Asked at the post-match presentation whether Wednesday’s 37-run win against Rajasthan Royals (RR) was a perfect game for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), skipper Dinesh Karthik said: “I wouldn’t call it that. I think there are a lot of areas we can definitely improve.”
Sunil Narine’s batting would be one of them. Opener Narine took seven balls to get off the mark and that happened only because former teammate Robin Uthappa dropped a dolly. Having swung and missed twice to Jofra Archer in the first over and denied space to execute the pull by Ankit Rajpoot twice more in the second, Narine finally got a run in the fifth ball of the third over just as RR skipper Steve Smith was getting ready to celebrate KKR’s first wicket. Narine then had a 4-6-4 routine in the next six balls he faced before Jaydev Unadkat knocked his stumps off. (IPL 2020 Full Coverage)
“The no complicated batting style of Narine makes things easy for us,” Karthik had said referring to KKR’s new opening pair of Shubman Gill and Narine. This was prior to the start of IPL 13. In three games since, Narine has scored 9 (10 balls), 0 (2) and 15 (14). His style of swinging square of the wicket or going down the ground worked like a charm since Melbourne Renegades found an opener in the West Indian named after Sunil Gavaskar in January 2017, but the effect looks to be wearing off.
Used as an opener for the first time by KKR against Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2017, Narine hasn’t had a half-century in the competition since May 2018 when he hit a 36-ball 75. Since then, Narine has crossed 30 only once in IPL when he scored 47 off 25 balls against RR in 2019. Between that 75 and till he hit two successive half-centuries in the 2020 Caribbean Premier League, Narine crossed 30 just four times across all leagues. From seven innings with a strike rate of 200 or more in IPL 2018 (counting only scores of over 20), Narine managed that twice in 2019 where he was not used as opener in the last four games.
As teams pepper Narine with short balls — he averaged 7.46 against rising deliveries going into Wednesday’s match, according to ESPNcricinfo — Cricviz data shows his dot-ball percentage climbed from 39.6% in IPL 2018 to 69.2% this term. Not a fast mover, Narine refused Gill a second run on Saturday against Sunrisers Hyderabad not long after David Warner and Jonny Bairstow imparted a lesson in running between wickets.
“No is the short answer,” said former New Zealand all-rounder Scott Styris on Wednesday’s pre-match show when asked whether KKR should persist with Narine at the top. After Narine fell, commentator Mark Nicholas said on air that a team’s best players should get to face the maximum deliveries. On his YouTube channel, former KKR and Australia spinner Brad Hogg has said: “Narine is opening the batting way too often. You need him as a surprise where he has got a good matchup against an opposition bowler.”
Deep Dasgupta provided a counter to this line of thought. “I don’t see a flipside to this,” the former India wicket-keeper and Bengal captain said over phone from UAE where he is an IPL commentator. “You can’t take him seriously as a batsman. If he doesn’t open, he bats possibly at No.8 so you are not exactly wasting a wicket.”
Dasgupta also said barring Siddesh Lad and Rahul Tripathi, there may not be anyone taking Narine’s place. “Unless you drop Sunil and play Tom Banton which is a different conversation altogether.” Nitish Rana? “We haven’t seen how Nitish Rana will fare as opener either,” said Dasgupta.
One reason why despite diminishing returns, KKR can persist with Narine as opener is that he doesn’t waste deliveries. According to ESPNcricinfo prior to Wednesday, opener Narine’s innings lasted an average of 11 balls, when he was out for less than 10 it is five. “KKR probably assume 10/1 to be 10 for no loss and what if he survives the opening overs,” said Dasgupta.
“I will be worried with Sunil’s batting only if it affects his confidence as a bowler,” said Dasgupta. Narine’s strike rate as a bowler in 2020 CPL was 20 and economy rate 4.55, both second-best for champions Trinbago Knight Riders. For bowlers with 10 overs or more till Friday’s match, Narine’s economy rate of 7.75 is fifth among spinners and 10th overall. The strike rate of 36 though puts him in 21th place.