When the Numbers Don’t Matter

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

Is Sam Curran in your best England Test eleven? Well all right, twelve? Er, thirteen?

Selection is a strange business but few cricketers demonstrate its quirkiness more than the younger Curran brother. When he is picked, the natural tendency is to ask “Why?” When he isn’t, you think “How can they drop him?”

Famously he has played eight Tests in England since making his debut against Pakistan in 2018, and England won them all. It would be an exaggeration to say he played a decisive part in all of them, but he always seems to do his bit and sometimes that bit is crucial.

In that first Test against India at Headingley which started just two days ahead of his 20th birthday, Curran took a wicket in each innings and a 20 which, according to Chris Waters’ Wisden match report, included two of the game’s best shots, in the final over of the second day, a pull and a straight drive, both for four.

He had done enough to keep his place for the first Test against India at Edgbaston. This was a tremendous contest, which saw magnificent performances from Virat Kohli, who made 149 and 51, but it was Curran who got the match award.

He made 24 in England’s first innings of 287 but it was in India’s first innings of 274 that he made his first significant impact. Coming on as first change when the openers had put on 50, his left-arm medium reduced India to 59 for three. This included persuading Joe Root to review a leg before decision. Curran finished with four for 74 in 17 overs.

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His most decisive influence was yet to come. England seem to have squandered their slender innings advantage when they slipped to 86 for six (when Curran came in) and then 87 for seven. The Surrey left-hander launched an apparently nerveless counter attack – nothing to lose in a sense – and made 63 in 65 balls, with nine 4s and two 6s. He started quite carefully, adding 67 with Adil Rashid, and there was then a break for rain, which even the most seasoned campaigner can find disruptive. But on resumption, Curran launched into the Indian bowlers, hitting Ravindra Ashwin out of the attack and reaching his 50 with a six over extra cover off Ishant Sharma. He added 41 with Stuart Broad and England’s eventual total of 180 meant that India were set a challenging target; England won by 31 runs.

He was barely needed in the Chris Woakes / James Anderson show at Lord’s, which England won by an innings and plenty, but his innings of 40 did include a six off Mohammed Shami which Richard Whitehead described as “more Federer than Flintoff”.

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One would have thought he had done enough to retain his place for the third Test at Trent Bridge, but there was a complication here in that Ben Stokes, who had missed the Lord’s Test because of his trial for affray, was now available. It was Curran who missed out; England lost.

He replaced the injured Woakes in the fourth Test in Southampton, top-scoring with 78 in England’s first innings and making 46 in the second, and taking a cheap wicket in each Indian innings. He had a quiet match at The Oval but a series record of 272 runs at 38.85 and 11 wickets at 23.54 was pretty impressive.

In the remarkable game against Ireland in 2019, he made more runs than most (18 in the first innings and 37 in the second) and took three for 28 in Ireland’s first innings. He missed out in the Ashes until the fifth game, which, of course, England had to win to square the series, and, of course, they did; Curran took three wickets in Australia’s first innings, and had Steve Smith dropped.

Overseas he has not had quite the same impact, but he has had his moments. Kane Williamson was among his three victims in New Zealand’s massive (only) innings at Mount Maunganui, and in the first Test against South Africa at Centurion in December 2019 – England lost both these games – he secured his best bowling figures to date, four for 58. He kept his place for the rest of the series.

He did not play in the first “behind closed doors” Test against the West Indies at the Ageas Bowl, which England lost but played in the second, getting two quick top order wickets in the visitors’ first innings.

Curran is a genuinely interesting case. A batting average of 26 and a bowling average of 31, in 18 Tests, does not suggest he is a world-beater. But he just might be. His short career has provided a number of situations where he has helped change the course of a match. There is definitely a certain something about him. Maybe it is a feeling that the odds are against him: he is not tall, he is not big, he is not fast. His apparent ability to read a match situation, at such a young age, is remarkable. It seems wrong, somehow, to call him a bits and pieces player even though that is what his numbers suggest. He is not alone in this but the scorecard rarely reveals the extent of his contribution.

Timing is everything, and Curran seems curiously unlucky to be trying to establish himself in the England side now, even though this side is not an especially strong one. His problem is that they are strong in precisely the areas where he is qualified to contribute.

The presence of Ben Stokes in the England side is obviously a massive boon. It is gradually becoming clear that he is one of our greatest ever cricketers. But it is not a huge advantage to others hopeful of being selected as all-rounders. It enables the selectors to focus on specialists, if they are good enough. Even so, after his heroics in 2018 Curran must have been in the front running – but then along came Jofra Archer. Curran’s medium pace swing bowling is at its most effective with the new ball; great, join the queue. Even the 38-year old James Anderson shows no sign of giving up. Curran’s methodical and occasionally explosive batting will surely be good enough to be a Test number seven, but that place is reserved for the non-performing wicketkeeper-batsman, Jos Buttler, or maybe, one day Moeen Ali (remember him?).

Of course Curran is still very young. Who knows what heights he might achieve. If he never bats above number seven, and is always second or third change, he might not make many hundreds, or take many five-fors, but he could still have a successful and satisfying Test career.

