Shreyas Iyer was at a Ranji Trophy training camp ahead of Mumbai's clash against Tamil Nadu starting Tuesday when news of his India call-up for the three T20Is against New Zealand filtered through. His selection can be deemed a reward for the consistency he's shown across formats over the last three seasons.
Since July, Iyer has been knocking the doors of an India selection by scoring big runs. In the tri-series final in South Africa in August, he hammered an unbeaten match-winning 140, after previously failing to convert starts in the series. In the subsequent two unofficial Tests against New Zealand A in Vijayawada, he made 108 and 82 in the two innings he batted. He followed it up with a 73-ball 90 in the one-dayers, scripting a remarkable turnaround in the second game after India A were tottering at 84 for 5 in pursuit of 270.
"I always challenge myself in tough conditions. Everyone has their own tensions, but the one who opposes that and believes himself in those conditions, succeeds. That's what I did in South Africa in that final," he told ESPNcricinfo. "That's what I've seen in me under pressure. I always tell myself, whatever happens, it will be good. In South Africa, right from the first match, I was timing the ball really well. There wasn't a situation where I was worrying about a match going wrong. Since I was timing well as compared to others, Rahul (Dravid) sir told me to bat till the end. I got the 140-odd in the final. It was a satisfying knock. I've just taken off from there this season."
This, however, is not Iyer's first tryst with the national team. In March, he was on his way back to Mumbai after a stint with his corporate team Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited when he was asked to join the India Test team as a replacement for the injured Virat Kohli. He joined the squad on the eve of the Dharamsala Test against Australia and got to spend the week and soak in a series-defining victory.
"Once I reached there, I was feeling a little insecure since I hadn't mingled with the team before," he said. "After one or two days, I was getting along with all of them. After getting a run-out [as a substitute on the first day], they started liking me a lot (laughs). Before I went on to the field as a substitute, Anil Kumble said 'Go do some magic.' That run-out boosted my confidence. After I came back, he said that effort was alone worth the trip up to Dharamsala. That helped me settle in and feel that I belonged."
The late call-up in the series was a result of a magnificent double-century for India A against the Australians in a warm-up fixture that was accorded first-class status. The unbeaten 202 he made in trying conditions at Brabourne Stadium is his highest first-class score till date.
"I was given a mouthful by them. David Warner came up and said, 'Now show us what you've got. I can't see anything in your game.' Since I was playing against a senior team, it wouldn't have been great for me to reply," he remembered of that knock. "You can't just sledge guys like Warner, who have achieved a lot for their country. I was thinking 'Let me get to a total, after that I can talk.' I like to talk. If someone sledges me, I like to give it back.
"The most satisfying thing was that I hit a six off my first ball. I wasn't scared of the bowlers or the consequences. From there, I got into my stride. Nathan Lyon was a bit frustrated that I was stepping out and hitting him easily. He's an amazing bowler, but that day was my day. He was chirping and I gave it back. It was good, it was challenging. Even in the tri-series final in South Africa, I was just sledging around with all the 11 players in the final. They were shocked. Even when I was taking a single, I was sledging them in the latter half. All of them kept quiet."
The fearlessness in Iyer's game stems from the immense self-confidence he has. Pravin Amre, a man with a sharp eye for talent, remembers giving Iyer a million instructions as head coach, only to see his ward attempt the complete opposite in his debut season. The fearless look in Iyer's eyes when summoned to explain his methods convinced him of the need to let his ward hone his own style. Iyer did not make an immediate mark in Mumbai's first-class scene but this sense of freedom has been crucial to his development as a reliable No. 3 in the first-class set-up over the last three seasons.
"His fearless attitude, self-belief and confidence stood out the day he walked into the Mumbai Ranji team," said Abhishek Nayar, his Mumbai team-mate. "Normally, you see youngsters being all by themselves, overawed by the surroundings, talking only if required. We've gone through that as young Mumbai cricketers too. So to suddenly see this young boy just out of Under-19s freely expressing his thoughts and speaking his mind, mingling openly with all the players and coaches, was a refreshing sight."
A hallmark of Iyer's game is the touch of flamboyance he marries with fast run-scoring across formats, a result he attributes to having been given the confidence to play the way he wants to. These, he say, have translated into performances of note at vital times, like in the Ranji Trophy final in 2016 where he struck a quickfire century on a seaming track to drive the game forward and deliver a 41st title for Mumbai.
Soon after the season, however, he endured a tough three months where he couldn't break in to Delhi Daredevils' squad in the IPL, and was unable to live up to his INR 2.6 crore price tag. "I was going through a bad patch. I was forcing myself to do what others were telling me, not what I wanted to do. That is a bad thing I would advise any sportsperson from not doing," he said. "Always take advice, but apply the right things. I wasn't doing it then. I totally changed my mindset this year. I decided I'm just going to be myself and enjoy what I do. I know I've worked hard to tackle failures. You can't emulate someone else. You have to set an example inside the dressing room."
As part of his learning, he took time off and set up a week-long camp at a private facility in Dehradun with Nayar, whom he calls his "3am mentor" and best friend. "He has this massive drive to win games for his team, and he has the confidence to pull it off in tough situations," Nayar said. "What he's done wonderfully, and it's admirable for someone just 23, is investing his money wisely and in his own game. People, once they have an IPL contract, choose the easy way out. Shreyas goes out of his way, works with a dedicated trainer, physio."
"There was a period after the IPL last year, where he wasn't feeling good about the game. So we went over to Dehradun and had a small camp, one-on-one sessions. We're both unorthodox in terms of our stance and batting, that kind of was a common bond. Shreyas trusts my experience, so we worked on a number of issues that were hampering him. For him to take the initiative and understand the need to work on his game speaks volumes about his drive. He's got most shots in the book. The battle was for him to figure out which shot to play when. I think he's sorted that out now."
At 23, Iyer has most aspects of his game settled. He thinks this is a result of all the early struggle of having to prove himself from being a bowling allrounder to a batsman. A game in 2012, he says, was the turning point as far as his batting goes. In the team as a spin-bowling allrounder, Iyer was batting at No.8 in a Cooch Behar Trophy game against Himachal Pradesh when he was bowled for zero by an "inswinging yorker" in the first innings, and Mumbai had to follow on.
Sent in as a nightwatchman at No.3 on the penultimate evening, Iyer batted out 93.5 overs in bowling-friendly conditions for an unbeaten 110 - his first century for Mumbai at any level. That he says triggered his batting success, much like Steven Smith, the opposition captain at the tour game. Smith later offered Iyer "high praise" in the dressing room.
"Whenever I'm in tough situations, I look back at my struggling days," he says. "The way I coped with failures, the way I used to make my mindset positive and come back strong from a lean patch. I watch my old videos and my cuttings, which my mother has kept right from my debut. It reminds me of my old days. It's motivating at times. If I make my debut, I would be making my parents proud. All these things will be remembered."