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How Sam Curran evolved to become England's go-to death bowler

With a bagful of variations and IPL experience to fall back on, the left-arm seamer will be vital to England's chances against Suryakumar and co.

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
As Australia lifted the T20 World Cup in 2021, Sam Curran and Rob Key stood pitch side at the Dubai International Stadium. A lower-back stress fracture suffered at the IPL had ruled Curran out of the tournament as he filled his time working for Sky Sports as a pundit, the channel where Key had established himself as a broadcaster.
Nine months later, the pair sat down in markedly different circumstances to discuss the 2022 edition. Curran's recovery from his injury had been a gradual, frustrating process, and Key, ensconced as England's managing director after his surprise appointment, was due to announce a squad for the first two Tests of a series against South Africa days later.
Curran had bowled 41 overs across five County Championship appearances for Surrey, and the disappointment of missing out on what would have been his first world event was fresh in his mind. As a rare all-format England seamer, he had to grapple with an unsustainable international schedule that made it impossible for him to play every game in every format.
After some discussion, Curran decided with Key that rather than risking his body in a four-day game for the Lions against South Africa, he would focus on short-form cricket by continuing to play in the Hundred, where he was a linchpin for Oval Invincibles. In the long run, that meant prioritising the T20I series in Pakistan over the Test tour in December, and he may not play another red-ball game until next summer.
But the decision seems to have paid off. On Thursday night, Curran will be playing the biggest game of his T20 career - a World Cup semi-final against India at the Adelaide Oval. He goes into it as England's leading wicket-taker in the tournament with 11 wickets, and has been recast in an improbable role as Jos Buttler's go-to death bowler.
If England are defending a score - which has quickly become their preference after years as a chasing team - then Curran will be heavily involved as the game reaches its climax.
His record at the death in this tournament is remarkable: between the 17th and 20th overs, he has bowled 40 balls, conceded only 34 runs - including a single boundary - and taken seven wickets. Once seen by England as a new-ball bowler - he bowled the first or second over in 15 of his first 20 T20Is - Curran has thrived as his role has transformed.
Towards the end of his layoff, Curran worked closely with Azhar Mahmood, Surrey's assistant coach, and made a minor technical adjustment in his action to improve his alignment. "He can get a bit more bounce now, because his arm is slightly taller and not closing in," Mahmood, who played alongside Curran towards the end of his career, told ESPNcricinfo.
Curran's experience belies his age. At 24, he has already played 143 T20 matches: 95 more than Mark Wood, ten more than Chris Woakes, and only a dozen fewer than Ben Stokes. He has been playing in front of big crowds throughout his career: he made his T20 debut as a 17-year-old in front of 20,000 people at The Oval, and in 2019, at only 20, he snapped up for INR 7.20 crore by the Punjab franchise after starring in a Test series against India.
"He's a very competitive character," Tom Moody, his coach in the Hundred, said on ESPNcricinfo's T20 Time Out show. "He loves the challenge, the equation of the death and having to protect totals. The best always practice and refine their skills, and he does practice them: wide yorker, straight yorker, slower balls.
"He's just continued to improve. Across any elite sport, it's critical: you are going to make mistakes, but it's how you respond. What Sam Curran does really well is he might get hit out of the park for six, but the very next ball, he's not affected. His mindset is clear: he has the same focus, the same determination."
Curran remains a medium-fast bowler but has hit 86mph or 139kph in the ongoing T20 World Cup, and his bouncer has become a surprisingly potent weapon: since the start of England's tour to Pakistan in September, it has accounted for nine of his 22 wickets.
"He's so smart about using his variations, so he surprises people with his bumper," Mahmood explained. "He's quicker than you think: he rushes you as a batsman."
Curran has used his line well in Australia, cramping batters and forcing them to hit towards the bigger side of the ground. "He's using the conditions really well," Mahmood said. "Because he can bat, he can understand batsmen better than most bowlers. That always helps any allrounder: it helped me, and it's helping him."
Since Reece Topley's injury, Curran's importance to the England side has increased as the only left-arm seamer in their first-choice XI. The angle has become indispensable: every side in the Super 12s at this tournament fielded at least one left-arm seamer. At last year's T20 World Cup, England played two games without a left-armer in their side, and lost both.
"I've always been in and out of the side, so when you play three or four [matches] in a row, you get that confidence"
Sam Curran feels backed by the national team
As a batter, he has only faced 14 balls in the World Cup but had regularly batted at No. 3 in the T20 Blast and the Hundred this summer. And with such all-round utility, Curran might as well fetch a huge fee in next month's IPL mini-auction. "You've got a package that potentially can bat top six as a lock, and then bowl four overs," Moody said. "It's a rare, rare commodity."
Curran's own analysis is that he has thrived since he started to feel backed. "I haven't changed anything massively," he told the Good Pace for Radio podcast on Monday. "It's more the confidence of having a run in the side which gives you an extra bit of belief that you can perform. I've always been in and out of the side, so when you play three or four [matches] in a row, you get that confidence."
Thursday's semi-final will pose a different test. The short square boundaries in Adelaide will prompt Curran to bowl fuller, and will challenge England's into-the-pitch plan at the end of an innings. Bowling to India's batting line-up is a daunting prospect: they have scored at 11.9 runs an over at the death in this tournament, the quickest of any team.
"It's a big game - a semi-final - but he's bowled against these guys in the IPL where the boundaries are small," Mahmood said. "He'll have his plans: Suryakumar Yadav is a phenomenal talent who can hit 360 degrees and is in the form of his life, but he likes pace on the ball from fast bowlers. Sam needs to be unpredictable against him, and to back himself; the only way you can keep him quiet is by getting his wicket."
Much of England's success at the death in this tournament has owed to their ability to take wickets regularly through the middle overs: only 13 of Curran's 40 balls at the death to date have been bowled to top-six batters, a fact that is worth bearing in mind if he is tasked with limiting the impact of Suryakumar or Virat Kohli when they are set.
Six years ago, England tried to turn Stokes, then in his mid-20s, into a death bowler in the middle of a T20 World Cup, a move which worked right up until the moment it didn't. Unlike Stokes in 2016, Curran has three seasons of IPL experience to fall back on when it comes to the crunch, but death bowling remains the sport's most brutal role: there is a fine line between triumph and disaster.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98