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What is Sam Curran? The answer is becoming clearer by the day

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 5 minute read

Yas Rana revisits an age-old question after Sam Curran provided England with another telling intervention.

Even as Sam Curran announced himself on the world stage in emphatic fashion in 2018, there was still a nagging sense that it wasn’t clear what his ultimate role as a Test cricketer – other than being a darn good one – would be. In that dream summer where the new golden boy of English cricket outwitted some of the biggest names in the world game, he showed – on multiple occasions – that he had the skillset to win Test matches with both bat and ball. Heck, if that’s what he can do at 20, what could he be capable of at 28?

We like to place labels on players and with Curran it wasn’t immediately clear how he ought to be categorised. Is he the next Stokes, Flintoff, Woakes, or even Broad?

Since that breakthrough series against India, he hasn’t progressed quite as smoothly in Test cricket as we might have expected. At the end of the 2018 summer, his batting average was more than 10 runs better than his bowling average. Three years on, those numbers have flipped and are now the ‘wrong’ way round.

In the absence of fellow all-rounders Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes, this series presented a real opportunity for Curran to restate his Test credentials that had the world purring; now feels like an apt time to revisit the age-old, seemingly unanswerable question: what is Sam Curran?

There are sound judges who think that that his future in Test cricket lies predominantly with the bat. A six who doubles up as a fourth seamer in the Stokes mould – and there’s plenty of logic behind that view. His most memorable interventions in 2018 came with the bat and he has shown in white-ball cricket, with impressive regularity, how devastating he can be – it is no exaggeration to say that his 95* in an ODI against India earlier this year was one of the great white-ball innings from an Englishman in recent times.

But then, he’s also 72 first-class games into his career and is without a century, and while Surrey see him as a top-six option in future, there’s a difference between being a handy No.6 in county cricket, and a proper middle-order batsman in Tests. Those gutsy, counter-punching, momentum-altering cameos are brilliant from No. 8, but you’d expect more from a six.

It is interesting comparing his current Test record to England’s other all-round hopefuls of recent times who enjoyed similar starts to their Test careers – Woakes, Stokes and Broad. In his 23rd Test, Curran averages 26 with the bat and 35 with the ball. After the same number of games, Woakes averaged 28 and 35, Stokes 33 and 38, and Broad 29 and 36.

So of the four, Curran has the lowest batting and bowling averages. Statistical comparisons such as these can be misleading but it is still noteworthy that Curran, at the same point in the other trio’s careers has the marginally better record with the ball.

It is worth bearing in mind that Curran is still only 23 and since his IPL arrival, hardly ever plays first-class cricket for anyone other than England. Since the start of the 2020 summer, he has played just seven first-class games and only one of those was for Surrey. A traditional, English swing bowler, it’s worth considering how rarely he is deployed to suit his greatest assets.

This series is the first time he’s played consecutive home Tests in three years. He has never opened the bowling in a home Test. He is used not dissimilarly to how Moeen Ali is in white-ball cricket, to plug gaps rather to play to his strengths.

That’s not to say that he should be taking the new ball ahead of any of Anderson, Broad or Robinson, but it does give context to his output with the ball. Like Stokes, England’s fourth seamer in a first-choice XI, he is more often than not thrown the ball when England are searching for wickets, when it’s not happening for the others. The down side of being a cricketer who Makes Things Happen is that you’re asked to perform when things aren’t happening for your teammates.

There are fair reservations about his physical constraints. There are few top-tier Test bowlers who bowl at the speed, and perhaps more crucially, the height of Curran. But he has overcome those barriers plenty already to succeed. He’s a clever bowler who regularly causes problems for some of the best batsmen in the planet. It’s not inconceivable for him to become a regular opening bowler at some point.

In the 2019 Oval Test, he regularly threatened the impermeable Steve Smith. Today, he dismissed Virat Kohli, inducing an edge from a mindless grope, minutes after nearly trapping the Indian skipper in front with one that nipped back in. On a docile track that offered little for the quicks all day, he experimented with his angles while keeping the flow of runs in control as Pujara and Rahane held firm; one spell after tea was particularly impressive. He regained that control that proved elusive in his first few outings in the series.

The dream is for Curran to perhaps perform the kind of role performed by Ravindra Jadeja for India. A penetrative bowler in home conditions capable of ‘doing a job’ overseas, and eventually becoming a good enough batsman to play in the top seven.

He’s not quite there yet, but that’s fine. He’s at a comparable place to where the likes of Anderson, Broad and Woakes were with the ball at similar stages of their careers, and even if he might not possess the same raw weapons that the others do, he’s shown a competitive spirit that can get him a long way.

Part of Curran’s charm as a cricketer is his mystery and unpredictability. His primary weapons – his tenacity and cricket brain – are not as immediately apparent as others’, but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily less effective or dangerous. Sam Curran the bowler could yet become a long-term staple of this England side – perhaps not while Stokes, Woakes, Anderson and Broad are all still at the top of their game, but certainly one day. We might not have seen the best of him in Test cricket since his emphatic arrival in 2018, but there’s still a serious talent there for all to see.

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