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Cricket news - Where does Curran fit in England's scheme of things?

Curran got the wicket of Abid Ali for 60 in Southampton

Curran got the wicket of Abid Ali for 60 in Southampton

There are few people within English cricket who don't wax lyrical about the qualities of Sam Curran.

During last summer's Ashes series, for instance, Joe Root said this: "He's a brilliant talent. He's got the ability to change the game with both bat and ball, similar to Ben [Stokes]. And his record is fantastic." Those at Surrey who worked with Curran as a youngster, including academy coach Gareth Townsend, knew they had a special player on their hands as soon as he started working with them. In 2019, as a 20 year-old, Curran was named one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year.

To date, his career has largely lived up to the hype. He turned 22 in June and yet has already played 19 Test matches, winning 13 of them. He has also landed two lucrative IPL deals, one worth around 800,000 pounds with Kings XI Punjab for the 2019 season - he took a hat trick to win them a game against Delhi Capitals - and then a 590,000 pound deal with Chennai Super Kings for this year's delayed tournament. He has a fan in Virat Kohli too. India's captain nominated Curran Man of the Series during England's victory over India in 2018 for his 11 wickets and 272 runs in four Tests.

But right now, with the emergence of Jofra Archer and Sussex's Ollie Robinson, the resurgence of Chris Woakes and Mark Wood and the experience of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, Curran's position in England's Test set-up is uncertain. His selection for this match against Pakistan is just his second appearance of the summer. Had it not been for the hectic schedule, necessitating more rest and rotation of the fast-bowlers than would otherwise be the case, he might not have got a look in at all. Already in his short career, Curran has been left out of England's team on seven occasions.

Although his overall Test returns are good, particularly for a player of his age, he has not been able to reach the heights of that brilliant series against India two summers ago. That has left him in a sort of cricketing limbo, a player of rich potential but one who is seemingly moving farther away from a regular place in the side, relying on injuries and rotation to get a game.

It is still not quite clear what sort of Test cricketer Curran will be. Will his bowling become strong enough to be a third seamer or he is most suited to the fourth fast-bowling slot? In Stokes, England already have a very decent fourth quick, of course. And the jury is out on whether Curran can be one of the first three fast-bowlers away from home where he averages 43.05. His lack of pace and height count against him on the flatter pitches outside England although he does offer left-arm variety. He also did a decent enough job in South Africa, playing all four Tests and taking his wickets at a tick over 30 runs apiece. Even then, his overseas credentials remain unproven.

It is at home, however, where Curran has more assistance to move the ball, that he is a different proposition. He has 23 wickets in nine matches in England, profiting from his ability to swing the ball both ways. Although he is not yet as consistent as the likes of Anderson or Broad, it is something he is working on; being more patient with the ball rather than trying to take a wicket every ball. That was something the Surrey youth coaches noticed when he was in his early teens. During net sessions, Curran always wanted to get the batsman out each and every delivery.

Perhaps, once Anderson retires, Curran could be an option to open the bowling for England, trying to swing the new ball in the manner that someone like Matthew Hoggard did so successfully. Unless he can add more pace to make him more dangerous in unhelpful conditions, that might be the position Curran has to end up targeting. But he faces stiff competition there too from Archer, Broad, Woakes and Sussex's Ollie Robinson, the coming man of the English fast-bowlers, all of whom will have stronger claims to the new ball.

Of course, Alec Stewart, Curran's director of cricket at Surrey, believes he will eventually develop into a batting all-rounder. Stationed in the lower middle order, Curran has already played some important innings for England when they have had their backs to the wall, including three half-centuries. In time, he may well move up the order but at this stage, despite the cameos, it's difficult to see him regularly batting much higher than number seven for England in Test cricket. After all, his first-class average is 28.36 from 105 innings and he has yet to register a hundred.

Despite a lack of clarity over what his eventual role might be, Curran keeps chipping in when given opportunities. His wicket of Abid Ali today, surprising the batsman with a ball that bounced a little more, was an important intervention on a rain interrupted opening day. The batsman was well set on 60 and looking to rebuild with Babar Azam after the wicket of the Pakistani captain, Azhar Ali, seven overs before. Curran removed New Zealand's captain Kane Williamson, again when he was well set, with a similar delivery during the winter in Mount Maunganui.

Prior to dismissing Abid, Curran's bowling had been steady but unthreatening. His first spell was slightly too straight, allowing the Pakistan batsmen to clip him into the leg-side, and any swing he found went early from the hand. In helpful conditions, Curran was doing little more than holding up an end. His second spell was far more impressive and resulted in the wicket of Pakistan's opener. "The ball probably did more later on in the innings," Curran admitted at the end of play.

After looking innocuous, he produced something from nothing. The cliche that Curran makes things happen is just that but there is no doubt that he has the ability to influence Test matches. The strength of his competitiveness, which cannot be measured, is spoken about by plenty of good judges in a similar way to that of Stuart Broad. The challenge for Curran is to turn that competitiveness and ability to pick up a wicket here or score a thirty there, into more substantial returns. Only then will he find a regular place in the team.

At present, Curran is occupying a role that is neither one thing, nor the other. He's not a regular top seven batsman yet and is still not a strong enough bowler to take up the third seamer job, particularly with the other options England have right now. But at the same time, he has oodles of talent, the right character and has already shown plenty of glimpses of the Test cricketer he could end up being. The challenge now for Curran is to become it.

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