On January 1, Sunil Narine walked out to open the batting for Melbourne Renegades. He was not an obvious choice. In his entire T20 career Narine had scored 382 runs in 195 games – fewer than two per match – and had never previously batted in the top four.
The coaching staff at Renegades “saw me batting in the nets and said, ‘We could try him opening.’ That’s where it started,” Narine recalls. “No one saw me before opening the batting. They didn’t know what to expect – I was batting eight or nine before, so they didn’t really think I was much of a challenge.”
The wheeze, born of an injury to Dwayne Bravo and the hope that Narine would be able to target Michael Beer’s spin, worked: Narine crunched 21 off 13 balls, though his boundaries came against pace rather than off Beer. It triggered Narine’s transformation from a player who only batted once every three innings to a regular opener who smacked a 15-ball half-century earlier this IPL season. Narine has scored 420 runs in T20s this year – more than in his entire career before.
By conventional metrics, he has been distinctly underwhelming. This IPL season he has been dismissed every ten balls. His average is only 17.83. And yet, in spite of these numbers, Narine is rightly judged a success. That is all down to another figure: 178.33, his strike rate this season.
His average innings, then, is 18 off ten balls, which doesn’t sound particularly impressive. But the average IPL score since 2014 is 166 – so a team of Narines would score 14 runs more, even though they would be bowled out with 20 balls remaining.
Kolkata Knight Riders’ deployment of Narine is a recognition of how wickets are overvalued in T20. In the last four IPL seasons, the average team loses only 5.80 wickets an innings, according to the statistician Ric Finlay. That leaves a lot of batting talent wasted.
Narine is an answer to this. In many ways his lack of batting pedigree is an advantage, because respect for his wicket has not been inculcated in him. He attacks with an impulsiveness that remains rare in T20 top-order batsmen; even Chris Gayle, the short format’s first great batsman, tends to begin sedately in his first ten balls.
The metamorphosis of Narine the batsman, from rarely spotted spare part to an integral player in Knight Riders’ path to the IPL playoffs, suggests that even bowlers who aren’t regarded as useful tailenders in first-class cricket can become crucial hitters in T20. While a No. 8 in longer formats must be able to both block and score, a bowler in T20 only needs to hit.
“It’s easier batting in T20 because I’m a naturally aggressive person, so I don’t have to temper anything,” Narine says. “In first-class cricket you have to bat according to the situation and the opponent.”
Narine only averages 8.00 in Tests and 11.00 in ODIs, but this has not stymied his effectiveness in T20 cricket this year. The lack of adhesiveness in his defensive technique is almost irrelevant in T20, where defence essentially doesn’t matter. Chris Martin, the most hapless Test tailender of the century, was dismissed every 12 balls in his Test career, two deliveries more than Narine has lasted each innings this IPL season.
In a few months Narine has become a new player: from a cricketer whose worth lay exclusively in his bowling, he has become akin to a T20 allrounder. “A few team-mates were telling me, ‘You can bat; you should try and work on it so that you can give teams that you play for the added batting,'” he says. Last year he resolved to “practise my batting as much as my bowling”.
What has happened since is alerting other bowlers who specialise in T20 to recognise how even being able to regularly hit 15 off eight balls, say, can transform their value on the T20 market. In the Big Bash in January, Ben Hilfenhaus won a T20 with his batting for the first time in his career, aged 33.
Tymal Mills lacks any batting pedigree: he averages 11.30 in first-class matches, 1.75 in List A games, and 3.90 in T20. But as he aims to consolidate the remarkable progress he has made in T20 in the past year, he knows how improving his batting, and being viewed as capable of smiting a few boundaries in the final throes of an innings could be critical.
During England’s T20I series in India earlier this year, Mills worked extensively with Paul Farbrace, the England assistant coach, on batting: not on his forward defence or getting into line but on clearing the ropes. “Since I stopped playing first-class cricket, the batting I have done has been completely geared towards T20 hitting,” he explains. “I have not faced a red ball for almost two years now, and work on striking from ball one.”
Though Royal Challengers Bangalore paid US$1.75 million for Mills’ bowling, his batting prowess – or lack of it – contributed to him losing his place in the side. “I found myself batting at eight or nine, whereas with Sussex I’ve never batted above ten. I was out of my depth in the position this year, so I see it as a missed opportunity and certainly something I will look to put right.”
Teams still seldom give much emphasis to improving the hitting skills of their bowlers, partly because the schedule is so unrelenting. “It’s hard for tailenders to get quality time in the nets, as during training sessions you obviously bowl to the batters first and the coaches are often sidearming,” Mills says. “Bowlers are very rarely put down on the net rotation for batting.”
Yet the sterling improvement in Narine’s batting hints at what is possible if tailenders focus upon tailoring their batting to T20. Given that Narine’s batting is certain to earn him even more lucrative contracts on the domestic T20 circuit, savvy bowlers will recognise the value of lifting up their own hitting, perhaps even enlisting freelance batting coaches to do so.
The experiment that kicked off with Narine opening on New Year’s Day could just be beginning. If other cricketers ordinarily disregarded for their batting are able to lift up their own hitting in a similar way, it will mean that teams have even more batting firepower and can, like Knight Riders with Narine, lengthen their batting line-ups without making compromises elsewhere.
In T20, a higher proportion of balls are faced by the top three than in ODI cricket – 52% compared to 48%. But if other bowlers can mimic Narine in turning themselves into formidable hitters, then batting teams will be emboldened to attack with even more zeal. The average number of wickets in a T20 innings is likely to rise – but so is the average number of runs scored.
In the early 1950s the four-minute mile was “a brick wall, and I shan’t attempt it again,” said the leading runner John Landy. But after Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, it took Landy only six weeks to run the mile in 3:58. When someone has shown what is possible, others can quickly follow.
Narine’s batting, which started 2017 as an incongruous gambit, could herald a recalibration of what is possible from tail-end batsmen in T20 – showing how, even with a defence less robust than Chris Martin’s, they can have a major impact on matches. There is, though, an unmistakable irony. If bowlers do follow Narine in learning to become adept hitters, it will skew T20 even more towards batsmen.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts