August 11, 2019. It’s a low-key series in the Caribbean less than a month after the agony of a World Cup semi-final exit against New Zealand in Manchester and Shreyas Iyer strides in at 101/3 in his first one-day innings in more than one-and-a-half years.
This is an ideal opportunity for Iyer to impress on his comeback and show he can be a prominent part of India’s plans at the start of a fresh four-year cycle. More so because Virat Kohli, his captain, is batting at the other end. Iyer is just seven ODIs old, but far from overawed on a sluggish Port of Spain surface, he makes 71 and stitches together a 125-run stand with Kohli as India win by 59 runs. Kohli is impressed enough to say what he does after the game. “Shreyas is a confident guy, he’s got the right attitude. Good hands. He made it easier for me.”
This was the dawn of the Kohli-Iyer alliance, one that has blossomed beyond expectation in the four years that have passed. So much so that theirs is the most successful partnership in this World Cup, with 537 runs in eight innings at an average of 76.71. It includes two century-plus and three fifty-plus stands, contributing significantly to India’s rampaging run to the final on Sunday.
At the foundation of all fruitful batting partnerships is the ability to feed off each other’s strengths. Kohli is adept at manoeuvring the ball into gaps, Iyer is an expert boundary-hitter against spin. Their batting positions – No. 3 and 4 – mean they will come together often and mostly in the middle overs, which is when the meeting of these skills is paramount.
With current rules mandating five fielders inside the 30-yard circle from overs 11-40, it is necessary for at least one batter to take the odd risk in nearly every over and find the boundary. Iyer does that with utmost ease, twinkle-toed as he is while stepping out against the spinners. He is also blessed with a bat swing that wouldn’t be out of place on a golf course, resulting in shots that carry a long way into the stands despite a physique you wouldn’t associate with brute power. That his eyes don’t quite follow the towering trajectory of the ball when he connects has become something of an Iyer trademark.
Kohli, in contrast, runs opponents ragged by finding vacant spaces for ones and twos and batting deep. “I have been given a role in this tournament and I have been trying to play that to the best of my abilities — try to dig deep and bat long so the guys can play around me and have that confidence in the latter overs where I can dominate with the bat as well,” he said after completing his 50th ODI century in Mumbai on Wednesday.
A classic example of Kohli and Iyer precisely carrying out their designated roles came against South Africa in Kolkata. On a tricky Eden strip where even the rotation of strike wasn’t straightforward, Kohli sat in and contributed 49 off 71 balls in a partnership of 134. Along the way, he hit just three fours while Iyer added 77 off 87 balls with seven fours and two sixes.
When conditions call for batters to charge from both ends, Kohli does so effectively. Against New Zealand, Kohli flicked a switch on reaching fifty, charging at Trent Boult and Tim Southee in successive overs for a four over mid-off followed by a six towards long-on. It gave Iyer, who hit the first of eight sixes off his seventh ball, a bit of breathing space before unleashing his broad spectrum of strokes. In conjunction, they added 163 runs in 128 balls – Kohli scoring 82 off 71 balls and Iyer 77 off 57.
It nudged India’s total to near 400 and made a definite difference to the final verdict, with their bowlers benefitting from the cushion on a belter of a Wankhede Stadium pitch.
“To get close to 400 is amazing. A lot of credit has to go to Shreyas the way he came and batted freely,” Kohli said at the mid-innings break.
It’s not just Kohli and Iyer who have complemented each other in this World Cup. Be it Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill, Gill and Kohli, or Iyer and KL Rahul, an intrinsic understanding of each other’s strengths is apparent in the way they operate. In India’s opening partnership on Wednesday, Sharma was the aggressor. As soon as he was dismissed, Gill seamlessly took charge in his partnership with Kohli. Iyer did the same later on, ensuring no loss in momentum and little respite for the Kiwi attack.
Stability in the batting line-up has been chiefly responsible. In contrast to the musical chairs in the batting department at the 2019 World Cup, India’s top five has remained the same barring an illness to Gill for the first two games of the campaign.
“Consistency in the top five was always the idea. Of course, people were not available (earlier), so different players played,” India batting coach Vikram Rathour told reporters on Wednesday. “But the idea was to always have a settled unit. We have achieved that.”
Time together in the middle helps develop trust, understanding and intuition to instantly gauge what your partner is intending to do. All of which Kohli and Iyer are exhibiting as a batting pair right now.