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Match Analysis

Sam Curran's small steps prove a giant leap as England seek to fill the Ben Stokes void

Yet another performance that's greater than the sum of its parts in crucial England win

Sam Curran claimed the key wicket of David Miller after a vital innings of 35  •  Getty Images

Sam Curran claimed the key wicket of David Miller after a vital innings of 35  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes' media engagements following his retirement from one-day internationals gave us plenty to digest. But contained within his wounded pride at not being able to contribute as effectively as he once could was this nugget at the end:
"I didn't like […] the feeling of stopping someone else being able to progress in this format for England, who I know is desperate to go out and is able to give the captain, the coach and the rest of the team 100 percent themselves."
At first glance, it reads simply as humility. Because where is this other Ben Stokes out there, capable of bowling heat, hitting bombs and taking worldies? It was no coincidence England were at their peak in 2019 when Stokes had full command of his rabbit-out-of-a-hat powers. There won't be another like him and, it's probably greedy to expect anyone close in the near future.
But after Friday night's 118-run win in the Manchester rain, the identity of this "someone" to give "100 percent themselves" became clear. Sam Curran's 35 off 18 pushed England to 201, then his sole wicket proved to be the final nail in the coffin: David Miller, a finisher for hire on the T20 circuit, losing his off stump just as he was getting his eye in. At 27 for 5, the Proteas' chase was dead and buried.
There's something oh-so-very-Sam Curran about those numbers. They speak of an impact that won't move the dials when it comes to ODI scores of 50 or more, or five-wicket hauls, (both just one for Curran across 14 matches), but nevertheless, they profoundly changed the complexion of this match. It was an accurate summation of the 24-year-old's career to date.
Like Stokes, the numbers don't quite tell the story of the work Curran gets through. And because of that, conversations around selection never reflect particularly well on him. After all, all any pro-Scurran types can offer as counter-points are the odd spells they witnessed here and there, in red- and white-ball cricket, and no huge scores or spells in which he tore the house down. The frames of reference are nothing but one's own experience. It's why championing the Surrey allrounder can at times feel like explaining an in-joke.
So it was probably quite handy that this second ODI was condensed to 29 overs each, thus justifying the exaggeration of his output. England were 101 for six when Curran arrived to the crease, with just 70 deliveries to go. From the seventh ball he faced, Curran struck the first six of the innings, striding to the pitch of the ball and striking Keshav Maharaj back over his head. Tabraiz Shamsi got the same treatment, at which point Curran had even inspired Liam Livingstone to rediscover his funk as the pair shared four consecutive sixes - and then a four - before the end of their 21-ball stand that brought 43 runs.
Analysing Curran's performance on Sky Sports at the end of the match, his former captain Eoin Morgan was effusive on not just this performance but the batting potential that England could unlock, as Chennai Super Kings and Surrey have done, particularly up the order (and far higher than No.8).
"I think he has so much to offer with the bat and he has a track record as well," Morgan said. "At Surrey, he wants to get up the order as soon as possible. He's batted at 3, 4, he's batted three to eight at a domestic level and is proving he doesn't waste balls. He's not going to get in the way of being aggressive or posting a big score. So, legitimately, it becomes a logical option."
Big-hitting is a trick Curran seems to have mastered over the last two years, even if his bow in international cricket in 2018 - in Tests, no less - was punctuated by explosive counter-attacking moments against India. It has been refined at the Indian Premier League, but most instructive is how quickly he seems to have perfected it.
The same can be said of his bowling, and the different role he has found for himself now, as part of a battery of lefties. The early movement with the new ball was once seen as one of Curran's strengths, regardless of the colour of the ball. Now, he is very much third in the pecking order behind David Willey and Reece Topley for the fresh white Kookaburra, and so he has had to do a few different things.
Not only did he vary his pace to ensure he just conceded five runs from his two overs, but his wicket ball was a smart assessment of the conditions and an execution of a plan to exploit them. Under the lights, the ball was that much harder to pick up, but an extra bit of tweak imparted by Curran allowed the seam to grip and turn between the left-handed Miller's bat and pad. He was flummoxed, Curran was ecstatic and England were up and about.
In the grand scheme of things, it was a vital win to give England a chance of finishing the ODI summer with a much-needed series win. There has been a lot of introspection over the team's tactics and ethos over the past fortnight, parallel to the loss of high-profile names who gave so much to the team. Now things are a little bit rosier, thanks in no small part to Curran.
He's not the new Stokes. Indeed he's not new at all, with 56 appearances into his fifth year as an England international. But he has plenty to offer as an allrounder. Even though he won't necessarily grab as many headlines as the previous guy who had the gig, he is certainly capable of winning as many games.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo