Iyer, Zondo lead second strings to seek spotlight

Shreyas Iyer prepares to bat in the nets PTI

"A lot of these ['A' team] tours aren't necessarily about winning," India A coach Rahul Dravid had told ESPNcricinfo, after his side secured the one-day tri-series title - involving England Lions and West Indies A - in London. It's a different universe, where personal gains often trump those of the team. A universe where the second strings seek to catch the eyes of the selectors in order to break into the senior team. A universe where the selectors search for the missing pieces in the jigsaw. A universe which players use to hit form.

In July 2015, Virat Kohli requested the selectors to include him in the A side for the second four-day match against Australia A in Chennai. And just like that the game was shifted from the SSN College ground, which is cut off from the city, to the MA Chidambaram Stadium, which is located in the heart of Chennai. For the record, Australia A, ultimately, won by 10 wickets and sewed up the series 1-0. But Kohli got what he wanted: game-time ahead of the Sri Lanka tour. Gurinder Sandhu, who was the top wicket-taker in that series, ditched fast bowling for offspin and even turned the ball sharply. Welcome to this weird universe.

India A and South Africa A - led by internationals Shreyas Iyer and Khaya Zondo respectively - will step into this universe, starting with the first of the two four-day matches at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru from Saturday. This will be followed by a quadrangular one-day series, involving India A, India B, South Africa A and Australia A in Vijayawada. Later in September, India A are set to face Australia A in two four-dayers in Vizag. These A-team series will then lead into a bumper domestic season.

Iyer was part of the victorious one-day A team in England, but he managed only 93 runs in five innings, of which 44 came in the title bout. He subsequently did not get a game in the ODI series against England with the senior team. Earlier in the year, he wasn't awarded a BCCI central contract despite showing flashes of brilliance against Sri Lanka and South Africa in ODIs at home and away. He now makes his way into an A series, having last played red-ball cricket in November 2017.

"My approach towards the red-ball game has always been positive," Iyer said. "I'm very flamboyant in terms of my shot-making and have always backed myself. Regarding selection in the senior team, it's not in my hands. I will just do my job, keep performing and the rest will follow.

"We had two good-quality sessions here [in Bengaluru] and the wickets we batted on had a lot of cracks on them, and not at all easy to play on. So batting in such conditions will make us positive when we play on the centre wicket because it will be considerably better than what we batted on. And obviously, inputs from Rahul sir have helped every individual in the team."

While Iyer has suffered quite a few setbacks recently, he has also grown as a captain. After leading Bandra Blasters to the playoffs in MCA's inaugural Mumbai T20 league earlier this year, Iyer took over as Delhi Daredevils' captain following Gautam Gambhir's resignation. Captaincy can make a young man feel like he's shouldering the weight of the world - ask South Africa's Aiden Markram. In his first match as Daredevils' captain, however, Iyer batted like the world was at his feet, and launched the bottom-placed Daredevils to the second-highest total of the IPL season.

"The transition process of captaincy has been really great," Iyer said. "I think captaincy has changed me mentally and so I'm planning my innings accordingly. You have to take a lot of responsibility as captain and you need to set an example for your team. It not only helps me on the field but also off the field."

Then there's the curious case of Haryana team-mates Yuzvendra Chahal and Jayant Yadav. Chahal has established himself as a match-winner in limited-overs matches for India and Royal Challengers Bangalore, so much so that his captain in both teams (Virat Kohli), hinted that he could find a place in the Test squad for England. The Test call-up did not happen eventually, and instead, Chahal is now with the A team for his first red-ball match since the Ranji quarter-final against Jharkhand in 2016.

As for Jayant, after a stress fracture of the finger sidelined him from the entire 2017-18 Ranji Trophy season, he is now steadily working his way back. He has returned to Bengaluru, where he had spent about three months rehabbing at the NCA with Narendra Hirwani. Could this series be the first step in a return to the national reckoning?

Zondo admitted the visitors were also looking at the tour with a similar lens.

"A tours, in general, are good experiences, especially for guys who are coming down from the internationals to get some form and get back into the [senior] team or guys who are just trying to make their international careers, coming from professional level and going up," he said. "And it's a good stepping stone for the internationals because you come across some really good players who're playing in this series. So definitely, there will be competitive and good-quality cricket."

At AB de Villiers' second home', South Africa will look at possible options to fill the middle-order crater created by his shock retirement and also build towards "Vision 2019". Zondo himself is a strong candidate, having made a compact half-century against India in Centurion in February. He was particularly fluent against the wristspinners Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, scoring 41 off 51 balls against them.

He also started this tour with a fluent half-century against the Indian Board President's XI in the warm-up game. The likes of Cape Cobras batsman Zubayr Hamza, who averages 51.01 in first-class cricket, CPL-bound Lions batsman Rassie van der Dussen, the top-scorer in South Africa's 2017-18 first-class season, and wicketkeeper-batsman Rudi Second, who has been a consistent performer for Knights over the last four seasons, will press for higher honours.