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Sam Curran needs to find himself, away from the England team

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Chris Woakes’ recall to the England squad is a welcome one for plenty of reasons.

He’s one of the most likeable characters around, with a frustrating stretch of injuries and rest and rotation meaning he last played Test cricket more than a year ago. Last summer’s work offers more reason to be excited, with Woakes England’s best player across six Tests, averaging 36 with the bat and 20 with the ball. And it could hasten the end of Sam Curran’s latest stint in the Test side, something which could prove beneficial for all parties.

There’s no guarantee that Woakes will slot straight back in in Curran’s place. Woakes is a bowler who takes time to get back up to full speed, and he’s only played two games – for Warwickshire’s second XI and Birmingham Bears in the T20 Blast quarter-final – since returning from a bruised heel, and Curran has been shown plenty of faith by the England management so far.

The faith is not undeserved either. Curran’s first year as a Test cricketer was a special one, with a series of match-turning interventions backed up by a set of impressive stats: he averaged 37 with the bat and 25 with the ball in 2018. While he is yet to make a half-century since, there were more positive performances with the ball in 2019. There were three-fors against Ireland and Australia, the first to avert an upset and the second to help level the series, with Curran troubling Steve Smith more than any other England bowler, Jofra Archer apart, had done in the series to that point. Another three wickets came against New Zealand, with Kane Williamson and Tom Latham winkled out before BJ Watling bore England down. And while the Boxing Day Test against South Africa ended in galling defeat, first-innings figures of 4-58, with scalps including Aiden Markram and Quinton de Kock, suggested Curran had the tools to succeed as a bowler away from home too.

Since then, however, he is yet to take more than two wickets in innings. Since the start of 2020, he averages 15 with the bat and 50 with the ball. From being England’s golden boy golden arm, the player Joe Root would turn to, after Ben Stokes, when he needed a wicket from nowhere, Curran now makes very little of note happen. Given England’s seam-bowling depletion – an innings victory against India was achieved with four of their five first-choice quicks and their premier all-rounder absent – sticking with Curran for as long as possible made sense, given his potential. But Craig Overton’s impressive showing and now Woakes’ return means that his time should now be up. And while before, he has been left out for a spell and picked for the odd Test here and there, trying to learn and improve around the squad all the while, this, for Curran’s sake as much as anyone else’s, should be a lengthy absence.

What’s been clear ever since Curran ripped through India’s top order at Edgbaston in 2018, before flaying them to all parts to give England just enough runs to win a thriller, is that he’s an immensely talented cricketer. What’s never been clear is exactly what sort of cricketer he is.

While he’s played plenty of first-class cricket for Surrey, most of those came while he was still a teenager, before he made his Test debut. He made 34 first-class appearances for Surrey before his first game for England against Pakistan in June 2018, with his 20th birthday coming between the last of those games and him being handed his Test cap. Since then, he has turned out for the Oval-based side just seven times. Asking him to improve and adapt in both departments almost entirely on the Test stage at such a young age was always likely to be optimistic.

Curran has often seemed a player with maturity and belief beyond his years, but that shouldn’t mask what he is: a promising 23-year-old going through a low patch, who hasn’t been given the chance to figure out his own game since a life-changing first stint in the England side. Surrey have three more County Championship games this season, though Curran will depart at some point to play in the IPL. But if any player could benefit from a season away from the glare of franchise cricket, it’s him. He could bat at No.6, the position some have suggested he’ll end up in, bowl plenty as Surrey’s attack leader, and re-emerge, still aged only 24, as a well-rounded all-rounder, rather than trying to scrape together bits and pieces as he goes along.

It’s unlikely to happen, given his value in the IPL and increasing prominence in England’s ODI and T20I sides. But it’s hard not to wonder if, in 10 years’ time, we might still be asking ‘what is Sam Curran?’, and regretting that he was never given the chance to work it out for himself.

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