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Sunil Narine & other pinch-hitters

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Sunil_Narine_West_Indies_Cricket_IPLIt has been rather fascinating to watch Sunil Narine bat for the Kolkata Knight Riders this IPL. The wily off-spinner has been the backbone of Kolkata’s bowling for a few years now, but ever since Gautam Gambhir promoted him to the role of a pinch-hitting opener this season, Narine has flourished. His latest success came in the form a rampaging, 17-ball 54 against Royal Challengers Bangalore, where he registered the joint fastest fifty of the IPL off just 15 balls. 

And, no, that knock was not a fluke. Narine has played some blinders for Kolkata at the top that have left the opposition bowlers rattled. He has already smashed 196 runs and has been striking it at an incredible strike rate of 185.

While many eyebrows were raised when Narine walked out to open for the first time in his IPL career against Kings XI Punjab at Kolkata earlier this season, the left-hander quickly put all doubts to rest with a quick fire 37 off 18 balls with three sixes and four fours. A couple of failures were followed by a 42 off 17 balls against the Gujarat Lions and a 17-ball 34 against Bangalore. Narine has now topped it all with that majestic match-winning half-century, which has more or less confirmed his spot as the opener for Kolkata for the remainder of the season.

More than the amount of runs he has scored, it is the quality of them that has been a delight to watch. Narine, who had opened the batting three times for the Melbourne Renegades in the last Big Bash League, has been creaming the ball to all corners of the park. He has proved to be a terrific pinch-hitter. 

What is interesting is that sending in Narine as a pinch-hitting opener is a move devoid of any risks. Batting is not his chief responsibility and whenever he blasts those runs at a frenetic pace it is only a bonus for the team. That, in fact, is precisely what the role of a pinch-hitter generally is. Over the years, though, the role had not been used much as pinch-hitting batsmen had almost become a redundant breed.

Narine’s exploits with the bat in the current IPL, however, have brought this fascinating position to the fore again.  

The advent of the pinch-hitter

The word pinch-hitter has been borrowed from the sport of baseball. For those who may not know, the word denotes a batsman promoted up the order to swiften the rate of scoring. 

In international cricket, the most notable use of a pinch-hitter dates back to the 1992 World Cup where New Zealand middle-order batsman Mark Greatbatch was asked to open by captain Martin Crowe. It was a move taken to surprise the opponents and it worked wonderfully well. 

Normally a batsman in the classical mold who had never opened prior to that World Cup, Greatbatch thrived in his new role. In his first match as a pinch-hitting opener, Greatbatch hit a spectacular, match-winning 68 off 60 balls against South Africa and put on 103 with fellow opener Rod Latham in the first 15 overs. In the games to follow, Greatbatch kept taking advantage of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs and produced a few more similar knocks, paving the way for a memorable World Cup for New Zealand where they comfortably reached the semi-finals. Greatbatch finished the tournament with 313 runs and a superb strike rate of 87.92 - quite unheard of in those days. 

This move by Martin Crowe went on to revolutionize the ODI game, as it set the path for attacking in the initial 15 overs. Today, this might seem an archaic idea, but back then it was a game-changer. 

And so was the idea of a pinch-hitter. 

Greatbatch had become the talk of the town and his transformation as a successful pinch-hitting opener did not go unnoticed by the other teams. Over the next few years, several teams tried to use the pinch-hitter on odd occasions to mixed results. It was only Sri Lanka, though, who managed to pull it off to sensational effect. 

The 1996 Wills World Cup will be remembered not just for how an underdog team like Sri Lanka went on to clinch the trophy, but for how captain Arjuna Ranatunga utilized two batsmen as pinch-hitting openers to dominate the tournament. Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuriya’s exploits, where they blazed away in the first 15 overs and tore apart almost all the teams they came up against, were instrumental in Sri Lanka’s unbeaten glory run in the tournament. With boisterous strike rates of 140.38 and 131.54 respectively in the championship, both Kaluwitharana and Jayasuriya became household names and their ultra-aggressive batting inspired generations of young combative cricketers in the making. 

Is there a future for pinch-hitters?

Interestingly, the era of pinch-hitting has slowly withered away after the turn of the century. Except for a Lance Klusener here or a Shahid Afridi there, teams began investing in hard-hitting genuine openers like Virender Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist rather than a hit-and-miss pinch-hitter. The last memory of pinch-hitters in international matches can perhaps be associated with the likes of Irfan Pathan, Abdul Razaaq, and Shaun Pollock on a few instances, with mixed results. But that role is almost nonexistent in today’s era.

Make no mistake, though; if there was no Greatbatch there would have been no Jayasuriya; if there was no Jayasuriya there would have been no Sehwag. The maverick pinch-hitter revolutionized the limited overs game forever and his effect can still be felt in the way batsmen tend to go for broke in the initial overs of a match.

With Sunil Narine’s pyrotechnics as a pinch-hitter in the current IPL season, this position has come back to the forefront after a long time. Although it is unlikely that pinch-hitting batsmen will become the norm again, captains might just be tempted to use them occasionally as a surprise element. 

That could certainly bring in some much-needed spark in today’s rather monotonous limited overs matches. And if that does come about with success, we should remember to thank that chap Sunil Narine for it.  

 

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