Where is Sunil Narine?
The question was asked in both innings when the Kolkata Knight Riders took on the Chennai Super Kings. While batting, Narine didn't walk out to open. When bowling, the Super Kings had gone to 94 for 1 in 11 overs before Narine was handed the ball.
He hadn't had a great time at the top of the order, true, with 27 runs off 31 balls in four innings in IPL 2020; each time he was troubled by short bowling delivered at pace. Narine's entire career as an opener has been fashioned in the vein of what street cricket calls the 'hit out or get out' method. But with four successive games of swinging and missing, hanging on the back foot and unable to capitalise on the balls that didn't hit that length, it was on the cards that Narine would be moved down the order. Except, the Super Kings didn't have the kind of attack that could pull off a sustained short-ball barrage. Maybe, the Knight Riders had demoted Narine a match early?
As it turned out, they hadn't. It's possible that Narine's failures at the top of the order were playing on his mind to an extent where he would be more liability than asset in that position. "Just hasn't quite worked for him at the top of the order in the first few games of the tournament so far. A change is as good as a holiday they say," the Knight Riders' bowling coach Kyle Mills would say after the match.
Instead, Dinesh Karthik and the Knight Riders used Narine tactically. Mills described the role he performed as that of a "pinch hitter". Essentially, that's what Narine was doing at the top of the order anyway; he just did it at No. 4 in this match. The batting position wasn't as important as the stage of the game he came in at. The Knight Riders had lost Nitish Rana on the first ball of the ninth over, with Karn Sharma bowling his legbreaks. A left-hander to a legspinner is a natural match-up. So why not send in Eoin Morgan, in great touch himself and one of the world's most accomplished white-ball batsmen? For two connected reasons. Narine's wicket was more expendable than Morgan's at that stage, and what was needed was to inject some momentum into the innings in the middle overs, where traditionally bowling sides control the run rate more. Second, Narine's entry would have left MS Dhoni with two options: either continue using spinners and risk them going for plenty, or bring back one of his fast bowlers and risk having a few less overs of pace at the death than he would like.
"The Knight Riders could have either had one of their rookie pacers partner Russell at the death, or Narine. They went for Narine, keeping faith in his ability to tie down, and fox, even set batsmen."
The only downside to the tactic of sending in a pinch-hitter in T20s is the risk of the pinch-hitter getting into a rut, and slowing things down rather than speeding them up. With Narine, that risk is minimal: 'hit out or get out'.
Tactically, the move worked perfectly. Narine made a typical Narine score of 17 off 9, and the third-wicket stand brought 28 runs in 2.5 overs. Among other things, it also probably played a part in Dhoni not calling on Ravindra Jadeja to bowl at all. Narine was also out early enough that it left space for Morgan and Andre Russell to launch at the death. That they fell cheaply didn't diminish the tactical use of Narine.
The bowling plan was harder to fathom in the first half of the Super Kings' chase. The Knight Riders had only got 167, about 25 to 30 runs short of what they looked like getting halfway into their innings. Before coming into this game, Narine's match-up with the Super Kings' top order was excellent: Shane Watson had scored 88 runs off 83 balls against Narine, being dismissed eight times (89 off 85 with nine dismissals after the match). Ambati Rayudu's figures were 41 off 50, and dismissed thrice (44 off 55 after the match). Faf du Plessis had 16 off 26, out once. Surely the time to bring Narine was early on? With the new ball, but failing that, within the powerplay at least? Du Plessis fell, Watson and Rayudu bedded in, and Narine continued to prowl the outfield, with Karthik rotating all his other bowlers.
It seemed baffling because what the Knight Riders seemingly needed after a below-par total was early wickets. What they actually needed, was what Karthik and the Knight Riders think-tank sussed correctly: Narine operating entirely at the back end of the chase.
The tactic could have failed if the Super Kings had got off to a blazing start, the kind that reduces the required rate by a whole point. It could have failed if Narine had an off-day with the ball. It could have failed even if some of the Super Kings batsmen had made better decisions. Of course, if the match had shaped differently, Karthik might well have called on Narine to bowl before the 12th over. But although Watson and Rayudu were cruising towards the target, they weren't doing it at breakneck speed. Karthik gambled by bowling out Pat Cummins the over before he brought Narine on. Cummins needed to strike, but failing that, keep things quiet. He kept things quiet. Narine began wheeling away.
"If you give an opportunity to an IPL team, an opening, and they've got quality players to take it - today with Narine holding overs back, it made it very difficult in the back end," Stephen Fleming, the Super Kings coach, would say later.
When Narine came on to bowl, ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats tool gave the Super Kings a win probability of 78.72%. When he had completed his second over, the match had altered radically with the win probability more than halved at 36.81%.
"With the ball, yes he came in late in the piece but jeez the job he did at the back end of the innings," Mills gushed. "So comforting sitting on the sidelines to know you've got an experienced individual with four overs up his sleeve out of the nine overs left in the innings."
The Knight Riders have not used Cummins at the death since he got pasted in their first game. They've identified Russell as one of their death-overs specialists. They could have either had one of their rookie pacers partner Russell at the death, or Narine. They went for Narine, keeping faith in his ability to tie down, and fox, even set batsmen. They kept faith in his match-up with Dhoni which is even more startling than the rest, standing now at 39 runs off 80 balls with two dismissals and no boundaries. They kept faith in his ability to bowl against a daunting asking rate. And they kept faith in the tactical ploy that had been devised to mount a successful defence.
On the day, Narine repaid that faith handsomely.