Sunil Narine has scored runs at a strike rate close to 190 this season    AFP
Sunil Narine has scored runs at a strike rate close to 190 this season AFP

14, 11, 15, 8, 7, 0, 8 and 9. On Sunday night, in the high-profile Indian Premier League (IPL) match between Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), these were the scores of Gautam Gambhir, Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey, Yusuf Pathan, Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Kedar Jadhav respectively. Amid these batting luminaries, a man who bagged all the batting awards was a certain Sunil Narine a man regarded as one of the finest bowlers in limited-overs.

Unusual but not surprising…

Rewind from the IPL glitz to 2011, Narine was still an unknown quantity. At the Holkar Stadium in Indore, a 23-year-old Narine was belted all over by a gentleman named Virender Sehwag who had pummelled a record 219 in the fourth ODI of the series. Responding to India’s daunting 418, West Indies languished at 201 for 9 when Narine walked out to bat. Left-handers have this reputation of making batting look glamorous, but the expectation is not the same from a No. 11 be it left- or right-handed.

A couple of attractive hits and Narine remained not out on 27 to ensure West Indies were bowled out for a respectable 265. The defeat did not look as humiliating as it could have. I had noted Narine’s ability with the willow, but did he?

He does not have a fifty in domestic cricket. It is quite surprising, especially when Ashish Nehra’s highest First-Class score is 57.

April 13, 2017. Five-and-half years since that day in Indore, Narine walked out to bat as an opener alongside Gautam Gambhir for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). Narine, as the replacement for Chris Lynn, seemed a shocker especially when there is Robin Uthappa in the XI. Baffled fans and pundits enjoyed the Narine spectacle when he trounced the Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) attack by belting an 18-ball 37. The hits were not slogs; they were appealing to the eyes and KKR ended up scripting an easy win. FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) vs Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), IPL 10, Match 27

Narine had never batted above No. 8 in the 65 ODIs and 6 Tests that he played. For those who know franchise cricket beyond the IPL walls, they know that Narine had opened thrice for Melbourne Renegades in the last season of Big Bash League (BBL).

“We pay a fair bit of attention to all competitions and not only the BBL,” KKR’s assistant coach Simon Katich had told reporters. Opening with Narine maybe a borrowed idea from the Renegades, but KKR’s willingness to experiment and have a well-researched methodology helps them stand out.

Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) are the other sides who research well and never put a step back in order to experiment.

The ploy of Narine opening the batting came under criticism when he flopped two days later against SRH, forcing KKR to try another combination in the next game against Delhi Daredevils (DD). However, that did not work either. KKR brought him back at the top against Gujarat Lions (GL) and the result was 42 off 17, followed by 34 off 17 against RCB.

The first 60 of those 76 runs scored in the two games came in boundaries.

Why the decision?

It is a good tactic in cricket to catch the opponent off guard with a strange move. This was strange but calculated as well.

Katich elaborated on the move further. We learnt a little bit looking at our results and analysing all the stats. Robin [Uthappa] and have done a fantastic job over a number of years. But the big difference this year is that we didn t have Andre Russell batting at No. 5 or 6. Losing him meant that we had to find out how we could pick up that sort of a strike rate.

No disrespect to the other guys, but it is very hard to match Andre s power at the backend of the innings. And we had to get that power somewhere else. So we chose (Chris) Lynn to do it and do it at the top of the order, Katich told Hindustan Times in an interview.

With Gambhir and Uthappa at top, KKR strived for a steady start and relied on Russell’s pyrotechnic at the end. In Pandey, a mellowed down Yusuf and Suryakumar Yadav, the KKR outfit lack the muscle factor that can fetch you 70-odd run in the last five overs. KKR, for that matter, is happy with 50 coming off it. And in order to make up for the deficit, the idea is to have a pinch hitter who can explode at the top.

The middle-order looks stronger with Uthappa at No. 3. Though his wicketkeeping has not inspired enough, the 31-year-old has already smacked two important fifties in the tournament.

Windball cricket

AR Shrikanth, KKR s performance analyst for past 10 seasons, has also worked with Trinbago Knight Riders in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL). The same KKR management owns the Trinidad & Tobago-based side. The fact that Narine plays for both the franchise helps.

