A few days before the start of the second Test against New Zealand Sam Curran was asked by one of his old coaches if he could record a short video welcome message for Surrey’s latest under-13s starting their winter training at the Oval.
There was a problem, though. England were 1-0 down heading to Hamilton. Team selection was in a state of flux. Curran himself was caught in the usual hotfoot circuit from training to team meeting to fevered personal prep.
This wasn’t the problem, though. Curran wanted to get his short smartphone message for the U13s exactly right; to work – in typical Curran fashion – the margins of his short U13s video message. Rehearsal was required, firmer instructions. At the end of which Curran’s message to the U13s was, it should be said, an extremely good short video message.
“I hope I might end up playing with some of you one day,” he said at the end, a moment of slight double-take for the pre-teens present, unaware perhaps that Curran himself was still playing under-17 trophy matches just four years ago, usually batting in the middle-order alongside a fellow called Ollie Pope.
It is a measure of how connected Curran remains to his roots at a club that really did become a surrogate family; and, indeed, how strikingly young he still is, a youthfulness that can disguise the fact his career to date is a triumph of will over physical reality.
Here we have a 5ft 9in skiddy medium-fast bowler, slight of stature and slight of red-ball experience, who has at no stage looked as though he doesn’t understand Test cricket perfectly, rolling in with demonic intent, the wiliest 21-year-old veteran in town.
Fast forward to this week and England’s Test winter has taken a slight upturn. As have Curran’s own acquisitive England returns. Port Elizabeth will be his sixth consecutive England Test. In the previous five Curran has taken 20 wickets at 25, and often changed the tempo or the tone of an innings in the process.
Not that you’d notice particularly, given the headline selection-clamour this week, the more thrilling, adrenal question of which 90mph new ball bowler is about to return and take the new ball in the wake of Jimmy Anderson’s injury.
Usefully poised, working the percentages: it is a fitting place for this most disruptive, genre-hopping of junior cricketers, a Test player who still seems to be in a process of realignment, of self-definition.
Sam Curran cuts for four during the fifth Ashes Test at the Oval in 2019. Photograph: Mitchell Gunn/REX/Shutterstock
Understanding Sam Curran. It is a process that appears to have some way left to run, at least for those who seek only the classic tropes, the five-fors and tons of the canonical Test all-rounder.
The problem is, perhaps, a tendency to start by stating what Curran is not, a list of absences that seems to rule out pretty much every role in the “nuclear” Test template. Curran is not a genuine all-rounder. He’s not a frontline batsman. He’s not a frontline bowler. He’s not a wicketkeeper. He’s not, come to think of it, a particularly good fielder.
Here we have a cricketer of not-quites, a collage carved from off-cuts. And yet Curran has an undeniable solidity, and a sense of tangible influence exerted. In a time of retrenchment England have won 10 and lost four of the 15 Tests the not-quite all-rounder has played, as opposed to three wins and three losses in seven without him. Still though. It’s not just that, is it?
England have learned a bit more about Curran of late. He needs the new ball to see the best of his bowling. He can bowl intense, nibbly spells when it gets older. He gets top-order batsmen out. At the same time his batting has fallen away. As Duncan Fletcher noted in a recent interview, he seems impatient, always counterattacking.
But it’s not that either. It may be comforting to flag up progress towards a more traditional metric, the idea new-ball five-fors might be just around the corner for a player who wasn’t much of a bowler coming up, who Surrey have always seen as more of a batsman.
In reality Curran is something else, something new. He is perhaps best seen as an episodic player. Test cricket has changed in recent times, becoming not just shorter but more varied in its rhythms: a game of surges and counter surges, of intense, decisive passages.
This is what Curran has been good at. Not bowling or batting all day, taking the entire contest one way with some slow burn Herculean act, but winning those moments. He still has no five-for, no hundred, the traditional pounds and shillings of Test match achievement. But he has a bowling average under 30 and batting average close to it, and has still had a say in the winning of matches.
Look around and Test match all-rounders of the old school are all but extinct in any case. According to the ICC rankings the best Test all-rounders now are Jason Holder, Ravi Jadeja, Ben Stokes, Vernon Philander, Ravichandran Ashwin and Mitchell Starc. Curran is down at 13, just ahead of Kemar Roach. Of these players only Stokes qualifies as a “classic” Beefy-Imran-Kapil kind of all-rounder, and even Stokes is a player of moments, an episode player whose worth falls outside his headline stats.
But then, to be an all-rounder now is to play across formats as much as different skill sets. A cricketer like Curran must find enough surplus brilliance, not to mention enough practice time to master six different ways of batting and bowling.
The only sensible response is to become effective, polyvalent, adaptable. Curran will get back to doing this in Port Elizabeth, and with an eye on adding some runs for the first time this winter. If England are to build on the triumphs of Cape Town he will, you suspect, be standing close to the centre of things; involved as ever in winning those moments.
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