There’s more than a touch of Brendon McCullum in the way Venkatesh Iyer plays
In the 2019 Indian Premier League (IPL) season, the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) missed out on the playoffs for the first time in four years. Finishing fifth in the league standings, KKR conceded the final playoff spot to the Sunrisers Hyderabad on net run rate.
Ahead of the 2020 campaign, which took place after a long pandemic-enforced break in the UAE, it was clear that something needed to change for KKR. The two-time champions took significant steps towards the same by making a few smart auction buys and appointing former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum as their head coach.
But over the ensuing one and a half seasons, KKR struggled to find their identity as a franchise. Constant shuffles in the batting order, several unforced changes to the playing XI and even a mid-season captaincy switch derailed the team’s fortunes as they finished fifth again, missing out on the playoffs for two campaigns running for the first time since 2010.
Finally, for the first time in over two years, KKR seem to have found their mojo. They’ve won two games on the trot in IPL 2021 over quality oppositions in the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and the Mumbai Indians (MI), and are fighting their way back up the points table.
The biggest reason behind their success has been their revamped batting approach. While KKR tried a plethora of openers in 2020 and the first half of IPL 2021, all of whom trundled their way to middling scores at the end of the powerplay, Shubman Gill and Venkatesh Iyer have taken the bull by the horns in McCullum’s inimitable style.
Brendon McCullum has imbibed his sense of aggression and fearlessness in KKR
New Zealand are the world-beating side they are today because of Brendon McCullum
New Zealand have reached the final of each of the last two ODI World Cups and are the current World Test Championship holders. The Blackcaps’ immense ICC success over the last decade must be primarily attributed to Brendon McCullum, who transformed the side with his revolutionary approach to batting and captaincy.
In essence, McCullum was fearless. Even in a tournament as high-stakes as the 2015 World Cup, he opened the batting for New Zealand and went ballistic in the opening powerplay. His blistering knock against England was a particular standout as he molded the Kiwis into a team that just wouldn’t back down despite being soft-spoken and respectful.
The exact same virtues have been imbibed into KKR, at least during the second phase of IPL 2021. Venkatesh Iyer is the exact embodiment of the same. The 26-year-old is a no-nonsense attacking opener who doesn’t attach great importance to personal milestones and doesn’t appear to put himself under any undue pressure.
Iyer is the perfect McCullum-coached opener, with him having played key roles in each of KKR’s two wins in the UAE leg. He has been audacious with his shot-making, dancing down the track the pacers and playing a series of unorthodox strokes to throw the bowlers off their rhythm. Remind you of anyone, a certain former Kiwi skipper perhaps?
Iyer’s free scoring has also ripped the shackles off Shubman Gill, who endured a tough first phase of IPL 2021 and came under criticism for his strike rate last year. Gill was outfoxed by Jasprit Bumrah yesterday, but his intent has been on display for all to see – intent which helped him make a match-defining 48 off 34 against RCB.
Perhaps the most telling depiction of McCullum’s philosophy came in the mid-innings sideline interview he gave during MI’s innings against KKR. When asked about Iyer’s success at the top of the order, the 39-year-old claimed that consistency is an unrealistic expectation for a player of the southpaw’s style.
Saying that Iyer is the type of player who could score a century in one game and a duck in the next, McCullum clearly pointed out that the match-winning impact he could have takes precedence over any notion of regular run-scoring. It was a curious view, one that isn’t common among coaches even in this T20-dominated era.
Brendon McCullum has been in the firing line for his decision-making over the last two seasons with KKR, with fans labeling the captaincy switch and intermittent player rotations as unnecessary and momentum-sapping. But the positives of his coaching tenure have finally made themselves felt in IPL 2021.
In Eoin Morgan, McCullum has a captain who buys into his philosophy. Morgan’s England team play a similar brand of cricket in white-ball formats, with explosive openers complemented by a unique bowling attack that comes in with clearly formulated plans that are unconventional yet effective.
With a captain who sees eye to eye with him and an opening combination that has been unchained, Brendon McCullum is in a great position to achieve something significant with KKR. After all, one of cricket’s greatest-ever captains must have valuable input to add to the coaching department, right?