Along with marking the beginning of a new year, 1st January 2017 also marked the beginning of a new era in T20 cricket as it gave birth to an entirely new breed of players. The day was special in itself as it was the first day of the new year. And it became even more special as the first player of that new breed or rather dynasty of cricketers came to the fore.
The player was none other than the Caribbean Spin Wizard Sunil Narine who brought his hard-hitting skills to the fore batting at the top of the order for the Melbourne Renegades in the Big Bash League.
Where it all began?
The Renegades fell short of an all-rounder as one of their overseas recruits in Dwayne Bravo was ruled out of the tournament with an injury. To fill that void, the team management thought about using Narine’s batting skills at the top of the order.
The idea sounded like a gamble, a hit-or-miss thing and even an act of stupidity to some. For, opening the batting with someone who had managed only 382 runs in 195 T20 games till the last year seemed to be pretty meaningless.
However, the risk was worth taking as Narine seemed to be a potent batsman or rather a slogger whenever he batted. It was all about utilising his batting capability to the full effect at the top of the order. And it paid rich dividends. He smacked 21 runs off just 13 balls in that encounter against the Melbourne Stars and that innings included two scintillating boundaries and one huge six of the pace bowlers.
The initial spark seemed like extinguishing
Suddenly, the whole country was abuzz with Narine’s short yet exciting cameo. As everyone dug further into Narine ‘s batting history, his record of hitting six consecutive sixes in tennis ball cricket back in West Indies came to the fore. Moreover, he came close to repeating the feat in the Tri-series after World T20 2016 against Australia at home. He had smacked Adam Zampa for four consecutive sixes before getting dismissed.
As these facts came to the fore, excitement started building among the fans around the new role that Narine was assigned. However, Narine failed to return even double digit scores in the following matches and was soon dropped back to the tailender’s position. The fans were utterly disappointed as it only turned out to be a fluke back then.
When the spark turned into a wildfire
However, little did they know the story or rather the metamorphosis that started at Melbourne was destined to achieve its completion three months later miles away at Bengaluru. Narine had just taken the Royal Challengers Bangalore by surprise having scored a fifty of just 15 deliveries for his IPL franchise the Kolkata Knight Riders.
The knock also turned out to be the joint fastest fifty in IPL history. Although his innings came to an end soon after he scored his fifty, he proved that the experiment by the Melbourne Renegades wasn’t a hasty one.
What makes him a must-have?
He had also scored a couple of quick fire thirties and forties for the Kolkata Knight Riders prior to that memorable innings. However, it was exactly that innings which brought about the completion to his metamorphosis into a new breed of T20 player, a breed which can’t be termed more important than the traditional all-rounder yet has no less significance than them.
He amassed a total of 224 runs in IPL 2017 at an average of 17.23 which may not sound to be that great. However, it is the strike rate of 172.30 that makes him a man to have at the top of the order.
Statistics prove that he gets out once every 10 balls. But that again means he would give his team 17 quick runs off just 10 balls in the tricky power-play overs. Any team would grab it with both hands on any given day. Moreover, Narine has scored 420 runs in T20s combined this year which is much more than what he has scored in his entire career. And this fact proves that he has worked on his batting a lot, especially after his bowling suffered a bit due to his change in action.
His batting abilities have added a new dimension to his game
There is no denying the fact that Narine is not the same bowler anymore. With his remodelled action he is only a shadow of the bowler that he once used to be. However, his bowling is still good enough to muster economical spells in T20 cricket and also claim those couple of odd wickets.
But, such type of bowlers often find themselves out of favour in this format of the game. For, a bowler has to be a proven wicket taker to survive in T20s. And Narine has lacked that capability since his comeback. Although he has bowled some memorable spells in between, he has been very inconsistent in picking up wickets.
The future ahead
Keeping this fact in mind, his newly found batting ability has certainly increased his T20 value. For, he can become a specialist in this role if he continues to work on his hitting and slogging skills.
T20 teams no longer want a Chris Gayle who would play sedately for the first 10 balls or so. What they want now is someone like Narine who can start hitting from the word go without putting a price to his wicket.
The fact is simple; even if he gets dismissed early, there is a whole line of batsmen to follow who can play the normal game. However, if he succeeds his team will get off to a flying start as had been the case with the Kolkata Knight Riders in the recently concluded IPL.
T20 is a fast evolving format and Narine’s transformation or rather evolution is a proof of it. As the game progresses, more and more bowlers would look to improve their batting skills in order to fit into this role. Till then, Sunil Narine will remain the King of the Jungle.
(This Opinion Piece first appeared in Sportskeeda on May 24, 2017)