A puff of dust was the harbinger. Seven overs into the pink-ball Test at Chinnaswamy, Lasith Embuldeniya extracted appreciable turn from the surface and you knew it was spin to win in Bangalore. Throw variable bounce into the mix, and India found themselves in dire straits at 86/4 in the opening session itself. Save for Mayank Agarwal who went searching for a non-existent run, all the wickets had fallen to spinners, with Virat Kohli cursing his luck as a grubber beat him on the flick to leave his adopted home pin-drop silent.
Enter Shreyas Iyer, armed with the understanding that this is not a typical Indian featherbed where you can hit through the line and plunder runs all day long to make mincemeat of the opposition. The ball wasn’t turning square just yet, but it was playing enough tricks to sow the seeds of doubt into a batter’s mind. All Sri Lanka had to do was keep bowling in the right areas and benefit from the mischievousness of the track. But their indiscipline combined with Iyer’s approach to ransack runs before he gets that unplayable beast led India to 252, potentially a match-winning first-innings total given Sri Lanka were in tatters at 86/6 by the end of day’s play.
Iyer was on the lookout for boundaries right from the word go. Praveen Jayawickrama’s drag-down was stabbed through point while an exquisite drive threaded cover and mid-off. Meanwhile, India lost both Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja in similar fashion, the left-handers cramped for room attempting the cut, and the scorecard saying six wickets down brought an even more proactive Iyer to the fore. Using his feet to hardly the desirable effect, he squirted the ball to third man before forcing a half-volley to the right of mid-on via a diagonal swing of the blade and masterful wristwork.
Two sixes off Dhananjaya de Silva took Iyer to fifty, the latter being a roof-transcender, and the helmet came off during the celebration in what was a personal acknowledgement of the magnitude of the feat. His life was made a lot easier after reaching the landmark, though, as Sri Lanka provided a steady diet of long-hops and wayward freebies that were accepted with utmost glee. Struggling with his length, Embuldeniya was yanked over mid-wicket and Lakmal, returning to bowl the 50th over after having operated non-stop from the Pavilion end in the first hour, was greeted back into the attack with a glance. It didn’t help that Sri Lanka put down the couple of chances that came their way as Iyer stitched tiny yet telling partnerships with Pant, R Ashwin, Axar Patel and Jasprit Bumrah to not only perform the rescue operation but also give India the cushion of a par-score.
“When I was sitting inside there was drama happening in every over and the thrill was intense. I didn’t want to get out defending the ball because there are more chances of getting out that way rather than scoring runs. In my mind the intent had to be positive and that’s what I had decided before going out to bat,” Iyer said of his knock which ensured India guard against a slip-up at this juncture of the World Test Championship cycle.
The awareness of field positionings was the hallmark of his 92. He was able to hit the gaps whenever the scoring opportunity presented itself. It is one thing to have the intent to score at a fair clip but another to nail the placement and get value for your shots. Boasting of five 50+ scores in international cricket since 2022 – the most for an Indian – Iyer has shown an aptitude for reading the match situation and seems to have found the ideal tempo to his Test batting, which is a glorious mixture of white-ball sensibilities and the composure needed to survive in the longer format.
India have in the past been guilty of going into a shell when Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane occupied the middle-order berths, and Iyer comes like a breath of fresh air. A natural strokeplayer who can drop anchor should a problem arise but will always move the game forward as soon as the repair job is dealt with. He arrested the slide in Kanpur and went on to engineer a Test hundred on debut. He might have fallen short of three figures today, but on the impact quotient, it was worth much more.