The spinner's selection as a surprise opener and partner has helped Kolkata Knight Riders' captain Gautam Gambhir build a strong case for a return to the Indian team
On 7 April, in only the third match of the 2017 Indian Premier League, Chris Lynn smacked an unbeaten 93 against Gujarat Lions to take Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) to a 10-wicket win. They were chasing 184 runs, and reached the target with 5.1 overs to spare.
With eight sixes, six fours, and a strike rate of 226.82, it was typical “Lynnsanity", the moniker given to Lynn’s style in the Big Bash League (BBL) in Australia. Skipper Gautam Gambhir’s unbeaten 76 off 48 balls (12 fours, a strike rate of 158.33) at the other end almost went unnoticed.
Two days later, Lynn was injured while fielding against Mumbai Indians, and KKR were faced with the decision to replace him.
Up to four overseas players can be included in the playing eleven. Kolkata decided not to disturb that equilibrium, promoting spinner Sunil Narine to the opener’s slot against Kings XI Punjab, leaving their batting order intact.
Narine had opened for Melbourne Renegades in the 2016-17 BBL in three matches, scoring 37 runs in all. In just his first game in the IPL, he smacked an 18-ball 37 as Kolkata chased down 171 with ease.
“A lot of people underestimate Sunil’s batting prowess. Having him in the side is always a luxury, with his quality of bowling and someone who can hit the ball big," Gambhir was quoted as saying on Iplt20.com after that eight-wicket win.
Kolkata have been on a roll, winning seven of their 10 games, and are at present in the second spot, with 14 points.
Narine has scores of 34 (17 balls) and 42 (17 balls) against Royal Challengers Bangalore and Gujarat Lions. He has opened in seven matches, scoring only 140 runs, but with a strike rate of 179.48. It is a move that has confounded critics.
More pertinently, it reintroduces the pinch-hitter role to T20 cricket, one that had become rare owing to the peculiar demands of this format.
For the IPL has rarely seen pinch-hitters opening the innings. Batting strategy has been limited largely to an enforcer-plus-accumulator combination, with big-hitters mainly restricted to the middle and lower order for a mighty flourish at the end. At times, mainly while chasing, teams tend to elevate certain batsmen for a quicker run rate.
But this tactic hasn’t been used consistently at the top of the batting order, though almost every team has used an experienced batsman for the role of aggressor/accumulator over the years.
Virender Sehwag (with a strike rate of 184.55 for Delhi Daredevils in 2008) boasts of the highest strike rate for an opener in the IPL (someone who has faced a minimum 150 balls in any season). More recently, Chris Gayle (with a strike rate of 183.13 for Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2011) has been the pick of the lot.
This is not to say that teams have shied away from experimenting with openers. At best though, they have gone with lesser-known names—Paul Valthaty (a strike rate of 137.65 in 2011) and Manan Vohra (a strike rate of 139.06 in 2014) for Kings XI, Karun Nair (a strike rate of 140.21 in 2014) for Rajasthan Royals and Rahul Tripathi (a strike rate of 152.59 in 2017) for Rising Pune Supergiant.
At other times, experienced hands have been entrusted with this role—Faf du Plessis (a strike rate of 133.68 in 2012) for Chennai Super Kings, Shane Watson (a strike rate of 132.08 in 2013) for Rajasthan Royals, and Parthiv Patel, who has been opening for Mumbai Indians since 2008.
Kolkata opted for this pinch-hitting strategy simply because they didn’t want to change things too much. Moving Narine to the top helped them retain the rest of their batting order—without elevating players such as Robin Uthappa or Manish Pandey. Both batsmen do have prior experience of opening in the IPL, but KKR have done their best to stick to what’s working for them.
This tactic also puts the spotlight on Gambhir’s role as the other opener. If he was a silent partner when Lynn was going berserk, then he has grown into an impactful player. Gambhir is in contention for the Orange Cap (most runs in a season), and out of 387 runs in 10 matches, he has scored 278 runs in seven innings at a strike rate of 130.51, while opening with Narine. He also has the most number of scores over 50 (35 times) in the IPL’s 10-year history.
The experienced opener is now in contention for an international call-up once again—former coach and commentator Ravi Shastri wrote as much in his newspaper column.
“With Narine on the other side, I knew there was someone who is going to go hard at the bowlers and score runs at will, that too, at each and every delivery. My job (then) is to keep batting as long as I can at one end with him going berserk at the other end," Gambhir told Iplt20.com.
While the decision on India’s participation in the 2017 Champions Trophy in June is still up in the air, a debate has been raging over Rohit Sharma’s possible opening partners for the ICC tournament from 1-18 June (if they get a go-ahead from the Board of Control for Cricket in India).
K.L. Rahul has been ruled out owing to a shoulder injury, so Ajinkya Rahane (215 runs in 10 matches, at a strike rate of 120.78, for Rising Pune Supergiant—excluding Wednesday’s match) and Shikhar Dhawan (369 runs in 10 matches with a strike rate of 125.51 for Sunrisers Hyderabad) are in contention.
Both Rahane and Dhawan suit this role of accumulator in limited overs. The former, by his own admission, likes to open the innings but has never enjoyed a dominant run of form. The latter is currently busy playing second-fiddle to David Warner (489 runs in 10 matches with a strike rate of 150.46) at Hyderabad.
Additionally, the duo has been given ample chances in the international arena, but their opening exploits haven’t been too impressive. At best, they are seen as second-fiddle options in Rahul’s absence.
Given that the selectors might not be too inclined to include a rookie batsman for an ICC tournament, Gambhir could yet make a surprise return, somewhat like his call-up in the Test series against New Zealand last September.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains