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Sunil Narine and the art of whack, boom, kapow

The Kolkata Knight Riders opener seems to have found his mojo at the top of the batting order again, and rival teams are paying

Nagraj Gollapudi
Sunil Narine bashed his maiden T20 hundred, Kolkata Knight Riders vs Rajasthan Royals, IPL 2024, Kolkata, April 16, 2024

Purple, gold and merciless: Narine gets going in the game against Rajasthan Royals where he made a hundred  •  AFP/Getty Images

At the halfway mark of Kolkata Knight Riders' innings in their home match against Rajasthan Royals ten days ago, Kumar Sangakkara, the Royals director of cricket, said he felt sorry for bowlers this IPL, in which batters have plundered runs at a rate not seen in the tournament's history until now.
A packed Eden Gardens swayed with happy emotion as Sunil Narine, Knight Riders' opener, whipped a short delivery outside off from Kuldeep Sen for four. Harsha Bhogle, who was on air, asked Sangakkara how Royals might stop Narine. "Hopefully he'll get himself out," Sangakkara said.
By the time Narine did get out, he had made his first T20 century in over 500 matches to become the first KKR batter to score an IPL hundred at Eden Gardens. It came in 49 balls. Though his start was steady, he accelerated in the middle and death overs, scoring at an overall strike rate of over 194, with six hits over the rope and 13 fours.
Narine, who until earlier this week was among the top ten run-makers in the tournament after that innings, still leads ESPNcricnfo's Smart Stats MVP standings for the tournament, thanks to his batting heroics paired with incisive bowling that has brought him nine wickets.
He has been a distinct point of difference for KKR, who are second on the points table and have shaped up as the team to beat behind RR through the first half of this year's IPL.
At the innings break after his hundred, Narine said that just the fact of him being in contention for the orange cap was a joke, given his dire returns with the bat over the last few IPL seasons. Starting with 2021, he made 62, 71 and 21 runs respectively, batting ten innings in each of the last three years, not all as opener.
How has this turnaround as an impact opener come about?
Narine says Gautam Gambhir, the former Knight Riders captain, who returned as the team's mentor this season, has been instrumental. "With GG coming back, he gave me the confidence and the assurance that I'll open the batting. And out of the 14 games, just try to [succeed] in three or four to give the team a good start."
It was under Gambhir's captaincy, in 2017, that Narine opened for the first time for KKR. The idea to field him as an opener, Simon Katich, the franchise's assistant coach between 2015 and 2019, says was adopted from Melbourne Renegades, who tried Narine out as an opener for three matches in the 2016-17 BBL. He scored just 37 runs in those games but there was enough on show to establish that Renegades were not just throwing things at a wall hoping something stuck.
Back in 2017 at KKR, Narine was paired with Australian batter Chris Lynn, one of the leading top-order T20 power-hitters of the time. "We knew teams wanted to bowl spin early to Lynny," Katich says, "and we felt Sunny would put pressure on the opposition team in the first couple of overs, which allowed his partner to get settled and attack in the back end of the powerplay."
The impact of that strategy was witnessed in May 2017, when Narine and Lynn pulped Royal Challengers Bengaluru's bowlers in a 105-run opening partnership in the powerplay, chasing a target of 158. It was, until April 20 this year, the highest powerplay partnership in IPL history.
"The game was over. The boys killed it in the first six overs," Katich chuckles.
That rampage by Narine and Lynn showed what an aggressive mindset and a batter with no fear of consequences can do. It was something of a precursor to the batting carnage we have seen this IPL, where the record for the highest IPL total has been broken three times, two of those instances courtesy the outrageous batting of Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma of Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Narine and Phil Salt, the KKR openers, have not been too far behind that pair. In the match against Royals, that team's spinners, Yuzvendra Chahal and R Ashwin, deliberately pitched on a line outside off stump in an attempt to evade Narine's hitting arc. He still managed to score heavily against the pair, who are arguably among the best slow bowlers in the tournament.
Narine was not slogging, and evidence of that came in how he repeatedly squeezed boundaries through the pocket behind the bowler, who had positioned long-off and long-on extra straight. Narine picked up 67 runs from just 28 balls against Chahal and Ashwin in that game. Before that match, Chahal had conceded just five sixes in this year's tournament in the middle overs, and Ashwin none. Narine hit five sixes off them in that game alone.
Like Narine, Katich too credits Gambhir with being behind the move to open with Salt and Narine. "It just highlights the way game keeps evolving," he says. "This year in particular, we are seeing a really aggressive game and teams like KKR and SRH are probably leading the way with that in terms of [saying] 'We are going to put opposition teams under the pump right from the word go. If it doesn't go to plan, so be it. We might lose a few [wickets] doing that, but we are going to win more than we lose playing an aggressive style of cricket, and take pressure off that middle order.'"
