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Free Hit

Sunil Narine: the perfect T20 cricketer? It's complicated

He has reinvented himself repeatedly to stay ahead of the curve in a game that moves at breathless pace

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Sunil Narine has a swing, Kolkata Knight Riders vs Delhi Capitals, IPL 2024, Kolkata, April 29, 2024

Big basher: does Narine swing more freely because he isn't burdened by a sense of the value of his wicket?  •  AFP/Getty Images

I came to a neat conclusion the other day after watching Sunil Narine bat.
Sunil Narine is the perfect T20 batter because he wasn't a batter and so never had that ingrained sense of the value of a wicket. As such, he now doesn't worry about losing his wicket, which, for a top-order batter in the format, is the game's key cataclysmic event.
And what's more, that makes him the perfect T20 cricketer, because he's understood that bowling in this format is a mug's game and it's better to turn yourself into a batter instead.
Neat but wrong. Specifically, it is wrong because it's not like he has given up on his bowling. It's just that he's not the bowler that… well he hasn't been that bowler for so long that he may as well never have been that bowler. Since 2014-15 if you're asking, when his action was first reported in league and international cricket. He's been reported six times in all since then, the last at the IPL in 2020.
He has remodelled his action several times; this latest incarnation, where he sneaks up on the batter with ball hidden behind his back, has the unmistakable sense of cherubic mischief that abounds in Narine. But it's a sticky narrative that his action is still questionable, maintained by the occasional questioning of ex-players, or the unsaid word of a contemporary.
A different bowler now, not defanged exactly but demystified. Narine doesn't take as many wickets anymore. In his first four years in T20s, his strike rate never went higher than 18.1 in any single year, or his average beyond 16.88. Since 2015, his strike rate has not fallen below 20 in any year, and his average below 20 only once.
What hasn't changed is the economy rate. Now in his 14th year of T20 cricket, batters very rarely get him away, whatever his action. He's had only one year where his economy was over 7 (and an economy rate of 7.39 in 2023 was still aspirational). Since the start of 2022 and with a minimum 1200 balls bowled, he is the most economical bowler in the world, conceding 6.35 per over.
Wickets are a bonus when you're batting the way Narine is right now, and I'm not sure that words can capture the way Narine is batting right now. Maybe only the acronym WTF. Narine as a top-order basher is not a new phenomenon but the sustained menace of the idea this season is new. He's the IPL's third-highest run-scorer (as of the morning of May 7) with the second-highest strike rate in the top ten. Nobody has hit more sixes this season. Nobody. Not even Heinrich Klaasen.
There's something about the free swing of Narine's bat and the uncluttered approach (he avoids batting team meetings to keep it that way), that gets to the very core of T20 batting. The other day against Lucknow, his control percentage was 49% in a 39-ball 81, which sounds like he chanced his way through, and yet, he's never looked more in control of his destiny - even when hitting over cover with one hand or mistiming a swipe and lobbing it just over short fine leg. Yeah, he didn't hit them all cleanly, but boy, did he mean them all clearly.
So no, not the perfect T20 cricketer. But a pretty good representation of the unceasing demands of T20 and the premium it places on evolving, enhancing, reinventing. If you're standing still in this format, it's over.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo