Thirteen years after the Royal Challengers Bangalore and the Knight Riders scripted history by featuring in the inaugural match of the Indian Premier League extravaganza in 2008. They locked horns again in their opening encounter after the resumption of the league this year.
While Brendon McCullum was at the forefront of starting a revolution in franchise cricket, this time around, he was at the helm of affairs, taking some key decisions as KKR’s head coach ahead of the critical encounter.
"A saying that I've used throughout my career is that 'If you can't change a man, change the man. So, we will bring in some fresh personnel who will hopefully try and take the game on a little bit more," revealed McCullum after the Knights succumbed to their fifth loss in seven games this season.
This was just a couple of days prior to the suspension of the league amid the growing concerns of the pandemic earlier this year. Kolkata Knight Riders had suffered a seven-wicket loss against the Delhi Capitals.
An unforeseen break and a four-month hiatus away from the league, the Knights entered the second phase of the competition rejuvenated at the United Arab Emirates. And, just like McCullum hinted at the changes in the composition of the squad before the postponement of the league, he handed a debut to an unknown prodigy in Venkatesh Iyer.
On a night with a plethora of stars in both the line-ups, including the likes of Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Andre Russell, it was the young 26-year old making his maiden appearance in the league who grabbed the eyeballs.
In his brief 27-ball stay at the wicket scoring an unbeaten 41, he exhibited an array of strokes all around the ground for the world to stand up and take notice of his exciting talent.
Despite making his debut for the Madhya Pradesh side in the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy in 2015 against Railways, opportunities have ebbed and flowed for Iyer. However, the domestic season of 2020-2021 provided a glimmer of hope for a turnaround as he was the leading run-scorer for his stateside by amassing 227 runs in five league matches at a strike rate of 149.34 in the domestic T20 competition.
A moment to cherish
While his exploits in the domestic circuit were making the noises for all the right reasons, one of the defining moments in his short career was getting picked by the Knight Riders in the auctions ahead of this edition of the league.
"I didn't know I would be picked, but I was satisfied that I had come to Mumbai for the trials, given my best, and let's leave it to God. Honestly, KKR was the first team I wanted to be in when IPL started because I am a huge fan of Sourav Ganguly. He is my idol, and he was the captain of the Kolkata Knight Riders and really happy that I have landed here," he said in a video posted on the official social media handle of the Knight Riders.
The southpaw celebrated his addition to the Knight Riders family by smashing a destructive 198 in a List A match against Punjab at the Holkar Stadium in Indore.
Dilemma during his early days in the sport
Like most players in India, Iyer went through the grind of age-group cricket and spent hours of grueling sessions before making it big in IPL. A studious kid with decent grades while growing up, it was his mother's inclination towards the sport allowed him to forgo a booming career in finance and a job with an accounting firm, Deloitte, to pursue his passion.
"I was a bright student, inclined towards academics. It's generally the other way around, especially in orthodox South Indian families, where parents push kids to focus on studies. In my case, my mother pushed me towards playing cricket. I knew I wasn't going to take up the offer. I would've had to move cities, and that would've meant the end of my cricket," he revealed in a conversation with Cricinfo.
Glimpses of the great things to follow
Over the years, IPL has been a catalyst behind the steady rise of Indian cricket at the international level. The tournament allows young upcoming talent to share the dressing room with some of the greatest names in the history of the sport and learn from them whilst creating an impact.
On Monday, 20th September, as he made his much-awaited debut in a high voltage clash against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, Iyer repaid the faith his mother had in his incredible talent as he was handed his cap minutes before the toss.
After a clinical performance with the ball in the first innings, the opening combination of Shubman Gill and Iyer marched onto the field in pursuit of 93 runs. With the adrenaline rising through the roof and plenty of nerves, he took centre stage in probably the biggest match of his career.
While he missed out on an attempted cut shot in the first couple of deliveries, the subsequent delivery was crunched off the backfoot for a boundary as he announced his arrival in the first over.
Displaying an array of strokes all around the ground, he enthralled the fans with an absolute masterclass and guided the Knight Riders to a nine-wicket win with ten overs to spare in their 200th appearance in the IPL.
After a rousing start to his IPL career, every move and each performance of the youngster was keenly followed. As he took guard against the defending champions chasing 156 runs, it was the ultimate test of his skills against a formidable opponent.
Despite the pressure of the run chase and a dismal record of the Knight Riders against the most successful team in the league’s history, Iyer and Gill started the proceedings in a commanding fashion. Continuing from where he left a couple of nights ago, Iyer smashed Trent Boult for a massive six off the first ball he faced to kickstart the innings.
He never looked back from there and broke the back of the run-chase by targeting every bowler that the defending champs threw at him. In the two matches he has featured thus far, one of the standout aspects of his performance has been his ability to handle quality pace bowling unit.
The swashbuckling opener smashed the fastest half-century for the Knight Riders in the IPL against the Mumbai Indians, thus propelling his side to a win after four consecutive losses against them.
While most of the bowling has been short of length targeting his body in the two games, it has been a blessing in disguise for the tall batter. Plying his trade for Madhya Pradesh, Iyer spent rigorous hours of training on the cement wickets or hard wickets that help the pacers get a considerable bounce on the batting-friendly wickets in Indore.
A detailed analysis of his prowess against the quick bowlers helps us understand his areas of strength with the bat. Out of the 94 runs he has scored in the two games, 31 have come square of the wicket in 12 deliveries on both sides of the surface.
Iyer has made optimum use of his height and mastered the strokes off the backfoot that makes him one of the most lethal openers going around in the competition.
One of the catalysts behind England’s rise in the white-ball format, Eoin Morgan, heaped praises on the youngster in a post-match press conference. “I think Venky, the way he came in and played, was outstanding and certainly the brand of cricket we want to play. We have a lot of talent within our group and certainly playing under Brendon McCullum; that is the aggressive nature in which we want to play."
After a lukewarm performance in the first half of the season, the boys in Purple and Gold bounced back emphatically courtesy of an aggressive brand of cricket with Iyer at the forefront. The rejuvenated Knight Riders will take immense confidence from these clinical wins and are a force to reckon with in the upcoming matches.