The 19 boundaries Narine hit against Royals is the joint most number of fours and sixes in an innings so far this IPL. Overall this year he has hit 20 sixes, which places him sixth on the list of leading six-hitters this season.
How does he derive the power to go so big, despite not having much of a trigger movement?
"He has relatively long levers," says Katich, who was head coach at Trinbago Knight Riders, where too Narine has opened. "When you look at his grip, it's pretty high on the handle. So when you see him hitting sixes - he's a powerful ball striker.
The short ball was something of an Achilles heel for Narine over the years, and Katich speaks of how there was a period where teams tried to tuck Narine up and bowl at his right shoulder, with some success. While his strike rate against the short ball has been consistently high, his dismissal rate against it was high in the past as well, leading to a low batting average against the short stuff: 11 in 2017, 18 in 2018, 15.66 in 2019.
This IPL, on the other hand, in seven innings as an opener, against 59 deliveries pitched back of a length or shorter, Narine has scored 82 runs at an average of 41 and a strike rate of nearly 139, getting out twice.
"The beauty of him batting in the powerplay is, it's very difficult to pin someone down when you have only got two men protecting the boundary, because there are times where he top-edges sixes and then the bowlers [get] gun shy of attacking him again with a short ball," Katich says. "And because he moves around [the crease], it makes him difficult to bowl to, because he's just as capable of scoring off side as he's leg side.
Narine usually takes a leg-stump guard, holding the bat somewhat loose, his backlift high. Generally he opens up his right hip and right shoulder to be able to use the bottom hand to access both sides of the pitch: he can hit over square leg as easily as he does over deep point. To counter that, Katich says, teams have tried taking pace off the ball and tried pitching fuller around the wide line outside off stump to make it hard for him to power it over mid-off or cover.
Narine, though, has improvised to counterattack against that strategy. In the game against Delhi Capitals in Vizag,where Narine made 85, during the powerplay, Ishant Sharma pushed the point fielder back and brought midwicket closer, having placed him deep earlier. Narine read it correctly and took a quick step wide to hit it over mid-off for a four.
Also that over, with square leg and midwicket deeper, Ishant attempted a yorker that turned into a low full toss outside off. Narine stretched from his leg-stump guard to connect to it with one hand and got enough power into the stroke for the ball to race for four between point and short third. He got to 34 off 15 after having started his innings with five dot balls.
"The thing with Sunil, what a lot of people probably don't appreciate, is that he actually works as hard as most do on his game," says Tom Moody, who in the past has watched Narine from the opposition dugout as head coach at Sunrisers Hyderabad, and more recently has worked with him as head coach of Oval Invincibles in the Hundred. "So there's no coincidence that he has those moments where he can have an opposition on the back foot very quickly, because it's not like it's unrehearsed. He is prepared for it."
"I have one role and the less I know, the better it is for me," Narine said this year when asked why he skips batters' meetings. He would rather lounge by the pool than discuss match-ups.
And that inclination to keep his mind uncluttered has probably allowed Narine to not fret too much about whether he is in control or not while batting. Among openers this IPL who have faced at least 40 deliveries in the powerplay, his control percentage is the lowest, 51.55, but he counters that with his intent in the first six overs, when only two fielders are allowed in the outfield. Among batters who have faced at least 30 deliveries, only Head has a higher aggression (intent) percentage for openers in the powerplay.
In his assault on Royals, Narine had 14 false shots in the first 24 deliveries. An extremely chancy beginning, but he made his own luck. In T20s intent matters more than control, and Narine understands that.
Is he unique as a batter?
"He's a skilful bowler that can bat," Moody says. "And he has realised that his most effective way to bat in this format, and the most damaging, is to play with that freedom. The game is increasingly being recognised for those impact-type innings - those ten-ball impact innings that either help you finish off the total or launch your powerplay into a level that you wouldn't otherwise have done if you didn't have that sort of approach.
Katich says that moving Narine back up to the opening slot is a winning move by KKR. "He's a game changer. He's a proven player in the IPL. He has got a huge amount of experience, he's a very clever cricketer. The more you can have those guys playing these roles in critical times of the game - which the powerplay is - you give guys that opportunity."
Stats inputs from S Rajesh

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo