Sunil Narine and His 94 Glorious Minutes at The Eden

Breaking his previous record for the individual highest score, KKR’s bowler-turned-opening batsman hit his IPL career’s first century at a blistering strike rate close to 200.

Sunil Narine and His Century in Eden

Sunil Narine was at the crease for 94 minutes on Tuesday. He had never batted as long as 56 balls in a T20 game and the numbers are enough to tell you that it was carnage while he was at the crease. For as much as T20 encourages prioritizing big hits over preserving wickets, probably no other top-six batter, in IPL at least, must have prioritized big hits as much as Narine has over the years.

The quintessential pinch-hitter Narine

There is no particular build-up to his innings. He comes and starts the swing of the bat. In its variance, the swing can take different forms. At times it’s a swipe, a hack, a pull, and a slog. There are also the cuts and power drives that peek through his innings now and then. In a way it’s an execution of the post-neo T20 batting theory: attack every single ball.

Even with his limited batting skill, there is enough potential to thrill. Hit or get out. There is nothing in between. While it seems simple in theory, no other team with no other player has managed to replicate that formula, and barely even tried venturing with the idea of a pinch-hitter despite Narine’s long-time success in that role.

On the surface, it’s an uncomplicated technique: open up the stance and swing against the pacers and use his long levers to swing as close to the pitch of the ball as possible against the spinners. If timed well, the range is largely in the ‘V’, and if edged, it can fly to the most unpredictable of spots. The latter is extremely critical because that is what can often be nearly as productive as hitting straight down the ground for him, and surely more frustrating for the opposition captains who can be lost for options in their bowling plans and fieldsets.

Just like it was at Eden Gardens

On a fresh pitch, it wasn’t the most fluent of starts for Narine against the pace and lengths of Avesh Khan and Trent Boult. Of the 15 balls he faced in the powerplay, he middled only four, just as many as the shots he mistimed. He got beaten seven times. But as he began to settle in by smoking a six over mid-wicket and clubbing a boundary over the bowler’s head to end the powerplay, he pushed the Royals bowlers off their plans.

Conventional plans don’t always work against Narine. For example, the offspinner vs left-handed batter theory. R Ashwin had figured that out previously, and it was re-established for those with poorer memories again on Tuesday. For as many accomplished left-handed batters as Ashwin would’ve troubled in his career and across formats, Narine has always had the better of him. In a 22-ball face-off before this game, he had smashed Ashwin for 60 runs, and he continued that rampage against the veteran spinner again.

Ashwin kept teasing him outside the off-stump line, forcing Narine to leave his crease and step out. But in vain. As he kept dragging the line wider and wider, he conceded nine runs in wides – four of those on the offside.

Barring a brief flirtation with the idea of unproductively switch-hitting Ashwin in the eighth over, Narine stuck to his strengths. There were times when he missed out cashing on the full tosses, there were times he let the ball pass and there were times when he even edged a few, but in the end, came up trumps once again against Ashwin – this time the 17-ball face-off yelling 34 runs (apart from the wides).

For three seasons from 2017-2019, the simple plan of slogging out served him and also Kolkata Knight Riders, who were able to exploit the powerplay as well as lengthen their batting order. However, once a fix was discovered by the opposition of attacking his upper torso at a high pace from around the wicket, Narine at the top had become a liability. Sending him to open was proving counterproductive with the southpaw chewing more deliveries than his team could afford. Several options were tried out to fill that void, but barring brief stints of Venkatesh Iyer and Rahmanullah Gurbaz aside, KKR didn’t find much success.

Also Read – IPL 2024: Buttler’s 100 Nullifies Narine’s 100 to Take RR Home with a Win

It was a similar strategy Royals had started against Narine even on Tuesday. It’s a plan that several other teams have also used in this season without the desired result. However, despite a scratchy start against the pacers, Narine was allowed to play to his strengths through the middle overs, with R Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal attempting to outsmart him for eight out of the 10 overs. Apart from a couple of overs of Sen, there wasn’t much to disturb him with pace. Even in those two overs of Kuldeep, only one ball (at 129 kmph) was angled at his body and cramped him for room.

By the time Avesh Khan could return and employ that tactic against him in the 17th over, he had notched up a 49-ball century. By the time, they could finally unleash a stump-line yorker through Boult, less than three overs remained in KKR’s innings. In waiting for the likes of Andre Russell and Rinku Singh to do the late damage, Narine had already taken care of the party and moved to the third spot in the highest run-getters list in this year’s IPL: all of those runs at a strike rate of 187.75.

Rovman Powell, the Royals all-rounder, hailed the innings played by his fellow West Indian but offered a bit of support to his bowlers.

“We had good plans against Sunil,” Powell admitted. “But as you could see bowlers on both sides struggled on the wicket. It’s a wicket where the margin of error is very small. So if you’re not precise with the plans… Sometimes in the game of T20 cricket, as bowlers, you need a little bit of luck… Sunil chanced his arms, and took his chances, especially against our spinners – we have two world-class spinners, and he took them down. If you can take down our world-class spinners, that will put our bowling under pressure.”

For as well as Narine has bowled throughout the season, he has only managed to bag seven wickets in six games. Interestingly, it’s the Orange Cap that he finds himself closer to.

“(At the start of the season if anyone had told me that I’d be in the race for the Orange cap) I would have taken it as a joke because I haven’t opened in such a long time or did much with the bat in the years past,” Narine told in a sideline chat to the broadcaster after his innings.

“With GG (Gautam Gambhir) coming back, he gave me the confidence and his assurance that I’ll open the batting. The job is just to go out there and try to give a good start, whatever the situation is, still keep going because if you try to face dot balls in the powerplay, it could hurt you in the backend. So just go there and try to give your team a good start.”

With fast-changing and moving events, it would be understandable if Narine’s exploits were eventually overshadowed and probably forgotten after Jos Buttler’s fighting century on the day. Narine’s century ended up becoming one of the 20 centuries in IPL that have come in a loss. There isn’t much unique about it. Not even something as specific and redundant as the fact that it’s not even the first century by a KKR batter on April 16 that has ended in a loss.

Yet, teams would do well to not forget that the scare Narine gave the Royals is a threat for them. And it’s not just with the ball anymore, but consistently proving to be one with the bat as well. It is to his credit that even seven years after he exhibited his destructive skills in the powerplay, it’s the opposition bowlers across teams with all the data and numbers to aid who are at a loss of strategy and not him.

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