Leave, leave, leave.
The middle one was a wide, sure, but how many T20 innings begin with three back-to-back leaves?
Sunil Narine would have left every other ball of that Kagiso Rabada over too, if he could have. All he wanted was to survive it, mark his guard at the other end, and hopefully face some spin.
Narine played his first match of IPL 2020 on September 23. It was now October 24. Over an entire month, before this game, he had faced just five balls of spin. He had only faced 40 balls in all, yes, but it was still an unusually low percentage of spin.
There were three reasons for this. One, this IPL was in the UAE, and the pitches, especially in the early part of the tournament, had encouraged teams to bowl mostly pace though the powerplay.
Two, teams were able to bowl pace and pretty much nothing else to Narine because Chris Lynn was no longer partnering him at the top of the order. Though everyone’s known for a while that Narine’s ability to demolish spin bowling is counterbalanced by a vulnerability against quality fast bowling, especially when it’s short and at the body, oppositions until last season also had to factor in the pace-loving, spin-detesting Lynn at the other end.
Three, and most obviously, Narine hadn’t been surviving long enough to get any taste of spin.
This was probably why the Kolkata Knight Riders had moved Narine into the middle order, after four games. It’s harder for teams to use their first-choice match-ups against middle-order batsmen, because you can’t predict when they’ll arrive at the crease, and in what sort of situation.
On Saturday, Narine walked into a situation – 42 for 3 in 7.2 overs – that would traditionally ask the new pair to bat with caution initially, especially in the case of a team like the Knight Riders, who, with Pat Cummins at No. 7, do not bat particularly deep. Narine, whose career as a T20 pinch-hitter is largely built on his willingness to be dismissed in search of quick runs, seemed the unlikeliest of candidates for such a role.
Perhaps this was why Narine got to face spin as soon as he made it through that Rabada over. The Capitals had used their seamers for seven of the first eight overs, and only had two overs each left from their two main quicks, Rabada and Anrich Nortje. They hadn’t yet bowled R Ashwin, possibly because they wanted to keep him away from Nitish Rana, who had scored 55 off 22 balls in all T20 meetings against him before this game, without being dismissed.
Rana was still at the crease, however, and the Capitals couldn’t have gone on delaying Ashwin’s introduction. They may well have felt this was the ideal time for it, even if the new man, Narine, also boasted an excellent head-to-head against Ashwin: 28 off 10 balls, without being dismissed.
Given the situation, there was a chance Rana and Narine would choose to play Ashwin a little more watchfully than usual, which would have suited the Capitals nicely. They may have even felt it was worth Rana or Narine taking Ashwin on and risking their wickets, particularly with Abu Dhabi’s long boundaries in mind.
“Ashwin’s second ball to Narine, he cleared his front leg, freed his arms, and cleared long-off with a hit measuring 85m. There would be no hesitation, no second-guessing. Narine would simply bat the Narine way.”
With Narine in particular, the challenge was to do with both the outfield size and the lack of powerplay field restrictions. In 62 IPL innings before this one, he had only batted four times in the middle order – twice at No. 4, once at No. 5, and once at No. 7 – and it wasn’t clear whether he would be able to overcome both challenges consistently. In his previous middle-order innings this season, against the Chennai Super Kings, he had been caught on the long-on boundary, on this same ground, while trying to hit Karn Sharma for six.
Ashwin’s second ball to Narine was just the sort of ball to test someone’s six-hitting ability. Not just the physical ability, but also the mental clarity to disregard the cocktail of match situation, ground size and lack of field restrictions, and swing as cleanly and decisively as possible. It had just a hint of flight to it, and it landed full but well short of half-volley length.
Narine cleared his front leg, freed his arms, and cleared long-off with a hit measuring 85m. There would be no hesitation, no second-guessing. Narine would simply bat the Narine way.
The contest against Ashwin would take centre-stage, which you’d expect, given he scored 32 – exactly half of his 64 runs – off 11 balls against him, and given that the relentlessness of his hitting forced the offspinner into going over the wicket – an exceedingly rare occurrence for him against left-hand batsmen – and bowling legspin to him. But Narine did enough against the other bowlers to remind viewers that when he’s on song, he’s far from a one-trick pony.
There were times during his innings when Narine seemed to have stepped back in time to 2017 or 2018, when teams hadn’t yet fully figured out how to bowl to him. Just look at the numbers to remind yourself of that time. Across the 2017 and 2018 seasons, he averaged 22.35 against pace and struck at 169.64. Between the start of 2019 and this match, his numbers against pace had dipped significantly: his average to 13.12, his strike rate to 122.09.
Now it felt like Narine had turned the clock back. Tushar Deshpande gave him width, an ingredient that’s very rarely been part of his recent diet in the IPL, and he stood almost still, save for that open front leg, and carved him over backward point. Marcus Stoinis went short to him, as fast bowlers must, but he’s not particularly quick, and Narine pulled him onto the grass banks beyond the square-leg boundary.
By the end of his innings, Narine had scored 29 off 15 balls against Deshpande and Stoinis, and 3 off 6 balls – a small sample size, but consistent with the larger trend of his career – against Rabada and Anrich Nortje. A well-directed short ball from Rabada dismissed him, which you might have predicted before the game, but you probably wouldn’t have correctly predicted how much he’d score.
So what did we learn from Narine’s innings? We already knew he can take spinners apart, even those as good as Ashwin, and that he can put the quicker bowlers away when they aren’t hammering away at his weaknesses. We already knew he’s less certain against the very best fast bowlers.
But the Knight Riders have now learned his skills aren’t unsuited to the middle order, and that new knowledge opens up new possibilities for how and when to deploy him. Everyone watching him, meanwhile, has learned, not for the first time, to never, ever write him off.