Young talent and the unknowns blaze a trail at IPL 2021 Phase 2
Iyer's exploits for Kolkata Knight Riders in the last IPL made him a sensation

Young talent and the 'unknowns' blaze a trail at IPL 2021 Phase 2

Over the last 13-and-a-half seasons, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has largely been about the superstars. There have been sensational performances from the truly unknowns, inevitable in a format tailor-made for instant heroes, but it is the established order, Indian and overseas, that has stood out for sustained impact.

A slight but perceptible shift in that balance has been noticeable over the last few years. Indian youngsters have shed their inhibitions and come into their own, helped by a vibrant ‘A’ and Under-19 structure that’s helped bridge the wide chasm between domestic and franchise cricket.

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In keeping with that trend, the opening week of Phase 2 of IPL 2021 has thrown up a slew of impact performances from relatively anonymous Indian talent. Venkatesh Iyer tops that list, though there was little relative about his anonymity until five days back. Others making a strong case for homegrown stars-in-the-making are the Rajasthan Royals duo of Yashasvi Jaiswal and Kartik Tyagi, and Punjab Kings’ Arshdeep Singh, who had the mortification of seeing his maiden five-wicket haul end in heart-breaking defeat.

Iyer is no spring chicken. An early enough entrant into competitive cricket, he made his 50-over and T20 debut for Madhya Pradesh in 2015 when 20. He averages 47.16 at a strike rate of 98.72 in 24 domestic 50-over contests; the corresponding numbers in 40 T20s are 38.95 and 140.30, respectively. Yet, only a few outside his home state had heard of the lithe Indore-born left-handed opener until 20 September 2021.

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It’s a day (or, in this instance, night) Iyer will be hard-pressed to forget. Kolkata Knight Riders’ flailing starts in the first stage necessitated a radical shake-up. Coach Brendon McCullum’s search for an aggressive partner for Shubman Gill ended with Iyer. McCullum saw shades of his countryman Stephen Fleming, the former New Zealand captain, in the 26-year-old Iyer. To his coach’s delight, Iyer turned on the style against Royal Challengers Bangalore, batting with flair, authority and composure to make an unbeaten 41 in just 27 deliveries in a modest chase of 93.

Three nights later, Iyer set out to show that there was more to him than just one sparkling inning. Against a far more threatening, pedigreed Mumbai Indians attack – with Trent Boult, Jasprit Bumrah, Adam Milne, and with 156 needed for victory – he was spectacular. His first ball of the innings, a bouncer from Boult, was dispatched over fine-leg. Bumrah was greeted with a peachy off-drive, right leg to the pitch of the ball, bat coming down straight, the followthrough more Brian Lara than Fleming. It was scarcely believable. Where had this man been hiding?

By the time Bumrah foxed him with a slower one, Iyer had hared to his maiden half-century in under 30 deliveries. More than the impressive numbers, it was his presence that stood out. He played the ball, not the bowler – something drilled into every cricketer at every stage of his progression, but also something easier said and done – and while he had swag and nonchalance, none of that looked affected or put-on. Simply put, he was no show pony.

Unlike Iyer, Jaiswal and Tyagi have been in the IPL for a while. But just a little while. Again, watching them in action against Punjab Kings, you simply wouldn’t have guessed.

Jaiswal, the tall 19-year-old left-hander from Mumbai, hardly broke sweat easing to a classy 49, treating Mohammed Shami and Adil Rashid with little respect. He was comfortably shaded by his team-mate Tyagi, wiry, ready with a smile and a word, seriously quick and with a superb head on his 20-year-old shoulders. An influential member of the Under-19 squad that finished runners-up in the World Cup in South Africa last year, Tyagi had caught the eye with his spirit and spunk in the final season of the IPL, but few were prepared for his searing last over against Punjab in Dubai the other night.

Always in control of their chase of 186, Punjab went into the final over needing four, with the well-set Nicholas Pooran and Aiden Markram primed to take their side home. Enter Tyagi. Bowling full and wide outside off but not wide enough to be penalised, he accounted for Pooran and Deepak Hooda in six deliveries that fetched a measly single run. Perhaps he had nothing to lose – four to defend with the opponents having eight wickets in hand – but he was brilliant in the execution of his game plans, flawlessly.

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This last week has been about indigenous talents like Varun Chakravarthy, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Prasidh Krishna. All India internationals, and Rahul Tripathi, KKR’s Maharashtra batsman who has been around the IPL for a while but hasn’t threatened to set the world afire beyond this platform. What’s made their already impressive performances even more special is that all of them have come in cold. Unlike their more senior Indian counterparts who were involved in demanding showdowns in England or their overseas colleagues who also played in The Hundred and/or the Caribbean Premier League, these men had no exposure to match-play since the beginning of May.

It speaks to their commitment, hunger, passion and ambition that they have been switched on from the word go. The four-month break was optimal to work on fitness and skills, topped up after linking with their respective franchises. But no amount of net-play can compensate for lack of game-time. It’s in their ability to immediately shake off the rust and hit the ground running that these youngsters revealed the strength of character to go with the immense ability and potential.

It’s possible, even likely, that many of them might not go on to represent the senior national side for one reason or the other. While that will be unfortunate, it merely reiterates what strength in depth India is fortunate to be able to fall back on. The IPL’s avowed aim has been to unearth hidden gems within the length and breadth of the country. This last week emphatically proves that there has been no compromise on the original vision.

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