"Youngsters in our team? That's an oxymoron! (laughs)"
This was Chennai Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming's quip when asked about Sam Curran in particular during a dugout interview in IPL 2020. The 22-year-old Curran, with his boyish looks and puckish energy, is an anomaly in the Super Kings' Dad's Army. While the rest of the ageing squad jogs between the wickets, Curran runs like a whippet and attacks the ball in the hotspots along with Faf du Plessis. While the rest of the batsmen go slow, Curran dashes out of the blocks and smashes sixes. He has played just eight matches for the Super Kings, but both Fleming and MS Dhoni already trust him enough to bowl the tough overs in the powerplay as well as at the death. Because Curran makes things happen like a certain Ben Stokes does.
He made things happen both with bat and ball against the Sunrisers Hyderabad in the powerplay to revive the Super Kings' campaign in Dubai. After cracking 31 off 21 balls, replacing Shane Watson at the top, he grabbed the key wicket of David Warner to set the scene for Super Kings' victory.
Coming into this game, Curran's first ten-ball strike rate this IPL was 226.67, the best so far this season, so there was good reason behind punting him up the order. Curran had opened once in T20 cricket previously, for the Kings XI Punjab last year, hitting 20 off 10 balls. But then the Super Kings are usually rigid with their game plans; probably the last time they tried something funky at the top was when R Ashwin was promoted to open the batting along with Mike Hussey at the Eden Gardens in IPL 2013.
"We saw a glimpse today of what he can potentially do for us in the future. He's a very good addition for us." Head coach Stephen Fleming on Curran
Seven years later, the Super Kings' management went for a similarly funky approach. It looked like it might backfire in the early exchanges. From over the wicket, Sandeep Sharma found a crease-bound Curran's outside edge with his first delivery and then beat his outside edge twice. Then, in the second over, he was beaten by a sharp, rising delivery outside off from Khaleel Ahmed. He swished a four off Ahmed in the same over, but the Super Kings had cobbled together only 12 runs for the loss of the in-form du Plessis for a duck in three overs.
Curran was done groping and guessing. He unleashed his big-hitting and rewarded the Super Kings with 4,4,6,1,6 in Ahmed's second over. Curran isn't somebody who moves his feet much; the power comes from his fast hands and strong base. Take a look at that last six. Ahmed slips in a 121.6kph chest-high offcutter and while Curran doesn't go as deep in the crease as many other batsmen may have done, he opens up his hips, holds his shape and dismissively flat-bats the bowler over his head. He claimed 31 of the 44 runs the Super Kings had scored in the powerplay.
Curran's move to the top also allowed Watson and Ambati Rayudu to take on Rashid Khan in the middle overs. Both batsmen haven't been dismissed by Khan in T20 cricket and they slugged a six each off his last over. Khan ended wicketless, as did Shahbaz Nadeem, the other spinner.
Curran was not finished yet. He took the new ball along with Deepak Chahar and found inswing to have Warner falling over and hit his pad, but it wasn't threatening the stumps. At the other end, Chahar, too, got early swing, but wasn't full enough and it was partly down to Jonny Bairstow walking at him. In his second over, Curran found inswing and cramped Warner for room again, this time the Sunrisers' captain flapped a return catch off an inside edge. Warner fell for 9 off 13 balls. Curran wasn't needed at the death as the Super Kings had six other bowling options. Piyush Chawla, meanwhile, was needed for just one over.
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Curran's all-round success has added more depth to the Super Kings' line-up and if he can continue to make powerful cameos at the top, it could ease the burden on the Super Kings' misfiring middle order in the second half of the tournament. Fleming was so impressed with Curran that he suggested that he could continue to open the batting for the Super Kings.
"In terms of his contribution so far, he has exceeded, I think, [in delivering] what we wanted," Fleming said at the post-match press conference. "Probably not in his eyes because he's very competitive. And every time he has had a challenge, he has risen to it. He has been desperate to get in and make a difference with the bat. And I think we saw a glimpse today of what he can potentially do for us in the future. He's a very good addition for us."
Dhoni, too, delivered a glowing appraisal of Curran at the post-match presentation, calling him a "complete cricketer" who can bat anywhere and even tackle the spinners. Now that the Super Kings have finally found a way to maximise Curran's abilities, can he continue to make things happen for the Super Kings and also strengthen his case for a permanent place in England's T20 XI?