Day Three of the Edgbaston Test was a phenomenal showcase for the longest format, and it all came off the back of a 20-year-old all-rounder, who brought the game to life.
Sam Curran could have let today pass him by.
When he walked to the crease, after Ben Stokes had been removed playing a tame shot to Ishant Sharma, England’s WinViz stood at 9%. At the start of a series where all agree England needed to get their noses in front, they’d crumbled. The top-order had got it badly wrong, and it would take something extraordinary to get Joe Root’s team out of the hole they’d dug for themselves. In such circumstances, nobody would have batted an eyelid if England’s wet-behind-the-ears all-rounder had nicked off early, playing a defensive stroke, and that had been that.
But Sam Curran’s not that kind of cricketer. When he was dismissed for 63, nearly three hours later, England’s WinViz stood at 23%. He hadn’t carried them to the finishing line, but he’d given them a hope.
He’d done so with an innings of outrageous strokemaking, which cricketing folk will convey for years to come. This was, and will be, an iconic performance from Curran, but what may not be conveyed in the whispered I-Was-There half-truths is the extent to which England’s newest star embraced the inherent risk of the situation, and lived on the edge.
Because this wasn’t a flawless counter-attack, but a chance-filled, dicey gamble. Batsmen in this Test match have played an average of 19% attacking shots; Curran played 27%. The average player has missed 8% of their shots; Curran has done so 13% of the time, content to swing and take only with him. Consistently, throughout the biggest game of his life, he has rolled the dice with the bat in hand, and taken the aggressive option.
It went rather well. As Curran marshalled England’s lower-order, and then the tail-end, Virat Kohli couldn’t find a means of tying him down. He scored at over 5rpo against both pace and spin, offering no clear weakness available for the Indian captain to hone in on. If it was up, it was off, scoring at 8rpo against full balls from the seamers, but setting up in a balanced enough manner to still put the short ball away at 6.3rpo. If you didn’t find that perfect in-between length, you were toast.
The shot he played to reach his half-century, an extravagant drive over extra cover for six off Sharma, embodied this confidence, this carefree willingness to risk. On the flipside, so did an over he faced from Umesh Yadav, where he played and missed at five of the six deliveries, but just kept swinging.
What’s more, and what’s so exciting about Curran as a cricketer, is that he carries this attitude with the ball in hand as well. 14% of his deliveries in the match have been edged; that’s twice the standard for Tests and well above the match average of 9%. He passes the bat more often than almost anyone, and yet batsmen still see him as someone to take on – 19% of all deliveries in this Test have been attacked, but that leaps to 24% for Curran’s bowling.
One of the reasons for these thrill-a-minute results is that he bowls a extremely full. Indeed, nobody else in the Test has bowled more of their deliveries in that full-pitched zone than the Surrey left-armer. He’s a young man, but Curran understands the old adage; bouncers for show, full balls for dough.
Equally, despite what some sceptics remarked after his Headingley debut, that length is not simply “floaty”, but is instead used intelligently and skillfully to extract extravagant movement through the air. Only the excellent Ishant Sharma has swung the ball more than Curran in this Test match.
That natural inclination to pitch it up has served him extremely well in this contest. His wickets have almost all come from that area where the batsman is forcibly dragged onto the front foot, insisting that they engage with the delivery and get in the game. It’s aggressive not because the delivery will physically impose the batsman, but because the movement can embarrass them.
But it is a roll of the dice to hit this zone. Those fuller deliveries might have taken wickets here at Edgbaston, but they have gone for runs. The economy of those balls is 5.3rpo, unsustainable over a long period of time. The strike rate of 13 is something of a salve for the captain though.
In recent times, before Trevor Bayliss came into position as coach, England were somewhat renowned for their unwillingness to roll the dice. The knew their numbers, of course, but they were precise. They had their theories. Three maidens leads to a wicket. If a player in your top three scores a ton in an ODI game, you’ll generally win. It’s a mindset of conservative trust in your plans and in pre-determined patterns of play prevailing, and it won England a lot of cricket matches. But it lost a lot of hearts and minds.
Sam Curran, and particularly his display in this match, couldn’t be further from that era. He is a cricketer replete with skills in all areas of the game, and the confidence that keeps any form of doubt far from his mind. Today at Edgbaston he showed he’s a gambler, and he broke the Test right open. He rolled the dice so hard, he shook the spots clean off it.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.