Varun Shetty in Kolkata (May 22, 2018)


In Kolkata Knight Riders’ final league game of the season, a crucial fixture against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Sunil Narine was their most valuable player. According to ESPNcricinfo’s Smart Stats, he saved KKR 11 runs with his bowling, and his innings was worth 16 more than the 29 he made. It’s the kind of contribution that franchises pay for when they sign Narine: a couple of these every season, apart from the batting-only or bowling-only contributions he delivers.

For KKR’s assistant coach Simon Katich, the defining moment of that innings was the first ball Narine faced. A vicious inswinging yorker from around the wicket from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the fastest bowler in Sunrisers’ line-up that night and therefore the primary weapon against Narine. Except it didn’t work. It was the only ball Narine faced from Bhuvneshwar that night and he handled it with astounding ease, twisting his wrists to make contact with the ball less than a yard away from the stumps, and picking up a single to third man. In that moment, Katich saw progress.

“That ball last season would have knocked his poles everywhere whereas this season he was very much aware,” Katich says. “It was a beautifully executed ball but he managed to get some bat on it and it got him to start his innings.”

Narine’s ascension to opening in T20s is not a sophisticated story: an opportunity born through a combination of fate – an injury to Dwayne Bravo at Melbourne Renegades and Andre Russell’s absence from the KKR squad last year – and punts from two franchises. His batting style seemed just as unsophisticated. Most of his shots seemed like bets against the bowler. It fuelled the notion that Narine as a batsman is expendable; that his fearless batting brings runs at a devastating pace – as Royal Challengers Bangalore discovered last season – or an early dismissal that will not cause his team much much harm.

“It basically evolved because of Andre Russell not being available last year,” Katich says. “Given we were going to lose Andre’s power at the back of the innings, we had to try and fix that because it’s very difficult to find a player of Andre’s class that strikes at 180 at the auction. So we brought in Chris Lynn to give us power at the top and replace Andre’s bowling with someone like [Nathan] Coulter-Nile. Once Lynn got injured last year, that’s when Narine got his opportunity. We took a little bit of a punt. He’d done it once before I think, for the Renegades in the Big Bash and he did alright – got 20 off 12 balls [21 off 13] or something like that. And that’s what we were looking for.”

And it’s what he has delivered. He struck at 172.30 last year, and has bettered that to 189.01 in this edition, and has even managed to make more runs than Rohit Sharma. All of his top innings, like his half-centuries against RCB and Kings XI Punjab this season, are sure to feature shots on the rise over the bowler, slices over extra cover, and slogs over wide long-on, amongst a slew of edged or spliced boundaries. They’re the kind of strengths that also expose weaknesses. In essence, they are the weapons of a slogger and should not, in theory, be sustainable over a long period of time.

But Narine has begun taking batting more seriously now, and become a de facto allrounder rather than just a pinch hitter. Ensuring, as he did against Bhuvneshwar, that he makes starts has now crept into his consciousness. And the failures aren’t as low-impact as they were once thought to be: four of KKR’s six losses this season were games in which Narine made single-digits scores.

“He’s got a very good cricket brain from a bowling point of view – he’s now starting to develop more of that from a batting point of view. There’s no doubt teams have figured out how to bowl to him and he’s starting to be able to come up with plans to counter that,” says Katich, who is one of Narine’s main influencers in the team alongside head coach Jacques Kallis.

“It’s about making him aware of his basic technique and the mechanics of it. He likes to clear his front leg and that’s great from a power-hitting point of view but it creates issues if oppositions know exactly what lines and lengths and pace to bowl. So that’s something that he’s got to be really aware of. He’s certainly getting more and more clever with how he goes about constructing an innings throughout the tournament. He’s prepared to let the odd short one go and that comes down to him now being game-aware.”

People who have followed Narine’s career closely are not at all surprised by his batting exploits and his “natural talent”. Colin Borde has seen Narine since when he was seven and started playing at the Queen’s Park Cricket Club in his native Port-of-Spain. Since then Borde has been the manager of various cricket teams Narine has played for, including Trinidad & Tobago Red Force, West Indies A and Trinbago Knight Riders in the Caribbean Premier League.

“Sunil was always a batsman,” Borde tells ESPNcricinfo. “He was a top-three batsman and seam bowler in his formative years (7-13). He changed to spin in his teens and focused more on that aspect of his game. With his obvious bowling skills, he was usually put down the order. He always loves [batting] and can bat as correctly as any.”

Borde recollects a tense match in 2011 between West Indies A and Bangladesh A in St Lucia. The hosts needed 14 when last man Nelon Pascal joined Narine on the last day of a four-day match that also featured Russell.

“Sunil came in and struck boundaries with aplomb and calm,” Borde says. “He actually played a reverse-sweep to get the [winning] runs, all this while the entire coaching staff was nervous.”

Borde later asked Narine, who made an unbeaten 26, how he played those shots.

“He just said, ‘because they were the right balls to hit.’ Calmness personified.”

For those watching from afar, it’s completely fathomable that Narine would say something like that. There is nothing about the man, not even the way he walks out to the middle, that suggests he is doing anything more than the very least that is required. Yet, he has great achievements to his name and an unflinching ability to face up to and beat challenges. He’s done it multiple times with his bowling action, and now he’s doing it with the bat: not just staying relevant as T20’s most exciting batting experiment in recent years, but slowly turning the role into a serious designation.

Source: The Sunil Narine journey, from pinch-hitter to allrounder | ESPNcricinfo.com

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