022 was 182 runs in 12 outings. Now if one omits his two knocks against Mumbai Indians (MI), where he had scored 50 not out and 43 runs respectively, his other 10 innings only fetched 89 runs.

Fans had seen the brutality of Iyer’s strokes in IPL 2021, but he did not seem to be in a clear state of mind this season. With the ball, he did not get a wicket either.

To be fair, Iyer was not brave enough to play some audacious shots this year. After the first six matches, KKR used him as a finisher on a couple of occasions. The plan came to their mind after watching Iyer bat in the middle overs in the Indian jersey, but he failed to make an impact there as well. As a result, the 27-year-old all-rounder was dropped for some time.

Iyer’s brisk 43-run knock against MI came on his return to the side. But then, in the last two games, against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) respectively, he departed cheaply again. Not for a single time, he had managed to put some bowlers under pressure to set a field.

Let us come to the most serious possible consequence because of Iyer’s poor form in IPL 2022. Ahead of this season, India’s all-format skipper Rohit Sharma heaped praise on Iyer, saying he has been rating the rookie very highly. So despite a disastrous campaign, the all-rounder may be recalled by the BCCI selectors. But these miserable outings, that too on a consistent basis, would definitely affect his mental health.

Despite the boast of having the largest pool of talented cricketers, India did not have a pace-bowling all-rounder for limited-overs cricket ever since Hardik Pandya suffered an injury. Hardik has returned after a long break and has been bowling and batting reasonably well, but had Iyer done the same, the scenario could have been different. More importantly, it would give Team India a quality backup option as a long-term prospect.

Iyer may regain his form in IPL 2023. He may come back after careful preparation, studying video footage, and data analysis of the opposition to start afresh. But, the next T20 World Cup is set to take place in Australia later this year. Arguably, Iyer had the chance of a lifetime to tell the selectors he is not here for roaming around, but all he did bring in this IPL is a disappointment.

Speaking to ESPNCricinfo, Daniel Vettori was asked whether retention put pressure on Iyer or not.

The Kiwi icon replied, “I think KKR were right in retaining him because I think that the auction would have taken him to another level in terms of the amount that he would have gone for.”

“Everyone talks about that Indian allrounder and what he could have brought to a team, so retained for INR 6 crore, if I'm correct? [8 crore] I think he would have comfortably gone for more than that if he'd gone into the auction. I think KKR's strategy was right; it's just the fact that he hasn't had the season that they would have expected.”

Let us hope Iyer can come back with a bang next season. But for now, he could have made the best out of his numerous opportunities, which all went in vain.

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