This time last year Dan Christian was about to lead Nottinghamshire to T20 Final's Day. He hadn't played IPL since 2013, or for Australia since 2014. He was playing for Nottinghamshire as a batsman; his last Big Bash season was middling. He was just another player on the T20 circuit.
Since Nottinghamshire lost on Finals Day last year, Christian has changed his game, changed his worth, and changed his future.
It all started with some video analysis. "At the start of the season I saw some footage of my action, and my load up was going where it shouldn't be. So I worked harder getting that tighter, then the rhythm came back, then the pace came back." Unless you are a change-up superstar like Andrew Tye, being able to bowl quick is a great extra bow to have. "Now I have that pace back, that I lost for a couple of years. It certainly helps, certainly being able to run in and bowl a bouncer, stopping the batter getting on the front foot."
Christian's season with Hobart Hurricanes started with him not thought of much as a bowler. Like with Nottinghamshire he'd become a middle-order batsman. The 2015-16 season he averaged 80 with the ball at more than eight an over, so they didn't use him for a few games at the start of 2016-17. When they did he struck with every 12th ball he bowled, had an average of 14, and went at 7.44 an over. The improved bowling was helpful, because his year with the bat was a bit more ordinary, he only made 87 runs for the year.
"I just batted flat out five where I'm probably better off just waiting until the ninth, tenth or eleventh, regardless of how many wickets we've lost. We played the Strikers at Adelaide, and Billy Stanlake ripped through us, and I went in at five and was out first ball, and the innings wasn't over, but it meant that I wasn't able to capitalise at the end. In hindsight Jon Wells, or someone like that should have gone in, who is a bit more adaptable." Hobart's season was poor and they didn't qualify for the finals.
Christian put himself into the IPL auction thinking he wouldn't get picked, and that it would be okay if he didn't, so his price tag was high for a guy coming off an average season. But Pune went for him at roughly USD150,000. "I didn't think I'd play at all, and I only missed one game in the end, maybe two." It was evident from Pune's list that Christian wasn't going to bat as high as four or five as he had for Hobart and Notts. "We had Stokes, Smith, Jinks [Rahane], up top, and Faf Du Plessis. So I knew if I was going to play it was going to be finishing the innings kind of role, and offering some overs in the middle period." With Mitch Marsh injured Christian played a lot, and fulfilled the role asked of him perfectly. He hit a boundary every five balls, scored at a strike rate of 161. With the ball he took 11 wickets and went at 7.45 an over.
He was a role player, but it turned out, a role player on a team that made the final, and with four balls to go in the final, he went in to bat. "I was stood at the other end and we needed seven off four with Steven Smith facing. Then Steve hit the first one out to deep point, amazing catch. Now Washington Sundar was on strike; first ball missed it, we ran the bye through. So we needed six off the last two."
"Tactically I learnt a lot, playing under Smith, talking to Dhoni, du Plessis, and Stephen Fleming off the field. I've seen a couple of times where I've seen a situation for Notts and thought, oh yeah, we saw this happen in the IPL, and we tried this, and it's ended up working"
The pitch was hard to score off all game, Mumbai's 129 proving like Everest to Pune. Even with Smith and MS Dhoni batting it was more than defendable, and Christian wasn't facing a standard bowler, he was facing Mitchell Johnson. "I'd done okay batting at the death, lap sweeping and standing still as well, I just tried to trust myself that Mitch would hopefully just miss one yorker out of the two. And I'd be able get it just by standing still and hitting it over midwicket or mid-on. But with his angle, and the ball just tailed a bit, and I couldn't hit the middle of the bat. Plinked them. Plinked 'em both out to deep midwicket. With hindsight I should have tried to lap one and used his round-the-wicket angle and gone over short fine leg."
Christian's game theory didn't work, yet he would end with the second-best strike rate of the match with his 4 from 2, but without the extra two runs needed to win the match.
It was December last year, as he was about to start for Hobart, that he was officially signed by Nottinghamshire as captain. "Once I re-signed we just started talking about planning. It's more about team make-up, we had a really good season last year and stumbled in the semi-final, so we know we didn't have to change too much. Obviously, we talked a little about who the second overseas would be, Imran Tahir had already signed at Derby, Andre Russell [their overseas from last season] was floated and then he got banned, and we got Ish Sodhi. And that just sort of finishes the pie off".
