This is what the Indian Premier League does to cricketers. It makes a player famous overnight, turns him from a nobody to a national fame that almost everyone is talking about him and the commentators go gaga about his strokes or deliveries.
The latest in this category is Kolkata Knight Riders’ all-rounder Venkatesh Iyer. The Indore-born 26-year-old left-handed batsman and right-arm medium-pacer made an unbeaten 41 off 27 deliveries on his IPL debut, making light work of Royal Challengers Bangalore’s paltry 92 in the company of rising India Test opener Shubman Gill in Abu Dhabi on Monday night and then on Thursday, smacked 53 off just 30 balls against Mumbai Indians to make heads turn.
He may be a late bloomer in IPL like his KKR team-mate and unorthodox slow bowler, Varun Chakravarthy but Venkatesh has been making the right moves in the Madhya Pradesh cricketing circles from his under-12 days. He may have set the Vijay Hazare Trophy on fire with his 198 for MP against Punjab in February this year, the last innings he played before facing RCB on Monday.
But those who have been following Venkatesh closely from his under-12 days in Indore have always had the belief that he would shine on the big stage. So, when he stayed unconquered and hit the winning runs – a pull for four off discarded India T20 leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal – they were not surprised by his strokeplay.
One such who has followed Venkatesh’s progress over the last decade and a half is Sanjay Jagdale, a former national selector and also a former BCCI secretary.
Among the features that stood out in Venkatesh’s first big game was his confidence. Having been good at academics, he has cleared CA intermediate exams and also took up MBA (finance), the confidence has rubbed on his game. Jagdale gave an instance of Venkatesh’s confidence.
“When I was the director of cricket at MPCA two or three years ago, the Ranji Trophy selectors picked about 30 probables. Venkatesh did not figure in the list. I got a call from Venkatesh saying that he was in a hospital getting treatment for eight days. The Ranji Trophy trial matches were after a week or 10 days. Venkatesh said that he was fit and if he got a chance, he would make it to the Ranji team,” Jagdale told news18.com from Indore.
“One thing that I was always impressed with since I saw him from the under-12 days is his attitude. He is determined to excel. He did well in the under-23 age group for MP. I spoke with Kirti Patel, who was then the Ranji Trophy selection committee chairman and told him that the selectors should be looking at Venkatesh for the No. 6 or No. 7 slot and who could also bowl. They gave him a chance and made him play some trial matches. Ultimately, he was selected in the Ranji Trophy side. He has always done well in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 and the Vijay Hazare. Chandrakant Pandit made him open in the senior team.”
Jagdale, who was part of the national selection committee that groomed Mahendra Singh Dhoni as the national team captain in limited overs, said: “From his younger days, Venkatesh has always been hard working and very confident and well-mannered. His parents did a lot of sacrifice. They always encouraged him and sent him to play for the local clubs.”
Another aspect that Jagdale admired about Venkatesh is his hunger to succeed. “Besides talent, you should have the hunger to succeed. To me, he always had that thing. He was lacking in fitness. But, over the last two years, he has been working on his fitness and is now a very strong guy. I have seen him work on his fitness as I also go to the MPCA gym.”
Asked to don the national selector’s hat, would he choose Venkatesh into the Indian team, Jagdale said: “Not straightaway into the Indian team, but I will give him exposure. He is a good package. In the shorter version of the game, you require such cricketers. The best thing I liked about him is that he constantly works on the areas that need improvement.”
Kolkata Knight Riders got Venkatesh at the base price of ₹20 lakh in this year’s auction. But he has been on the IPL teams’ radar.
Mukesh Sahani, former MP Ranji Trophy coach, currently in charge of its under-19 team, said that even before Venkatesh scored 198 in Vijay Hazare, he was being noticed by the IPL franchise scouts. “He was called for trials even before he scored 198. He was also called for Delhi Capitals trials. That 198, a brilliant knock, gave him the boost,” Sahani said.
Sahani said that Venkatesh was a wicketkeeper-batsman when he started before he was advised to also try bowling. “You will get to see more of him. He is a good timer of the ball, has a good cricketing brain and is very hungry to perform. He has got a good opportunity at the top of the order.”
Speaking of Venkatesh’s confidence, Sandeep Mungre, former MPCA honorary joint secretary, remembered a couple of instances from Venkatesh’s early days. “Academically, Venkatesh is a very strong boy. This also made him mentally strong while playing cricket. He had gone to Nagpur for a BCCI tournament when his parents informed him that he had an interview with Deloitte International the next day. He immediately caught a bus from Nagpur and gave the interview in Indore the next day. His turn at the interview came late in the afternoon and he got selected. One of the interviewers asked him why he was in a hurry as he was selected for the job. He said he had to rush to Nagpur for a match the next day. He took the bus that night to Nagpur and scored a century, almost 150 runs. Ultimately, he was selected for Madhya Pradesh.”
Mungre has been neighbours with Venkatesh from the time he was born after the Iyers shifted from Dewas, an industrial town 40km from Indore. Mungre said that Venkatesh is known by his pet name Sairam in the colony he grew up in. He has also seen the struggles Venkatesh’s parents have been through while encouraging their son in cricket.
Mungre recalled: “Venkatesh had such a passion for cricket that particularly in summer, he used to get up from bed and go with his bat to play cricket. His father (Rajasekaran Iyer) was not able to take him to the club for playing cricket but his mother (Usha Iyer) used to take pains to take him to various places for playing cricket and nets, irrespective of whether it was summer or winter.”
Another of Venkatesh’s strong points is his time management skills, which he picked from his mother, said Mungre. “In the Deloitte interview, Venkatesh was asked how he managed between his studies and cricket and still did well in both. He told that he learnt it from his mother who worked in a private hospital, working in two shifts, taking him for cricket and dropping him home before herself going for duty.”
Mungre echoed Jagdale when he spoke about Venkatesh’s confidence that has taken him far. “Four years back, during the four-day Ranji Trophy trial matches, Venkatesh called to say his paternal uncle had passed away and that he had to perform the last rites. He travelled to Dewas, performed the last rites and returned to play the match. Such is his devotion for the game.”
Another Indore official who has known Venkatesh play and excel in the inter-divisional tournaments is Rajiv Risodkar, a former BCCI umpire. Risodkar is of the view that Venkatesh is more suited for limited-overs cricket. “He is a street-smart cricketer. He will not give his wicket away that easily. He has got that Caribbean flavour in his stroke play and also bowls at a decent pace, sending down six-seven overs.”
Having made a mark early on in his IPL career, a lot more of Venkatesh will be heard in the coming days. CA’s and MBA’s loss, for the time being, is cricket’s gain.