Shrikanth credits Windball cricket , a mini-premier league in West Indies with softball at night for Narine s batting. Dwayne Bravo had once said “windball cricket is better organised” than WICB.

“Once I was in Sunil’s house during the last CPL. There was a huge trophy cabinet in his house. Apart from IPL trophies, most of those were batting awards. He told me that it was for his batting in all local tournaments. He has played a lot of windball cricket. It’s a big tournament there,” Shrikanth told Times of India on Monday.

Shrikanth also witnessed Narine open for Melbourne Renegades. KKR have done enough research to come to the strategy. They back Narine and believe the natural bat swing and his ability to time the ball will take him far as an all-rounder.

The ‘all-rounder’

Narine’s nickname is ‘all-rounder’, and it seems he has fallen in love with this new name. Katich said that the usually calm Narine is now vocal in the training and is more than ready to don the extra responsibility. Much credit must be given to KKR for having faith on their star player.

Despite his action being reported in 2014 and 2015, the KKR management firmly stood behind the Narine and ensured they would not alienate him during the tough times. Narine, without a shadow of doubt, continues to repay the faith.

We never thought we would be evaluating Narine’s batting numbers, but here they are:

IPL Seasons Runs HS Ave SR
2012-16 47 13 6.71 87.04
2017 121 42 24.20 189.06

Narine, the bowler

A certain joke does round that in dire situations: KKR just have to chant ‘Narine, Narine’. The Trinidadian has been one of the IPL’s finest bowlers and has been instrumental in KKR’s rise as a force. He played a massive role in their title triumphs in 2012 and 2014. And had his action not been reported, KKR could have won the Champions League T20 in 2014 as well.

Narine is one of IPL's most successful bowlers    Getty Images
Narine is one of IPL’s most successful bowlers AFP

There is a strange logic among cricket fans that surfaced after Irfan Pathan’s bowling skills began to wane and batting took precedence.

Some murmurs go: have KKR compromised on Narine the bowler in order to bring out the batsman in him?

Narine is the fourth-ranked bowler in ODIs and eighth in T20Is. The following table will illustrate Narine’s impact in IPL:

IPL Seasons Wickets BB Ave Econ R
2012-16 85 5-19 19.04 6.18
2017 4 1-18 38.50 6.41

He is not as effective with his remodelled action where he is not bowling the off-cutters his only problem delivery where his arm flexed beyond the permissible 15 degrees. However, his 2017 numbers has nothing to do with Narine focusing on batting. The surface at Eden Gardens is no more a paradise for spinners. The fact was best highlighted in the KKR-RCB game where the home side employed no spinners.

Nathan Coulter-Nile, Umesh Yadav, Chris Woakes and Colin de Grandhomme claimed 3, 1, 3 and 3 wickets respectively to wrap up RCB for 49 in the 10th over.

In another edition of the slam-bang format, Narine has managed to keep things tight and apply pressure. Batters continue to play him with caution. Where 180s and 190s are norm, he has gone under six-and-half.

In KKR’s first home game this season, against KXIP, Narine quickly adapted to the relaid surface. He bowled a total of 14 dot balls, did not concede a boundary, gave away 19 from his four overs and bagged the wicket of Marcus Stoinis. Piyush Chawla, the other spinner in the side, was plundered 36 runs from his 3 overs. KXIP managed 170, thanks to Narine. Otherwise, it could have been 190.

Laxmipathy Balaji, KKR’s bowling coach, in an interview with Times of India, hailed the spinner.

“Whenever we are under pressure, he brings us back into the game. He might not have taken wickets but has been economical that has given other bowlers the chance to attack. He has been bowling with a bit more pace and that made a lot of difference. I believe his best is yet to come this season,” said Balaji.

There is a notion that KKR management only started making the right decisions post 2011 after Gambhir took charge as captain. Funnily, KKR had bought Brendon McCullum, Chris Gayle, Brad Hodge, David Hussey, Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul and the then unknown quantities Angelo Mathews and Ajantha Mendis way back in 2008. They always invested brains and moolah in right resources. It was just that the big names failed to click.

More than star players, they have relied on utility and horses for courses.

With five wins from seven games, KKR is at the second spot in the IPL 2017 points table. And going by Balaji’s words, if Narine’s best is yet to come, the road ahead looks bright as the gold in their kit for KKR.