Gautam Gambhir stood at the non-striker’s end under the Kolkata Knight Riders’ gold helmet. His team, the one he captained, was in pursuit of a formidable target on a sluggish Eden Gardens strip. He had lost his opening partner, who had miscued a slog to deep mid-wicket. Yet, Gambhir tapped his bat to applaud the outgoing Sunil Narine.
Because Narine had perished, but not before he had dispatched a bunch of slogs toward a packed Eden baying for Kings XI Punjab’s blood. The Kolkata crowd had swayed to every swing of Narine’s bat. But the most pointed roar was reserved for when the West Indian trudged back to the dugout.
Narine had scored 37 at a strike-rate of 205.55. He had missed and mistimed, but he had connected enough to ensure Kolkata were off to one of IPL’s top-ten fastest starts. He had left the visitors gobsmacked. He had mocked the 170 Punjab had posted. All this from a man who is yet to score a half-century in any form of the game.
“Some of the batters should be proud of the way Narine played. I need to take tips as to how to hit sixes. It takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders. I can keep rotating the strike and play as long as possible, knowing that someone would go hard each and every delivery at the other end,” an elated Gambhir had exclaimed after his team had triumphed. “I need to start trusting Narine with the bat now.”
It was not expected. The madness of the knock was not expected. To watch Narine walk out to open the innings with his skipper was not expected. Chris Lynn’s fire at the top had got the Knight Riders’ IPL off to a blazing start. But once injury had sidelined him, Robin Uthappa was expected to take the spot at which he had batted for the team on numerous occasions. Instead, it was Narine who had walked out with Gambhir to kick start a chase they did not wish to botch after their defeat in the previous game.
The move dismantled every block of planning that the visitors would have put in to deflate Kolkata’s start. It stunned Punjab to such an extent that they could scalp only two Kolkata wickets, as the hosts blew the target away with the luxury of three and a half more overs.
It was a ploy the Melbourne Renegades had used thrice in the last Big Bash League season, but it was Kolkata’s move that was about to set a precedent. He had already scored as many runs in this one outing as he had for his Australian side in eight games.
Narine would go on to open in the next three of his side’s four games. He would continue to slog. He would even let in an awe-inspiring textbook shot amidst the crazy shots. The array of his mishits and hits would continue to surprise opponents. He would make pinch-hitters fashionable again.
Against the Gujarat Lions, Narine played under the garb of the various destructive batsmen from the Caribbean – boundaries were all they swore by. All his 42 runs were amassed in boundaries. A Suresh Raina masterclass handed Kolkata a defeat but Narine had stood and delivered. Another team was lost for answers in the field when the Narine puzzle had been thrown at them.
But the most important surprise that Narine could throw at a team was against the Royal Challengers Bangalore on Sunday night. Rain before the game had meant the ball moved around, apart from the turn that the Eden wicket had offered. In what were arguably the toughest batting conditions in this year’s IPL, in a match where none of his teammates crossed 18 and the entire opposition batting unit could not touch 50, hammered 34 off just 17. It appeared to be a different wicket for the left-hander, who announced his intent with an 18-run assault on the leg-spin of Samuel Badree to get the innings underway.
The Narine blast on Sunday enabled Kolkata to attain the joint-fastest team fifty of this year’s IPL. It was a knock that carried the hosts to 131 on a difficult pitch, a score the visitors could not even meander around.
But it is not about these strikes Narine has fired on opponents alone. It is about how they have numbed the opponents and electrified the entire of Kolkata.
These Narine blinders at the top have reinforced the pinch-hitting formula. Others may not have had such an impact but it is an idea the teams have toyed with this IPL. Axar Patel has come in ahead of the likes of Glenn Maxwell and Wriddhiman Saha, while Hardik Pandya has walked in before Rohit Sharma and Kieron Pollard too. Basically, it is almost an ode to the ODI generation when pinch-hitters were in vogue; albeit with greater chances of success.
To watch a batsman not expected at a particular position walk out to bat can disturb the opposition’s preparations. And, at most times, these pinch-hitters are promoted with the license to explode from the outset. If they come off, chances are they would have bossed T20 game, thanks to its short span.
Narine’s made a habit of bossing bowling attacks this season. While the opponents have reasons to fret, these blitzkriegs have made an entertaining format even more exciting for the cricket fans. As for Kolkata, they will hope captain Gambhir is left to applaud and admire every time Narine is done with his show.