“Sam Curran has arrived as one of the most exciting talents around the globe”
For a considerable period over his short career, Sam Curran has been plagued by a recurrent question. Which among his two skills will take the upper hand in his game? His skiddy medium-pace? Or his more than useful lower middle-order batting?
The dangers of vacillating about this for too long carries the associated danger of turning one into a bits and pieces cricketer of relative unimportance. Unless one is a Keith Miller or a Garry Sobers, it makes sense to specialise in one skill and develop the other as an added dimension.
In his three-year stint for Surrey, young Sam Curran did show glimpses of promise, but there were also signs of becoming a proverbial Jack of all trades and master of little. He batted No 7, which is reasonably high for an all-rounder, and also took the new ball on occasions. But, his batting average was stuck below 30, and the bowling figures hovered in the similarly high-twenties.
His ability to bowl useful overs and make useful runs, and also hit the ball hard, made him susceptible to the dreaded tag of ‘useful limited overs cricketer’. That can be very limiting in the overall context of a career.
His elevation to the Test side was earned after a tussle for a place with his elder brother Tom.
It was more as a bowler that England recruited him, with the batting an added option. Some of it had to do with his being a left-arm medium pacer. It added variety to the English pace attack. And, as Ryan Sidebottom said, he adds the advantage of creating boot-marks on the wicket which Moeen Ali can exploit.
The team is full of all-rounders, from Moeen to Ben Stokes, from Jos Buttler to Johnny Bairstow, even Chris Woakes when he plays. Curran could finally decide which skill was more important. He was slotted to bat at No 9 on his debut.
In the Edgbaston Test against India, it was once again as a bowler that England saw him. He did move one slot up the order as Moeen Ali made way for Adil Rashid. And in the first innings, he looked a difficult man to dislodge. He remained stubbornly unbeaten overnight before edging one from Mohammad Shami on the second morning. The 24 runs were hard-earned, a fighting knock.
But far more remarkable was what he did next.
India made a decent start. Passed 50 without losing a wicket. They played the formidable pair of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad with caution. And then Sam Curran ran in.
The ability to bring the ball back into the right-hander got him the wicket of Murali Vijay. The batsman expected it to slide away, and was late on the flick he tried to execute.
KL Rahul gifted his scalp, dragging a wide ball back to his stumps. But a 20-year-old can do with some luck.
Shikhar Dhawan was set up beautifully. A couple of times he drove, missed and finally edged. The lad, whose name remained buried in discussions behind the weighty ones of Anderson, Broad and Stokes, had cleaned up the top order.
Later, just as the Indians were getting a partnership together, he unleashed a new weapon from his arsenal. The swinging yorker. Hardik Pandya was struck on the toe, even a referral could not save him.
Curran became the youngest English bowler to capture four wickets in an innings in Test cricket. He was already the youngest to take five wickets in an innings in the County Championships and the second youngest to play for Surrey. There have been younger blokes to play Tests for England, but just six of them.
This success with the ball, and the compulsion of batting far down the order, seemed to have settled the issue between bat and ball. England expected him to be a bowler, the batting was a bonus.
But in the very next innings it was evident that it was a bonus that could well save the day and do more … decisively.
Curran came into bat sooner than he would have wanted to after Virat Kohli had caught a smart catch at third slip to send Ben Stokes back off Ishant Sharma. England were 86 for 6. The lead was 99.
Lunch had been taken with the dismissal, and so Curran walked out to bat immediately after the break. Two balls and a run later Jos Buttler hung his bat and was caught behind. 87 for 7.
The lead a mere 100. Adil Rashid was the next man in.
England needed runs and needed them quickly. There was no knowing how long the tail would manage to hang on.
And Curran fired.
Ashwin was on-driven, against the turn, and the ball sped across the turn to the fence. Ishant was driven through the covers. A few more boundaries were obtained in a rather streaky manner. But then, as already mentioned, a youngster like Curran could do with some luck. He was throwing his bat with considerable bravery, and fortune was demonstrating her bias for the courageous.
And then, with Broad in at the other end, Curran took on Ashwin. A six came homing in the press box before dipping into the tier below. A lofted drive followed, straight and almost decapacitating Broad on its way.
The mid-on was pushed back, and Curran responded with a deft push for a single. He was not all power hitting. He was using his head as well.
And then Ishant was brought back to replace Ashwin. Curran became the modern batsman, taking a step forward, swishing cross-batted, drilling the fast-medium offering over extra-cover for six. This spectacular stroke brought up his half-century.
As Anderson joined him as the last man, a pull was executed off the fast bouncer of Umesh Yadav. It went searing over mid-on. That was how early he had hit it.
When he finally perished to Yadav, Curran had notched 63 off 65 deliveries, propelling the total to 180, the lead to 193. He had scored 63 of the 94 while he was at the crease.
An innings which can turn out to be matchwinning.
And when he ran into bowl once again, he had the great Virat Kohli fishing outside the off-stump and perilously close to a leg-before decision that was referred upstairs. Following this, he brought a couple into Ajinkya Rahane before making one leave him, inducing the outside edge.
The dilemma has thus returned.
What is he better at?
Batting or bowling?
Whatever be the answer, England will have no complaints if he manages to carry out both in the way he has done it here.
Yes, if he carries on in this vein there are bound to be comparisons with Andrew Flintoff, and ultimately with Ian Botham himself. That is the fate of any man in England who has done a bit with both bat and ball. From Dominic Cork to Derek Pringle.
Yes, it is still uncertain whether his skiddy bowling with its lack of scorching pace will be as effective in lands where the ball does not swing this much. It is uncertain whether his batting will hold up in the countries where the ball turns square.
But, every career has to start from scratch and in this case, the starting scratch has been as pronounced and impactful as a bolt of lightning.
Sam Curran has arrived as one of the most exciting talents around the globe.