Last year my kids went to do some holiday cricket training at Surrey’s practice ground at New Malden. When they came back I asked my wife if she’d found the right place, and she said, oh yeah, I got a bit lost but there was a very nice boy who was having his foot massaged and I asked him where to go and he got up and showed us the right place, we had a bit of a chat he was lovely, very nice, very polite.
While she was saying this I could see over her shoulder my two young sons gripped with mute horror, wincing with the kind of shock, mortification and social anxiety only a well-meaning parent can inflict. Mum, the older one said finally. That wasn’t a very nice polite boy. That was SAM CURRAN.
Fast-forward a year and Sam Curran is still by all accounts a very nice young man. Back then he was already on his way to becoming a domestic star too, projected by the T20 Blast across the subscription screens of the pre-converted.
From the start he has always been popular with kids in a way players such as Joe Root (only ever an old person’s idea of a hip young thing) and the more frightening Ben Stokes never really were. Perhaps because at a Disneyfied 5ft 9in, and with that agreeable scowl of derring-do as he glides in to bowl his left-arm floaters, he still looks like one himself.
As of this week Curran is something else too. At Tuesday’s Indian Premier League auction he was sold to Kings XI Punjab for £800,000, a sensational piece of business that makes him, as of this week, the wealthiest, most empowered 20-year-old England cricketer ever. It is a fascinating move in many ways, first because it shows the best of the IPL, the league’s transformative power, the way it works as an instant star factory.
Curran doesn’t play white-ball cricket for England. He has just a single home Test series against cricket’s dominant superpower to recommend him. On the back of which he has been whisked up through the troposphere, powered by nothing more than his own talent – and he’s out there now, floating in his tin can, high above the world, English cricket’s own 21st-century boy.
Those who object to the IPL’s brashness miss the basic romance of all this. It is more obvious in India, where cricket spreads into the streets of the cities and villages, then catapults its stars up and on to the screens in every barber shop and roadside bar, a process that brings to mind the golden age of baseball, or the studio system of the old Hollywood days. Put a hundred down and buy a car. In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star.
The auction itself has gone from a piece of celebrity theatre to a hard-nosed, data-fed game of high-stakes talent poker. Dale Steyn couldn’t get a gig this year. But there was a contract for Varun Chakravarthy, a 27-year-old unknown who bowls seven different types of furiously aggressive mystery spin. And also for Prayas Ray Barman, a gangly 16-year-old lad who sends down weird dipping fizzing ripping leg-breaks, and whose entire life to this point appears to have been geared around the margins of Big T20 cricket, glossing and finessing that first moment under the lights.
The Curran signing doesn’t quite fit this moneyball-ish model. For all the obvious talent, he is still all promise, all clear blue sky. Curran has not been an obvious star of domestic T20. He runs to the wicket with furious intent, like a man about to destroy a garden shed with his bare hands, then delivers swerving, skiddy things, bowling aged 20 like a busted, golden-arm late-career Ian Botham. He will at least once get carted all over the Punjab by some vast, sweating power-hitter with forearms like great dangling cured hams.
But he can really bat, not just as a wafty late-order chancer, but as a cold, innovative, clean-striking finisher. And above all Curran is a triumph of pure will, a cricketer who just seems to have the perfect brain for winning. He’s five inches shorter than Stokes, bowls eight miles an hour slower and bats four places lower. But he will end up with better Test numbers than Stokes, will average 40 with the bat and under 30 with the ball.
In the meantime the IPL will make a global star of him in a way English cricket simply can’t, reaching across into our own back garden like next door’s rampant flowering vine.
It is a very welcome pollination, but also a source of frustration.
It is a decade since the 2009 edition of the IPL in South Africa, the year that really made the IPL, an astonishing display of will and competence to stage a successful Indian cricket tournament on another continent.
A decade on, the ECB continues to parade its own complete inability to grasp this new force. Even the over-workshopped marketing weirdness that is “The Hundred tournament” is still a year and a half away.
What the Curran supremacy shows us is that this sport can still produce stars, that the format and the talent is there; and that with some ruthless clear thinking, the foresight to forgo blanket pay-TV and make cricket visible to the masses, this can all be made to work. Even if, for now, English cricket’s first 20-year-old millionaire will still be better known there than here – global star in Mohali, still just a very nice young man in New Malden.