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India v England

Tom Curran carries himself like a world-class cricketer, but can he bowl like one?

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

Ben Gardner examines the fading fortunes of Tom Curran, a once-bright England prospect who now finds himself under the scanner.

It’s January 2018, and the newly opened Perth Stadium is witnessing a thriller in its first international fixture.

Having slumped to a 4-0 Ashes defeat, England have won the first three ODIs of the following series but even with the rubber sewn up, the fifth ODI feels important; after a collapse to 8-5 consigned them to defeat in the fourth, England’s pride was punctured, and deep into the last, it seems Australia are heading towards a consolation victory that feels like quite a bit more.

England have had one of those days with the bat where they go a bit hard and fall short of where a bit more caution would have got them. On this occasion, all of the top four make it past 30, but Joe Root’s 62 is the top score, and England end up with 259. Australia surge to 187-4 on the back of a Marcus Stoinis half-century, and, with 16 overs to bat, are well ahead of the rate.

It’s then that Curran supplies the first of a number of telling interventions, taking an excellent catch diving forward to dismiss Stoinis, and the game shifts. From here on it’s largely Australia v TC, with runs plundered at one end and the elder Curran taking wickets at the other. Returning to bowl the 37th, he nips out Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Starc in the space of three balls, each defeated by significant movement. Moeen Ali has Andrew Tye stumped, but Adam Zampa helps Australia regroup. Once again it’s over to Curran, who pegs back middle and cups his ears, the Perth Stadium momentarily silenced.

Still the game isn’t done, with Tim Paine providing a passable impression of a white-ball finisher, scooping Jake Ball for six to give Australia hope anew, and heading into the penultimate over, the hosts have one wicket in hand and need 13 to win. Curran takes just two balls to finish the game, with reverse-swing skittling Paine. This time his arms are outstretched. Curran has taken flight, and it feels like England have unearthed something quite special: a death bowler who doesn’t just possess the skills for those crucial overs, but the chutzpah, fight and knowhow too. Curran seems like that rare bowler who can figure out when to bowl his back-of-the-hand slower ball, back himself to get it right, and then nail it. The world beckons.

Fast forward three years, and Curran has bowled just two overs for 26 runs in a T20I series defeat in India. Two wickets in the second ODI against India take his tally to three in 10 games since the 2019 World Cup, but he also concedes the most runs he ever has in an ODI spell. Test cricket, in which he was once hailed as a potential heir to James Anderson as an intelligent, parsimonious swing bowler, is now a distant pipe dream. Not only is he some way from being first-choice in any format; he’s in danger of falling from his position as a back-up too.

So, what exactly has happened to Tom Curran?

***

Partly this is a story not of Curran going backwards, but of him standing still as others overtake him. While David Willey was the most obvious casualty of Jofra Archer’s emergence, Curran has also seen himself sidelined. Having played nine of England’s 14 completed ODIs in eight months in the lead-up to the World Cup, he sat out all 11 games in that competition, with his brother’s improvement in white-ball cricket also pushing him down the pecking order. Still, Curran has played regularly in recent times – Adil Rashid is the only Englishman to feature in more ODIs since the World Cup final – and has spent enough time in the England set-up that a lack of noticeable improvement is concerning.

The more pessimistic explanation is that Curran was never that good, and that the lifespan of a variation bowler is short without the fundamentals of high pace or extreme accuracy to back it up. Now a known quantity, Curran might well have been worked out. Comparisons have been made to Jade Dernbach, and though unfavourable, there are similarities. Dernbach, something of a mentor to Curran at Surrey, was also a vaunted death bowler who relied on his slower balls, and became a laughing stock among England fans. There are pockets of supporters who view Curran similarly.

There is an issue of optics here, and there are few more demoralising sights in cricket than a slower ball being picked from the hand and pummelled into the stands. The result is the same as a length ball being smoked, but the two are viewed differently. But the raw stats show the perception of Curran struggling isn’t just down to a few noticeable poor showings. In nine ODIs since the World Cup, Curran averages 135.66 with the ball, while his economy rate of 5.73 is the second-worst of any Englishman to play more than three games in that time. Faith has been put in him and he has failed to repay it.

However, that magical Perth night was so impressive, so complete, that Curran’s career deserves deeper inspection before being written off. Because it’s not just the number of games Curran has or hasn’t played, but the type of them too, and the Optus Stadium five-for wasn’t just Curran’s best performance in an England shirt; it came in the most meaningful match he has played too.

Unused in the 2018 summer, when England won two ODI series against Australia and India where it felt like it mattered who won or lost, Curran’s caps since have basically all been ones in which the result is of little import, either glorified World Cup prep or basically meaningless bilaterals. For most cricketers finding their way in national colours, this would be ideal, a chance to hone their craft and find their niche without the pressure of having to win England a game that matters, or the scrutiny that comes from losing one.

But for Curran, you fancy, the opposite holds. Here is a bowler forged in the furnace of dozens of hot summer T20 Blast nights, in front of a raucous Oval crowd, thrust forward as his county’s attack leader at a young age. Much of the criticism of Curran’s skillset misses the point, or, more accurately, disregards his biggest talent, which is to rise above his limitations and affect games in ways he has no right to. Call it the Curran Crux Coefficient.

His superstrength, in modern parlance, of summoning the right ball at the right moment, holding his nerve when the opposition are losing theirs, is one which can’t be refined in the nets or in front of empty stands, and the worry is that, without careful handling, it will wither away. But on the rare moments when a genuine crunch point has arrived, there have been glimpses of the terrier that lies dormant.

Take a T20I against South Africa last year for example, which England had to win to stay in the series. Curran had 15 to defend off the final over, reduced to three off two by Dwaine Pretorious. It was then that Curran nailed an inswinging yorker and a back-of-the-hand slower ball to win England the game by two runs.

Or else cast your mind back to the Australia ODIs last summer, when the second ODI was again a must-win one. Having rescued England from 147-8 with the bat, he then bowled his 10 overs for 28 runs as Eoin Morgan applied the squeeze. England eventually won an arse-nipper by 24 runs. Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer claimed the plaudits, but England wouldn’t have won without Curran.

Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, no matter how good you are in a handful of pivotal moments, that the whole package needs to be in place to put together a top-level career of note. Defending a final-over target is commendable, but less so if you’ve been taken for plenty earlier in the game. Curran might well thrive on being one of England’s main men, but he has to earn that right by consistently contributing as a fifth bowler first.

Maybe the best thing would be for some time away, playing for Surrey and being the player the rest look up to, where everything you do matters. Curran has the mindset and the intelligence of a world-class bowler, and at his best he carries himself like one too. That’s a valuable grounding, even if the rest needs a little time to catch up.

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