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Indian Premier League 2020

Is it time for Kolkata Knight Riders to shelve the tactic of opening with Narine?

Narine KKR
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 4-minute read

The effervescent batting of Sunil Narine at the top of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) order has been among the more fruitful experiments in IPL history, but a string of poor scores recently has raised questions whether the move has run its course.

On the eve of KKR’s IPL 2020 opener, skipper Dinesh Karthik expressed confidence in his new opening pairing of Shubman Gill and Sunil Narine. “It’s a unique opening pair and that’s something we are proud of,” Karthik had said. “I think his [Shubman Gill] uncomplicated batting style with Narine makes things easy for us.”

Three games into the tournament, Gill has looked in exemplary touch. But opposition attacks seem to have found easy ways to get the better of his opening partner.

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Narine walks into any T20 side on the merit of his off-spin alone, but an added dimension was uncovered by the Melbourne Renegades during the 2016/17 Big Bash League when he, usually a lower-order slogger, was suddenly pushed to the top. KKR borrowed the tactic as soon as they could, and the move yielded immediate results. From 2017 to 2019, Narine opened for KKR consistently, first with then-skipper Gautam Gambhir, and later, more famously, with Chris Lynn, making for an explosive left-right opening pair.

When he made his opening debut in IPL, the move was met with collective astonishment, none more so than the opposition itself. Kings XI Punjab quick Ishant Sharma admitted that the team was “quite surprised” by the move. “We did not know how he would bat,” he later said.

Three seasons on, that ‘surprise’ has been replaced with plans to exploit his weaknesses – the short ball, which has always troubled him, has emerged as a means to ruffle him up early. He loves width, but the inswinger ties him up, and the slower one sneaks past his bat more often than not. He’s been dismissed by a left-arm quick thrice in three innings now, the first two being off short-pitched deliveries.

Narine possesses an uncomplicated, flashy strokeplay, and he’s rarely given much thought to technique and statistics – his role is, quite simply, to provide quick starts. According to CricViz, however, even his scoring rate has steadily declined over the last three seasons – from 10.5 runs per over (rpo) in 2018 to 8.9 rpo in 2019, it now stands at 8.2 in three innings this season.

The second factor to consider is his batting partner. Lynn, who strikes the ball ten units higher than Gill in T20s, is no longer with KKR, having been brought by MI for INR 2 crore in the auctions in December last year. Gill has done a good job as KKR’s anchor at the top so far this season, and his strokeplay is pleasing on the eye, but Narine’s struggles could increase the pressure on the youngster to set aside his anchoring instincts for a more enterprising approach, especially with KKR’s low returns in the Powerplay so far.

In their opening game against MI, the pair played out nine dots in the first two overs, before Gill fell in the third over, Narine following him a couple of overs later. Against Rajasthan, Narine was fortunate to survive a dropped catch after playing six dots for no runs – he managed 15 runs in the next eight deliveries, but their powerplay score of 42 slowed down their subsequent progress. The batsmen to follow, Nitish Rana, Andre Russell and Dinesh Karthik, are yet to make a substantial score, and the openers’ failure only heaps further pressure on them. It raises the question: can KKR still afford to have Narine at the top, especially when they’re playing one batsman short?

There are a few options to choose from if Narine is set aside. England youngster Tom Banton raised considerable interest in the lead-up to the tournament, but continues to warm the benches in search of a vacant overseas slot. With a T20 strike-rate of 154 after 40 games, and an array of strokes in his arsenal, Banton could prove explosive in the IPL.

As an Indian option, Rahul Tripathi is a good option up top. He racked up brisk starts for Rising Pune Supergiant and Rajasthan Royals in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and is a handy option to pierce the in-field early, striking the ball at 137 in IPL.

A common perception is that Narine the opener is a risk worth taking, given the value he brings when he actually clicks. Brian Lara, commentating during the KKR innings, felt that Narine “did his job”, but said there was a need for him to be smarter with his strategy.

“I think he did his job,” Lara said. “Only two boundaries, but the fact of the matter is [there were] 36 runs on the board before he got out. You compare it to his striking at seven and eight, you know, hitting is difficult with all the guys at the boundary. I don’t think he’s capable of that. For me, that’s the reasoning. The opening partnership is sufficient, knowing that all their regular guys, coming at 3, 4, 5, 6, can sort of build on that start.

“He likes to back away, punch through the off side. He should be noticing where the guys are positioned, and target the other areas. The way he got out [against RR] and a couple of other shots he played, show he just wants to hit it, make contact. If he’s falling away, he’s showing all his stumps, he’s going to fall soon on a lot of occasions. I’d like him to pay a bit more attention to that.”

Ashish Nehra, the former India pacer and the co-commentator with Lara, added that it made sense for KKR to continue with Narine at the top, giving them more options with the ball in the XI. “For me, in this KKR team, he’s the best option,” said Nehra. “If he bats at No.7, hardly his batting is going to come. Even in 14 games, even if 3-4 times he gives you 30, and if he’s scoring 30, I don’t think he’ll take more than 15 deliveries, the day he bats well. From KKR’s point of view, it’s a good strategy because you now have seven bowlers also. For me, opening is his slot.”

Narine’s returns so far – 24 runs in three innings – can for now be brushed aside as a blip. Virat Kohli, the IPL’s highest run-scorer, has gotten off to a worse start. He may very well change perceptions again in KKR’s next match in Sharjah, where the short boundaries could play to his strengths.

Till then, however, the questions will continue.

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