On the day the Indian team reached Mumbai ahead of the league game against Sri Lanka, former Mumbai all-rounder-turned-coach Abhishek Nayar received a phone call from Shreyas Iyer.
Next morning, Pravin Amre texted Iyer that he is coming down to Wankhede stadium to be there. The two Mumbai old hands, with whom Iyer has worked at various phases, were swooping in to offer some emotional cover in vulnerable times.
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When the number flashed on the screen, Nayar knew it was a distress call from India’s current No 4.
“I usually get calls from him during the off season. But this was in the middle of the World Cup. So I knew it was an SOS call, which comes only when he is under pressure,” Nayar told The Indian Express.
Amre says he sensed that Iyer must be “feeling hunted down”.
Nayar, 40, and Iyer, 28, are from different generations of Mumbai cricket but the senior has known the junior for many years. Nayar does not want to reveal too much but says the problem was both technical and mental.
“He was obviously feeling low. Before the Sri Lanka game he was a little confused. I spoke to him about how he can go after specific bowlers tactically,” Nayar said.
Before the game against the Islanders in Mumbai, Iyer had made 134 runs in six games with one half-century. Post his talk with Nayar, Iyer scored 392 runs in four games, including two hundreds — the second a valuable 105 in just 70 balls against New Zealand in the semifinal.
Iyer missed nearly eight months of cricket because of a back injury but the Indian team management had placed faith in him to come good during the World Cup.
It’s in this vital period that Amre and Nayar had worked at various points with Iyer. Amre says he worked on the bat-lift and downward swing, that has seen some wondrous aerial hits to seamers and spin, to allow Iyer to hit over the off-side as well.
Amre also had an eye-specialist to determine which was the Iyer’s more dominant eye, and opened his stance further to ensure he sees the ball with both eyes.
Nayar would work on making Iyer’s base stronger, by making his feet spread wider to help him generate more power.
“Base is basically the space between the two legs once you take guard. In cricketing sense, if a batsman’s legs are close to each other then the batsman can’t have a strong base. They can’t generate power. If the space is more than the batsman can generate force, he can rotate shoulder and hip during pull shot,” Nayar explained.
Amre’s work had begun at BKC indoor nets during that rehab period.
“Perhaps because of the injury, his bat was closing at the point of impact. He was dragging the balls to the on side. The challenge was his shoulder as the muscles hadn’t completely healed and he couldn’t finish the shot,” Amre tells this newspaper.
Amre says when he saw Iyer smash South Africa’s Marco Jansen over mid-off — a shot that had Virat Kohli applauding from the non-striker’s end, a smile came on his face. And a small rewind to those Bandra days.
“Our first small goal then was to clear mid-off. Not necessarily long-off, to the pacers. The bat-lift and the downward bat-swing had to be tweaked. I know him from when he was very young; so the trust factor was always there.
I suggested that it can be done without changing his bat-grip. He has a special way of holding the bat, you can see the bat tips from both top and bottom. The top hand had to be a bit more dominant for the off-side flow to come through to help in the downward swing.
“The bat-flow is the key to his smooth hitting. Some batsmen punch, some drive; he has a lovely smooth movement. It has to be one fluent movement; the way the bat is lifted up, it has to come down. both have to be smooth and feel like one single movement. Once he hit a few shots over mid-off, he was convinced. But I would say because of the injury, it still took us two weeks to fix that properly,” Amre says.
Also, Amre made Iyer open his stance a wee bit so his right eye was also more aligned with the path of the ball.
“In batting, the eye is the key; 80% of the job is done by vision and hand coordination. I wanted him to open up a bit more, so that he can now see the ball with two eyes and be more stable in stance, as a result,” Amre says.
Meanwhile, Nayar was strengthening Iyer’s base in stance. “Earlier, Iyer’s leg was ‘saath-saath’ (together) while facing the bowler. When he tried to rotate his shoulder, his leg would get locked. Now because of the space, he can rotate his shoulder and because of that he can generate force and is hitting the ball well,” Nayar said.
Backing from team management
The Australia series before the World Cup was when there was talk if Iyer, still on the comeback trail from injury, would be upto the task. The backing he got from coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma made a world of a difference to his confidence, says Nayar.
“When the Australia series started many people began to say that Iyer has a short ball issue. They asked: Can he bat at No. 4? It was a bit of a mental battle, he had just returned from injury and didn’t have enough game time under his belt. With the World Cup around the corner, there were a lot of things running through his mind. But the support he got from the Indian team management especially Dravid and Rohit really gave him the confidence he needed.” It’s a sentiment that Amre wholly concurs. “Full credit to Rohit and Rahul, else it could have got tricky.”
Iyer has spoken in the past about how he tries to have no superstitions in terms of cricket. Except his bats. But it’s how he described his bat that tells a story of its own. “The bat is like a sword, a weapon. I even interact with it now and then.” And he is busy brandishing his weapon at the highest stage of them all.