There’s been much said about England’s fearless cricket in the white-ball arena – where fearless is often taken to mean trying to smash as many balls out of the ground as possible without worrying about the consequences – but it was a far more cerebral approach from Sam Curran that brought England within social distance of their target in the deciding ODI against India when by all rights, at 168 for six, they should have been condemned to cricketing lockdown.
Playing aggressive shots to pretty much every ball he faced might have been the correct approach had Curran had more experienced one-day batsmen at the other end than Adil Rashid and, in particular, Mark Wood, but Curran did far more than this. With an innate confidence in his ability, despite the slightness of his frame, to clear the ropes and find the gaps, he was able to manufacture a situation in which England could have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
What we had from Curran was an important distinction: not so much fearless cricket as nerveless cricket. Like an experienced pilot suddenly thrust into a mid-air emergency, he refused to panic, worked out which of his instruments were working well and dispensed with the ones that weren’t. He still had enough fuel in his engines and sufficient thrust to configure effectively for landing. The analogy might not be exact – he was unable to execute the perfect touchdown after all – but I like to think he got England, limping, on to the runway and saved a few lives.
It wasn’t hard to make the connection with the influence of another particularly cool character, who metaphorically speaking occupied the left-hand side of the cockpit to Curran’s first officer in last year’s IPL. MS Dhoni and his owners at Chennai Super Kings had got Curran on board after an inaugural year at the King’s XI Punjab training school, and the former Indian captain has, of course, engineered many a winning chase from seemingly impossible positions for franchise and country.
It is a measure of his confidence in the Surrey all-rounder that when the Super Kings were struggling at the top of the order halfway through last season’s tournament he was happy to experiment with him as an opener. He didn’t let anyone down and if the stats show only one fifty from that position, what should have impressed Dhoni was the 22-year-old’s shot selection and ability to pace an innings to what is required.
Jos Buttler, almost an IPL veteran now, made the link almost immediately, saying in the press conference after Sunday’s match: “I’m sure Sam would want to talk to MS about tonight’s innings. There were shades of the way that he [MS Dhoni] would have liked to take the game down if he was in that situation. He’s a great person for Sam to have a conversation with when he meets up [in the IPL].
Not that Curran has actually played an innings like that in the IPL. In the early part of his tenure with CSK he was batting at No 6 or 7 but there were cameos of 17 or 18 from a handful of deliveries that hinted at his clean-hitting – indeed that may be even what encouraged Dhoni to believe he could do a job at the top of the order when the fielding restrictions are at their least prohibitive.
But he will have seen Dhoni play in that way, happily rejecting singles while media and crowd look at each other quizzically, in the belief that he has the firepower to catch up.
Curran, for one, did not suggest there was a connection, not, at least, one that he wished to admit to in public, preferring to credit his own backroom: “I had instructions from the dugout to take it as deep as possible but fair play to Natarajan, he nailed his six deliveries at the end,” he said.
Might, then, he have taken more inspiration from Buttler himself – his captain on the day?
Only a couple of weeks ago Buttler spoke about his own altered outlook – again borrowed from his experience in the IPL – to approaching run chases and one he formulated after talking to some of the West Indies big hitters in the competition.
“Having watched other players in the IPL and in other international games, they seem to maintain a calm look on it and see chasing as ‘we need to hit seven sixes in the remaining five overs’. I’ve never really myself thought of it like that before,” he said.
“[I’m] actually just trying to bring that a bit more into my game and into my mathematics of chasing scores down – not looking at runs per ball or runs an over that’s required; actually saying if we hit x sixes, that will win us the game. It’s just a change of mindset and [a case of] continually learning.”
With Buttler ready and willing to share that information with the public, it’s unthinkable that it hasn’t been discussed in England team meetings – even if Curran became the first batsman to adapt it to the 50-over formula.
But more than either of these influences, could it be that Curran just possesses an instinctive ability to know when to stick and when to twist, when the time has come for him to play the way that he needs to rather than is instructed to? Cricketing intelligence, in other words.
Since his international debut, he has presented the aura of a man with an old head on young shoulders. You need think back only to his second Test appearance in the first match of the series against India in Birmingham in 2018. There he marked his arrival with three wickets at the top of the tourists’ first innings after England had underachieved with the bat and India, on 50 for no wicket after 13 overs, looked like taking the game by the scruff of its neck. A second innings 65 from 63 balls after England had been 86 for six and leading by only 99 runs contributed massively to an eventual 30-run win.
Two Tests later, a counter-attack from No 8 changed the complexion of the game at Southampton and, combined with some excellent bowling from Moeen Ali, ensured England went into the final match with the series theirs rather than at 2-2.
If he hasn’t pushed on in Test cricket, it surely is partly down to the fact that he has been a bit-part player rather than regular while at T20 level, his batting talents have often be left to wither beneath Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer. And, almost unbelievably, yesterday’s undefeated 95 off 82 balls came in only an eighth ODI since he made his debut in Manchester in the summer of 2018.
While, as Jonny Bairstow knows, it is not always possible to accommodate a player’s precise wishes when it comes to batting orders and bowling spells, Curran has surely done enough to deserve a bit more game-time.
If not, he could always retrain as a pilot. I, for one, would feel comforted to get on the plane, look left and, despite his boyish appearance, see Curran at the controls.