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The Chronicles of Narine: From stifled to game-breaker

After a 2020 IPL season that lacked spark, Sunil Narine brought his best at just the right time in 2021

Saurabh Somani
Old T20 champions don't die. They just wait for the IPL playoffs for a rebirth.
It was MS Dhoni in qualifier 1, and it was the turn of Sunil Narine in the eliminator. Narine was not supposed to be as much of a wicket-taking force as he was in his glory days, before the remodelled action, before the analysts got hold of his videos. Narine, the batter, was supposed to be all sorted out, and Kolkata Knight Riders couldn't even use him as an opener anymore.
Three balls while bowling and three swings of the bat first up cleared all those doubts away.
He fizzed an offbreak that got enough bite from the surface to beat Virat Kohli's slog across the line. He then did AB de Villiers for length as well as turn, a rare enough occurrence by itself. And then he got Glenn Maxwell, who has turned every variety of sweep into a personal library collection this IPL, on that very shot. Three balls that ripped the heart out of Royal Challengers Bangalore's innings. For good measure, Narine had begun by getting KS Bharat, Royal Challengers' hero in the previous match, with a carom ball first up.
When he came out to bat, it was an inspired promotion up to No. 5. First ball, dug halfway into the pitch, and pulled ferociously over deep square leg. Second ball, picked up off his pads and over cow corner. Third ball, hit straight through the line, bottom hand coming off the bat handle even as he made contact. There was a wide in the middle which meant that an equation of 59 from 52 balls had become 40 off 49. Three balls that knocked any control out of Royal Challengers' defence.
Remodelled action lacking bite? Batting no longer a threat? Save that for another day. Narine has found a way to come back.
Not only did Narine deliver spectacularly with both bat and ball, he was used superbly by Knight Riders' captain Eoin Morgan too. With Varun Chakravarthy and Shakib Al Hasan to call on, Morgan could delay introducing Narine till the ninth over, a point at which the preceding four overs had brought only 17 runs. The pressure to increase the scoring rate led to the wickets of Bharat, and then Kohli.
The wicket of de Villiers was just great bowling, and with the runs drying up further, Maxwell was also consumed by the urgency of hitting out. Maxwell could have waited, with only three balls of spin to come and the pacers slated to bowl the last three overs. But Maxwell has achieved huge success in this IPL by taking down spinners, so it wasn't a tactical gaffe to try and hit Narine. It was just a champion bowler getting the better of a champion batter with the combined effect of pressure and accuracy.
It was in CPL 2020 that Narine first unveiled his new bowling action, hiding the ball behind body in his run-up. While that denied batters a look at his grip and seam position, it would have led to a reduction in 'feel' in his hand and body into his delivery. IPL 2020 wasn't too hot, with just five wickets in 10 games, at an economy rate of 7.95. His Smart Wickets (6.14) and Smart Economy (7.41) suggested he bowled better than the bare numbers indicated, but he was still far short of being high-impact match-winner.
Cut to IPL 2021 and Narine has been Knight Riders' highest impact player so far in the season. His player rating per match, as per ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats is 43.24, the ninth highest overall. His bowling rating is 37.63, the sixth best (both for a minimum of seven games played). The latest match might have been dazzling, but over a season, such high numbers can only come from consistency.
When Narine was sent out to bat, Knight Riders had more pedigreed left-handers if they wanted to go that way, in Shakib and Morgan. They had Dinesh Karthik, if they wanted to have a left-right combination with Nitish Rana in the middle. But with 11 overs bowled, and Mohammed Siraj having bowled three of them, Royal Challengers had only one over of pure pace left, the type of bowling Narine is most vulnerable to.
If Narine forced Kohli to turn to Siraj, it would mean an easier latter half of the innings. If not, Narine had the batting chops to deliver boundaries against the other bowlers. Even he might not have expected three sixes off the first three legal balls he faced though. Kohli gambled on Daniel Christian, and Narine called the bluff at the poker table. The short-into-the-body stuff only really troubles Narine when it's bowled at above 140kph. Christian was 20 clicks slower.
What that one over of three sixes did was allow Knight Riders breathing room to deal with a Royal Challengers fightback, their own nerves, and the vagaries of a turning pitch. Knight Riders could have sent a proper batter instead of Narine and had a successful over, getting 10-12 runs off it instead of 22. But that would have meant taking a risk later in the chase, when the stakes were higher. Narine eliminated that possibility.
"He was outstanding today. Both with the bat and ball, his impact was huge," Morgan said after the game at the press conference. "He changed momentum when he went out to bat and swung it completely in our favour. And I think with the ball, he bowled as good as I've ever seen him bowl. Which, you know, is saying a lot. The guy is consistently exceptional every time he takes the field and always seems to take big wickets in the game."
If ever a series is made on Narine's time in the IPL, 'consistently exceptional' might be an accurate title for it.

Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo