I love playing freely & the team management has given me that freedom: Shreyas Iyer

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Having represented India in 54 white-ball games, Mumbai batter Shreyas Iyer made his long-awaited entry into Test cricket in Kanpur against New Zealand in November. After becoming the only Indian to make a century and a fifty on Test debut, a sterner challenge awaits the 27-year old on the South Africa tour, where he will be competing for a middle-order spot with Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari. Before leaving for South Africa, Iyer spoke to The Indian Express on his debut performance and his preparation for the upcoming big tour.

Your Mumbai team-mate Siddhesh Lad once asked you to focus on white-ball cricket when you were not getting chances in red-ball. But you replied that red-ball lamba khelna hai [I want to play red-ball for a long time]. Tell us a bit more about that phase.

Test cricket is the ultimate dream of any professional cricketer. True to its name, it tests your technical, mental and physical strength. I have always wanted to play Test cricket for India and I knew my time would come. Since my early days, I have never put pressure on myself. I think it affects your temperament on and off the field. All I always like to do and did at that time is focus on my skills so that whenever I get the opportunity, I am ready for it.

You had to wait for 54 first-class games before your Test debut. You have already played 54 white-ball games for India. You are also an IPL star. Was there ever a point where you felt that you had achieved plenty even without getting that Test cap?

No, not at all. I am humbled by what I have been rewarded with but it doesn’t mean that I don’t strive to stretch to the next level. As I said, when I know I’m doing what I love, every opportunity, landmark or incentive becomes a bye-product. Yes, it does make you happy but it doesn’t make you content. As a person, I don’t believe in being satisfied with my efforts or achievements, there’s always an extra mile in you.

Your breakthrough Ranji performance came in Kanpur against Uttar Pradesh in 2014-15. Was that on your mind when you made your Test debut at the same ground? How do you look back at that game now? You had forgotten your match kit at the hotel…

Well, the hotel was not far, so it wasn’t too difficult to get it back. However, [then Mumbai coach Pravin Amre sir pulled me up for the lapse.

I have always performed well at Kanpur so there was a sense of comfort, of nostalgia. I was also pretty confident playing there.

You were yet to score your first run in Test cricket when you were beaten by Ajaz Patel. Two balls later, you went for a big hit and the ball just cleared mid-off running back. That was a tense way to get your first Test runs. Can you talk about that moment?

I always walk into bat with a clear mind. When you’re batting, you can’t have your mind cluttered with too many things and plan your next shot before the ball is delivered. I believe in treating each ball on its merit and that is how I play all formats. Yes, you are eager and have a positive nervousness for your first run but at that moment, I just wanted to trust myself on each shot I was playing or attempting.

You hadn’t played a first-class match in nearly three years when you made your Test debut. What did you focus on in training to get into the routine of the long format?

I have had considerable experience in the Ranji Trophy circuit where I have developed certain processes around my technique. So, I didn’t try to over-complicate things. I just focused on the processes and mindset that have worked for me in the past.

You have a high career strike-rate in first-class cricket. And you went at a high tempo in Kanpur too. Was there any thought about taking some more time because it was Test cricket?

As I said, I treat each ball on its merit and play with a clear mind. I always try to avoid pre-meditated shots. Yes, you do have a game-plan based on the pitch, conditions and the opponent’s bowling set-up but it is important to adapt to the situation and trust your instinct. I love playing freely and the good part is that the team management has given me that freedom. So, if the ball is there to score, I go for it.

Was there a point in your debut innings when it struck you that you now belonged to Test level? How did that feel?

I don’t think there’s a case or feeling of belonging to any level in any walk of life. You are there because you are good at what you do and as long as you respect your skill and are honest about it, you will sustain and enjoy the journey. For me, I have always wanted to play Test cricket for India and the feeling of donning the India cap cannot be expressed in words. I must add that I was lucky to be handed the Test cap by one of the greatest cricketers of all time, Sunil Gavaskar sir, which made the occasion extra special for me.

You’ve played only three first-class games outside India. Two of them have come in South Africa. How different was that experience from the red-ball cricket you’ve played in India?

Each country offers something different. The conditions, pitches and grounds make the whole experience unique. As professional cricketers, we have to adapt and enjoy the challenges to be successful as an individual and a team. In South Africa, you find much harder and greener pitches as compared to India, which is intriguing for any batter’s technique and temperament and it’s exciting to compete there.

Rohit Sharma has spoken about how he consciously holds his wrists close to the body while preparing for an England tour. Do you follow a similar routine? What have you focussed on the most for South Africa?

The pace and bounce of the wickets in South Africa warrant quick reflexes. For me, the focus is on my footwork and movement at the crease so that I am in line and hold a good position to meet the ball or leave with conviction.

You’ve played under Rohit’s captaincy and also gone up against him in the IPL. What stands out for you in his leadership?

Rohit has his own brand of leadership. He’s very calm and collected and that rubs off on the team as well. He’s quite chilled out and encourages everyone, including youngsters, to share their views.

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