@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read
Picture an elite T20 fast bowler. Not a specific one, try and create one in your mind.
He probably swings the new ball prodigiously, bowls at high 80s at least, if not pushing into the 90s. At the death, he’s got the yorker to smash stumps out the ground. Maybe there’s a trademark variation, the kind to fox a batter completely. Let’s face it, he’s probably tall, well past six feet, broad shouldered too.
Now think about Sam Curran. He has very few of these qualities. He’s five foot nine, five ten on a good day, and barely gathers before he bowls, his bowling stride nearly indistinguishable from the rest of his run up. Strangely for a bowler who moves the red ball so drastically, he rarely does the same with the white one, and he is generally kept away from the new ball. Low 80s is his wheelhouse, occasionally pushing past 85. The yorker is only part of his armoury, delivered sparingly. And while the variations are there, he’s hardly got Benny Howell’s box of tricks to dip into. Divorce the skill-set from the output, and there’s little that stands out. And yet, right now, he might be the best T20 quick in the world.
Curran was deservedly the Player of the Tournament in England’s T20 World Cup win. He claimed 13 wickets – only Wanindu Hasaranga, who played two more games by dint of Sri Lanka’s relegation to the first round, took more. He conceded just 6.52 runs per over. And he saved his best for the final, taking 3-12 in four overs, figures that didn’t flatter him in the slightest.
It was Curran who kicked off England’s bowling effort, a hint of seam enticing Mohammad Rizwan to chop on and ensuring there would be no mammoth opening stand. The first over had gone for four, and the second went for just one, despite Mohammad Haris showing all his much-vaunted intent, beaten twice swinging for the stands.
Those two overs came in the powerplay, and it wasn’t until the death that Curran was reintroduced. With four overs to go, Pakistan were 119-4 and eyeing up 160. Shan Masood and Shadab Khan had taken 29 runs off the previous three overs. It took Curran three balls to break the stand, shaping one away to Masood, who could only pick out midwicket.
From there, Pakistan crumbled, Curran striking once more, tailing in a fuller delivery to Mohammad Nawaz, who also holed out. His spell contained 15 dot balls and no boundaries. It is hard to think of a better spell in any T20 final.
There is plenty that Curran does well. He is accurate. There are few bad balls, and he has a range of balls he can deliver well. That lack of pace can, at times, be an asset, meaning edges lob up rather than fly over the keeper. His action can rush batters, completed faster than you would expect, the bouncer skidding on.
But none of that gets at the heart of what makes Curran good. Really the reason why he is so unhittable is the same thing that makes T20 cricket interesting. Sometimes minimised as a format where the strongest will always win out, where if your biceps and bat are big enough, you can clear any boundary without much timing, these last few weeks have revealed it as a contest that elevates the thinkers and the scrappers. It’s a game of a million micro-decisions, of premeditation and adaptation.
As you start your run up, you might have a dozen deliveries in mind. You know where your fielders are, but so does the batter. You’re looking for any hint of a shuffle, any clue as to what he’s thinking. You’re getting in their head, remembering what they’ve done the ball and the over before and calculating how that might affect what comes next. You’re aware that they are trying to do the same to you. And at the end of it, you bowl the ball and hope you’re right.
It’s here that Curran stands out. He has always been, ever since his earliest days in the Surrey academy, a player who has thrived on the battle. When Curran first turned up at the nets, Neil Stewart, in charge of the pathway at The Oval, could hardly work out what all the fuss was about. “Funnily enough, when Sam first came over, he had this huge reputation, but for about two or three weeks on the hard indoor surface, he didn’t look anything special,” he explained to Wisden Cricket Monthly in 2018. “He looked like a lad who was a little bit loose and would get out, and bowl medium-pace swingers. He just looked like a good 14-year-old cricketer.”
Then he watched him play in a training game. “Suddenly you saw a completely different bloke. As soon as he was in a team against another team he ran in, bowled quick, and for those three weeks when it was competitive he never got out. You just knew he was a very high-quality player.”
Curran, more than anything, out-thinks opposition batters, and out-competes them too. You wonder whether him being a batter helps here, if he can get in the mind of a player trying to smash him for six because he has been in the same position. His trademark ball, if such a thing exists, is a wide length ball, or perhaps slightly shorter. When you think about it, it makes sense that this would be a tough delivery to hit, and one that gives a bit of margin for error. But maybe it’s only when you’ve faced it that it makes sense.
But it’s one thing to formulate a strategy. It’s another to deliver it as you would want. T20 cricket can be a sport of confidence trickery. Sometimes, just having a plan that you believe in, and convincing the man at the other end that it will work is enough. When Curran runs in with that scowl and snarl, it can – and this might be psychobabble, but it feels true – it can feel like he is so sure of what he’s about to do, so desperate to make it work, that it must make a difference.
Revisit, say, his dismissal of Tim David to seal a series win ahead of the World Cup. David, arch-finisher, on 40 off 22, had the match in his grasp. But Curran, sprinting in with his face scrunched up, had spotted something, a sliver of stump exposed behind an ankle. He struck the target, and victory was wrapped up soon after. At any other time, that’s a ball filled with risk. A fraction short or full, and David would swing it away. It was fraught with danger here too, but the way Curran delivered it and wheeled away, it seemed certain the whole way through.
So what comes next, apart from a potentially record-breaking IPL deal*? Curran surely can’t remain this good. Excellence based largely on brains and vibes won’t always be sustainable. Or you can look at him as he runs in and convince yourself that this currently world-class quick will always win out. One thing that’s certain is that he believes it.
*This, by the way, will be massive. Even if Curran did all the things he does – smash sixes as an opener or a finisher and bowl left-arm seam – he would be hugely valuable. Now that he’s a World Cup winner and established among the elite, the INR 20 crore barrier is in danger.