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Feature

Trent Boult: The first-over phenom

You know what you're going to get from Trent Boult, but that doesn't make it any easier to face

Trent Boult's first over against Sunrisers Hyderabad was a double-wicket maiden  •  BCCI

Trent Boult's first over against Sunrisers Hyderabad was a double-wicket maiden  •  BCCI

Three times now, Trent Boult has taken two wickets in the first over of an IPL innings. He's done it once for Mumbai Indians, and twice for Rajasthan Royals, most recently on Sunday against Sunrisers Hyderabad. No other bowler has done more than twice.
Outside the three times in the IPL, Boult has taken two wickets in the first over of an innings once in the Big Bash League, for Melbourne Stars against Sydney Thunder last December, dismissing Matthew Gilkes and Rilee Rossouw and making a defence of 122 look plausible.
Only one other bowler has matched Boult and done it four times in all T20s - Sohail Tanvir.
Tanvir might not be the first left-arm quick, or even the first Pakistani left-arm quick, you thought of when you thought of frequent wreakers of first-over havoc, but it's notable first of all that Tanvir, like Boult, is a left-arm quick. A swinging new ball is a dangerous weapon in any fast bowler's hands, but a quality left-arm quick is perhaps the hardest kind of bowler for a top order to face first up.
And since Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mitchell Starc don't play in the IPL, Boult is easily the biggest new-ball gamechanger in the league.
Since the start of IPL 2020, Boult has taken 33 powerplay wickets, ten more than his nearest challenger Mohammed Shami. Of the eight bowlers with at least 15 powerplay wickets in this time, Boult has the best average (22.69), and is one of three with an economy rate below 7.
His method is utterly straightforward and time-tested, swinging the ball at pace against the angle from left-arm over, but it takes immense skill to make a straightforward method work as often, and as devastatingly, as Boult does. There were three left-arm quicks playing this game in Hyderabad, and while it's possible that there was more swing available to Boult in the evening than there had been for Fazalhaq Farooqi and T Natarajan in the afternoon, it was only Boult who made the new ball look anything like menacing.
When Sunrisers began their chase of 204, in fact, they may have viewed the new ball as their likeliest source of quick runs. The Royals batters had taken the new ball to the cleaners, scoring 85 for 1 in their powerplay, but had found it a lot harder to find the boundary when the ball became older. They scored 122 in their first 10 overs, and just 81 in their last 10.
During the innings break, viewers may have wondered if Royals had failed to make the most of their start.
It took Boult just five balls to erase all those doubts. The left-handed Abhishek Sharma looked to go inside-out to his third ball, and lost his stumps to an outswinging near-yorker. The right-handed Rahul Tripathi charged at his fifth ball, possibly looking to hit over the covers, and ended up slicing a catch to slip, possibly yanked out of shape by the ball swinging less than he expected.
Now this is T20 cricket and there's a high degree of randomness to what balls get wickets and what balls fly towards un-aimed-for boundaries. Boult's new-ball spell was as good as it was because its quality wasn't confined to two wicket-taking balls. Unlike the Sunrisers quicks earlier in the day, he constantly swung the ball, and constantly kept the stumps in play, without feeding the batters slot balls.
The last ball of Boult's second over, to Harry Brook, summed up the effect he was having. Brook shaped for a booming, on-the-up drive, backlift high and front foot unweighted to move towards the line of the ball. He'd made those same movements in the previous over and launched KM Asif thrillingly over mid-off. But this Boult delivery forced him to curtail his ambitions - it wasn't quite as full, and it swung back late, threatening lbw if Brook continued his front-foot thrust.
That Brook stilled his front foot, adjusted to the swing, and brought down a vertical bat to defend this delivery spoke volumes about his gifts of eye and balance, gifts that portend a long and sparkling career. In the context of this steep T20 chase, though, it was just another dot ball Sunrisers couldn't afford.
There were 13 dot balls in Boult's new-ball spell, which he ended with figures of 3-1-8-2, figures that had seemed unimaginable on this surface before he began bowling. It's what only he and a handful of others in world cricket can do.
Viewers in India are fortunate to watch Boult do his thing time and again in the IPL, but the IPL has contributed to restricting his ability to do it in international cricket. Between them, New Zealand Cricket and Boult have handled the situation as well as any board and player could have, but at least one difficult decision remains to be made.
Would it be unfair for New Zealand to pick Boult in their squad for the ODI World Cup later this year, ahead of a fast bowler who's been a consistent part of the build-up to the tournament? It probably would. But given Boult's quality, his experience, and the fact that the tournament will be in India, it might be one of those decisions that are both unfair and correct.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo