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It is a rare talent who, at the age of 22, can already claim to have won Test matches with both bat and ball and been player of the series against India. It is even rarer when the same player has already impressed in two Indian Premier League seasons.
Sam Curran is an intoxicating cocktail: a left-arm swing bowler who is also a sumptuous timer of the ball and has repeatedly demonstrated his penchant for the fight in high-octane moments. Even in an age of specialisation, he is already established in England’s squad in all three formats.
Yet there is also a sense that, in Test cricket, England are more sure that they want Curran in and around their side than exactly what his role is. The two Test matches in Sri Lanka have embodied as much.
Ostensibly, the requirements of Curran are simple: to be one-fifth of England’s attack, while also buttressing a relatively weak tail. But across Sri Lanka’s three innings, he has only bowled 33.3 overs - 10.4% of England’s overs. So Curran is one member of a five-man attack, but he has barely bowled one-tenth of England’s overs. Other seamers have not been marginalised: Mark Wood has been entrusted with 55 overs in the two Tests.
During Sri Lanka’s first innings, Curran was tasked with mimicking Neil Wagner, by delivering a barrage of short balls with the old ball. But it was a role for which, like an English character in an American film, he was miscast. Curran lacks not just Wagner’s height, but also his pace and the unerring accuracy needed to carry off such a bespoke job.
At the same time, Curran has been elevated to number seven to help balance the side in the absence of Ben Stokes. He has only mustered 13 runs in two innings.
Curran’s struggles against Sri Lanka’s spinners on the third day at Galle - edging Lasith Embuldeniya past slip against the old ball, surviving a borderline lbw call against Dilruwan Perera with the new one, before edging Embuldeniya to slip - suggested a cricketer yet to develop a defensive game worthy of batting at number seven. For all Curran’s elan with the bat, he is dismissed every 40 balls in Test cricket, falling to every 25 since the start of 2019. Chris Woakes, by way of comparison, is only dismissed every 54 balls in his Test career.
His unconvincing 13 also continued a notable trend in Curran’s Test career: of being markedly less effective away from home. With the bat, Curran averages 21.6 away compared to 30.5 at home. He has been neutralised on quicker pitches since being targeted with short balls in the Caribbean two years ago, and in Galle looked vulnerable to turn also.
Curran’s diminishing returns away from England have been more severe with the ball: his home average of 23.6 soars to 41.9 away, when swing has been harder to locate. He has also leaked 3.3 runs an over away from home, showing an inconsistency of line and length which fits uneasily with Chris Silverwood’s mantra: ‘Control the rate, control the game’.
The allure of Curran when he emerged so stunningly against India in 2018 was of a cricketer who could tilt the direction of games with both bat and ball. Yet in 14 Tests since the start of 2019, Curran has now scored 337 runs at 18.7 apiece, and taken 30 wickets at 35.7. He has become a cricketer dealing in side dishes, when it is hearty main courses that win Test matches.
For all his promise, Curran has not evolved sufficiently since 2018. With the bat, his defence is not yet robust enough to regularly deliver more that sprightly 40s; indeed, he is still to make a first-class century. With the ball, his average pace when discounting slower balls - 80mph - has not improved since 2018; his accuracy remains a level below the best bowlers of his pace.
The upshot is that Curran is at risk of becoming an allrounder who neither contributes enough with the bat nor the ball. In the history of English Test cricket, excluding wicketkeepers, only three players have played over 20 Tests while contributing both fewer than 40 runs and fewer than 2.5 wickets per Test. Freddie Brown, who mustered 739 runs and 45 wickets from his 22 Tests, was the first. Robert Croft, who contributed 421 runs and 49 wickets from his 21 Tests, was the second. Curran, whose 21 Tests have now brought 741 runs to go with his 44 wickets, now sits uncomfortably as the third.
There is no doubting Curran's fizz, nor why England have found his array of gifts so compelling; he remains a Test cricketer of tantalising possibilities. But in his past two years as a Test cricketer, Curran's potential has too seldom been converted into the currency of performance.