The tilted head and lopsided eyebrow is straight from the Rajni stylesheet. And through this second leg of the IPL, Venkatesh Iyer has traversed an equally incredulous arc nothing short of a movie blockbuster – from a handy state team all-rounder, right upto the IPL final. Almost pulled off a title run too.
Along the way, he has stepped out to hit Rabada for a gigantic six, smacked Axar Patel, Adam Milne, Boult, and Bumrah around, used his feet deftly, reading the wily Ashwin, and in the first 10 overs of the final, made Josh Hazlewood look pedestrian.
His inability to finish the KKR chase leaves a lasting regret, or the Rajni standards of achieving only the impossible, might’ve even played out in real. His father Rajasekaran tells Express, that at home everyone is expected to address the superstar as ‘Rajni Sir’ – standing instructions from the 25-year-old Venkatesh.
The flavour of the season, carries other outrageous tropes onto the field too. The shirts are never tucked in, he will ill-advisedly face a spinner without a helmet, he can throw scorchers from the deep outfield with both hands. And he is a die-hard Rajnikanth fan.
Venkatesh Iyer also has this ability to score runs which has made him the find of the season for Kolkata Knight Riders. If KKR managed to reach the finals of this IPL, his role at the top, had been vital.
As the dust settles on this edition, Iyer is sitting in his hotel room still rueing playing that shot to Chennai Super Kings’ pacer Shardul Thakur. He is regretting not finishing the game.
“As a set batsman I should have gone and finished both the games. It’s the main difference between a normal player and an extraordinary player. Extra-ordinary players do finish the game. I’m still thinking that I should have taken the game till the end, especially in the finals,” a disappointed Iyer says. Further adding, “I knew (Rahul) Tripathi is injured. The pitch was nice for batting and we knew we could chase it. It was a matter of the extra push.”
His thought process is clear, and like his batting his talking doesn’t have ‘if’s’ and ‘if nots’. At 25, Iyer sounds more mature than his counterparts. An MBA in Finance, he has kept his degree aside, given up an offer from a multinational company to play cricket. He says it was the bravest decision taken by his parents to allow him to play cricket and not be bothered with what relatives chattered.
Not hemmed in by academics
Iyer’s family is not unlike most South Indian families, who set a lot of store on academics, and then follow that by moving abroad. Instead they wanted their son to follow what he liked the most. Iyer was a bright student and also a good cricketer. He wanted to become a Chartered Accountant after his BCom at a later stage but he couldn’t because if he enrolled himself into the CA Inter for the next three years, he would have to work under a CA.
Instead while playing cricket, Iyer completed an MBA in finance and later was offered a job in Deloitte which means he had to be stationed between Bangalore or Hyderabad, and Iyer once again chose his cricket.
“His mother was firm on him following his passion. Job can wait, she wanted him to do things which he liked the most and he continued to play cricket. Look now his passion is paying off,” his father Rajasekaran said.
The IPL has made him an overnight star but Iyer wears his success lightly. Nothing has changed for KKR opener drastically. He explains, “Things have changed for my family. In South Indian families there is a thing that let the boy concentrate on his academics only. It takes courage for a parent to decide that her child will play cricket. Now my relatives are happy, so the smile which I see on my parents’ face makes me happy. ”
Cricket is an expensive sport, especially if you don’t have much financial backing. Iyer’s father Rajasekaran is a Human Resources consultant in a beverage company and mother Usha is floor co-ordinator in an Indore hospital. His father has worked in Bhopal, Dewas and now settled in Indore.
“My parents faced financial problems initially, as cricket in India is expensive. They had to work hard, at the same time there were societal problems. The burden of expectations are always very high. They (relatives) wanted results quickly but my parents didn’t relay those conversations on me,” Iyer recalls.
Iyer would have made his IPL debut in May itself had his teammate Varun Chakaravarthy not tested positive which was followed by the IPL being postponed. The left-handed batsman had never imagined having such a great run in the UAE leg.
But how did cricket happen?
His father Rajasekaran recalls an incident which introduced their child to cricket. “Once there was an India vs Australia match going on, Venkatesh was a big fan of Sourav Ganguly. Ganguly got out early and Venkatesh began crying. He even got sick that day. We told him not don’t worry he will score in the next game but he was upset for the next two days. So looking at the passion for the game, we enrolled him in the nearby nets,” his father narrates.
Work on fitness
Two years ago, Iyer felt the need to have a good fitness base. He called his best friend Suraj Thakoriya, who planned his diet. “If I have to compete with others then my fitness needs to be at its prime. I’m a medium-pacer, so, many times, I need to bat the whole day and next day I have to bowl with the same intensity. I can only do that if my fitness is good. I increased my strength. I brought regularity in my fitness routine,” Iyer stated.
Last year when Madhya Pradesh coach Chandrakant Pandit decided to promote his number six Iyer, the batsman harboured doubts. But it was a move which later proved to be career-changing for Venkatesh. In the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Iyer blasted 227 runs in five innings at a strike rate of 149.34. Later in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy, Iyer continued with his form, walloping 198 in 146 balls against Punjab.
He was called for KKR trials to Mumbai and later was picked in an auction. Asked if he anticipated this success, he replies, “I never thought that I will have such a ride. Even if I wouldn’t have done well, I still would have enjoyed. It’s my first season of IPL, I had told myself that I won’t look at performance, instead I will give more importance to the process which has brought me here. I didn’t have any expectations, ki main itna run banaoonga, utne run maroonga. I just wanted to enjoy.”
Iyer did certainly enjoy. When the KKR coach Brendon McCullum came and told him to play freely, he did. Not many knew Iyer a month ago. One month on, he is with the Indian team as a player who will assist the Indian team during the T20 World Cup.
He met MS Dhoni, but couldn’t speak to him much. He met Virat Kohli, who told him importance of match fitness and how to handle pressure.
He says he has the same set of friends even now and a few hundred unread messages. What’s not changed is his love for movie star Rajnikanth. It won’t be exactly unreal to find out now that both his heroes, Ganguly and Rajnikanth know exactly who Venkatesh Iyer is. Them, and the greater cricket universe.