Nottinghamshire have made big noises with their batting, but their bowling line-up is incredibly deep and close to ideal for T20. On top of Sodhi, Christian says: "We've got two good quicks in Harry Gurney and Jake Ball, Steven Mullaney bowling medium pace, Samit Patel bowling spin, so we've got all bases covered." That's not including the man himself. And with good reason, last year he barely bowled: 11 overs with an economy of 12 and only two wickets. Although he scored over 300 runs at a strike rate of 158 and hit a boundary every 3.5 balls.
This year, with Russell not playing and Christian back in bowling form, he has been used a bit more, 17.5 overs, taking eight wickets, and going at 9.9 an over. That economy is actually better than the average at Notts this year.
His high economy and strike rates can somewhat be attributed to Nottinghamshire's home ground of Trent Bridge with small boundaries and an incredibly good pitch for batting. Trent Bridge is the highest scoring ground in the T20 Blast. Actually, Trent Bridge is the highest scoring ground in all T20 cricket. Over the last two years matches at Trent Bridge have gone for 9.14 an over, no other ground is over nine. This season alone Trent Bridge is at 10.45, one run more than anyone else in England, and even the world over the last eight months. The runs-per-over in the Blast this season is almost two runs behind Nottinghamshire at 8.60. They are playing a different form of T20.
Over the last two years Nottinghamshire have won 10 and lost three at home.
That is great, but brings in different problems for the captain. "We had all these plans at the start of the year here playing at Trent Bridge, where we were going to bowl and what fields we were going to set. And for the first few games we went for 222, then 195 the week after that, 208 again the next week, and then 223. We were tearing our hair out. We thought our plans must be wrong, but then we sat back and looked at some of the footage, and we thought that's just a half volley, that's short and wide, that's supposed to be a straight yorker and it's a half volley on the pads. So we just went back to the basics of trying to be as honest as we could in our appraisal of what we do, and then just try to change our execution." The next two games teams only (only for Trent Bridge) scored 183 and 180.
Christian is a pretty recent captain, he captained the indigenous team in Australia, and also a handful of games for South Australia, but until last year he was not really thought of as a skipper. That makes his last year at Pune quite helpful where he played with a quite extraordinary team of leaders. "Tactically I learnt a lot, playing under Smith, talking to Dhoni, du Plessis, and Stephen Fleming off the field. I've seen a couple of times where I've seen a situation for Notts and thought, oh yeah, we saw this happen in the IPL, and we tried this, and it's ended up working."
Nottinghamshire lost their opening two games, and have gone eight and two since with the opening batsmen making all the runs, and a bowling line up so deep they play with seven bowlers some games, so Christian's role is different again.
And that's what is so fascinating about his last nine months and T20 in general. In three of the main T20 competitions, he's had three completely different roles. In Hobart he was a No. 5 five batsman at the start of the season, who became a traditional allrounder bowling one over at the top, a couple in the middle and finishing at the death. For Pune, he was a middle-overs bowler and death batsman. And for Nottinghamshire he's the occasional third seamer, bowling up front and in the middle, usually as back up if the spinners are going for runs, and a batsman who comes in anytime from the eighth to twelfth over no matter what has gone on before him.
And after all this chopping and changing, and going from competition to competition, he's now been picked in the Australian T20 squad. Most likely to fulfil whatever one of these roles (most probably the Pune one, as it's an Indian tour) the Australia team thinks it needs.
Christian's constant, and rapid evolution is very much the story of T20. He began as a sloggy allrounder with a bit more pace than most. That got him into the New South Wales T20 team, alongside Andrew Johns, the Rugby League star who was brought in as a novelty for the crowds. A few years later he received USD900,000 for the 2011 IPL season (it's the law that this must be mentioned in all Christian articles) which surprised everyone in cricket, including Christian. And now he is a professional franchise cricketer, touring the world, fitting into teams in whichever role they need, and evolving his game as T20 changes.
When he first started "we just turned up and played, it was just the last 20 overs of a one-dayer, and you've got ten blokes in the shed and see what happens," he says. "That's changed now. "There's a real science to it these days. You've got to be so much more precise."
When asked if he's a better player than he was when he was nearly an IPL millionaire he says, "Definitely, 100%. 100%." The weird thing is, T20 moves so fast, he's also definitely a better player than he was this time last year. In T20, everything happens quickly.