Mike Brearley had a wonderful Test career but was hardly a star with the bat, averaging 22.88 in 39 matches. Brearley was a special case though; more often than not the captain is the best player.

Very occasionally a Test player builds a successful career around being a brilliant fielder. I have mentioned England’s Phil Sharpe before in this blog; he was a wonderful slip fielder and that sometimes played a part in his selection. But he didn’t play enough Tests to be a proper example (and he actually averaged 40). The classic example is South Africa’s Jonty Rhodes, who averaged 35 in 52 games, lower than you would really want from a middle order batsman, lower than Hanse Cronje, much lower than Darryl Cullinan, lower than the all-rounder Brian Macmillan. Rhodes made three Test hundreds. But in the field he was a marvel, his impact on opposition batting sides incalculable.

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To be an allrounder is exceptionally demanding. Curran is not going to be a Stokes, or an Ian Botham, or a Gary Sobers or even a Macmillan. But if you are not in that league it can be difficult to build a long career and be consistently selected. Derek Pringle was a talented cricketer but his 30 Tests covered a decade (batting average 15, bowling average 33). If Curran’s memoirs are half as entertaining we will be very lucky. Fielding can be a factor here too. West Indies’ Roger Harper and India’s Eknath Solkar built substantial careers on a foundation of brilliant close to the wicket fielding.

The best example of a player who had a solid Test career despite having unremarkable figures is the gnarled and gum-chewing Queenslander Ken “Slasher” Mackay. A batting average of 33 and a bowling average of 34, in 37 Tests between 1956 and 1962-63, with no centuries and one five-for, do not suggest anything particularly special, but Mackay was a peculiarly Australian hero, capable of holding a place in a side containing two brilliant bowling all-rounders in Alan Davidson and Richie Benaud.

He was a determinedly old-fashioned cricketer, even for his time, grimly defensive in everything he did. His left-handed batting was so ugly it was almost beautiful. “Mackay doesn’t hit the ball, he squirts it”, said England captain Peter May. His most famous innings came at the end of a tremendous match against the West Indies at Adelaide in 1960-61 when he and last man Lindsay Kline held out for over an hour and a half. Mackay faced the last over from the fearsome paceman Wes Hall. Seeing that the last ball was short, Mackay dropped his hands and just let it hit him; the match was drawn.

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He became a handy right-arm medium paced bowler, taking six for 42 against Pakistan at Dacca in 1959-60. He played a key supporting role to Benaud in the famous victory in the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford in 1961, despite having suffered a serious calf strain; “a great-hearted cricketer”, said Benaud.” One of the most beguiling cricketers ever to wear an Australian cap”, was Jack Pollard’s verdict. And according to John Arlott, he was “the only athlete I have ever seen who, as he walked, sagged at the ankles, knees and hips”. Arlott admitted though that he was a fine fielder “because he observes and feels every ball bowled in any cricket match he plays.”

England’s Trevor Bailey had batting and bowling averages both of 29 but his career was different in that he spent a significant part of it opening the bowling with Alec Bedser; Curran is never going to have that sort of opportunity.

If you’re a middle-order batsman and you don’t bowl, or captain, or keep wicket, and you’re not Jonty Rhodes, you probably can’t get away with an average lower than the high thirties, if that. But the Guyanese right-hander Joe Solomon was a regular in Frank Worrell’s great West Indian side of the early 1960s, playing 27 Tests and finishing with an average of 34, with one century and nine 50s. On the 1963 tour of England five West Indian batsmen made a thousand runs and the Barbadian Seymour Nurse, who finished with a Test average of 43, made 916. Solomon made 774 at a much lower average but Solomon played in all five Tests and Nurse played in none. There was obviously something about Solomon; Worrell wanted him in his side in the same way Benaud wanted Mackay.

Cricket, like life, is about events and of course the principal events are runs and wickets. We can all close our eyes and think of a stroke played by Barry Richards, or Brian Lara or David Gower. But in a Test runs can number hundreds, thousands even. The biggest events are the wickets – the maximum number is forty.

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Joe Solomon was the key player in one of the most memorable and significant events in cricket history. Australia and West Indies were playing the first Test of the 1960-61 series at The ‘Gabba. Australia needed 233 to win. When the final (eight ball) over of the final day began their score was 227 for seven, with captain Benaud and keeper Wally Grout at the crease. As was to happen at Adelaide, Hall bowled that final over.

By the time the seventh ball was delivered Kline was batting with Ian Meckiff. Hall bowled it on middle and leg, and Kline hit the ball firmly to square leg. Benaud takes up the story;

“The crowd screamed as the two batsmen set off on the winning run. They crossed as Joe Solomon was about to gather it in both hands… he picked up as Meckiff got to within about six yards of the safety of the crease. Solomon the quiet one … good and dependable… the sort of man for a crisis. Was there ever a more crisis-like moment in a game of cricket than this?

“There surely could never have been a better throw. The ball hit the stumps from the side on with Meckiff scrambling desperately for the crease.” It was the first tie in Test history. 

That must have been why Worrell wanted Solomon in his side. Of course Curran is operating in a different world but maybe what he needs more than anything is a captain who realises he should not be dropped.

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