Andre Russell: The Ultimate Fighter who knows just how good he is

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There are fragile things in this world. Hopes. Dreams. Glass. Andre Russell‘s 35-year old body in IPL 2023. He didn’t bowl at all for the first three matches of the season. But when he did he started with a wicket. He had two by the time he finished his first over.

But then when he came back to start the third, he pulled up after one ball – which by the way was another wicket – and then left the field.

Even in this small and arbitrary sequence of play that really has no relevance right now, it is still clear just how talented this man is and the biggest threat that stands in the way of its expression. At least, he was able to play that whole season, and managed so very carefully that he only bowled an average of one over per game.

There was an injury in 2021 which put him out of the tournament. And he was in such good form too; he took his T20 career-best 5-15 against Mumbai Indians.

Russell’s 36-year old body in IPL 2024 seems to be free of such misfortune.

Fuelled by the desire to represent West Indies when the T20 World Cup is played on their own soil in just a couple of weeks’ time, humbled by the fact that his old captain and now coach Daren Sammy lived up to his word of ‘do well and I’ll get you back in the squad’, and inspired by people who take a beating for a living but simply refuse to ever go down – UFC fighters – it is looking good.

“At the moment, I have four packs, so working on the next two,” Russell said with a smile two months ago. “Definitely being leaner and lighter is working for my body and it shows in my performance as well. I like watching the UFC. To see those guys looking strong and lean is a motivation for me, so I set myself a goal. I know it is going to help in my cricket – bowling, fielding, and also in my batting.”

Russell did not play any international cricket for two years from the end of the 2021 T20 World Cup. He was, of course, a staple on the franchise circuit. Eighty-eight matches of 20-over cricket for nine teams across seven countries. Sixty-three of those saw him in the colour purple (there’s a smidge even on the new Trinbago kit). Russell is West Indies first.

He’s always insisted on that. But he has just as strong feelings about the Knight Riders. They’ve taken good care of him and he’s pushed himself to pay them back. This IPL season it’s been with his bowling because he hasn’t really been needed with the bat.

Russell has sent down 25.2 overs, a 66% increase from 2023. He’s actually still to face as many balls as he’s bowled (120 vs 152). He’s become one of their bankers. Or at the very least an important part of their all-round threat. Because he does this thing where he can, if needed, start his spell really late in the game. He doesn’t need a warm-up.

He’s too experienced to be scared. He’s quick. And he’s clever. Batters sometimes expect him to target the nose and toes at 150kph and he sucker punches them with his slower balls, which account for five of his 15 wickets this IPL. At times, he even starts celebrating, arms spread wide, running off to some distant corner of the ground, right after he induces the false shot. He just knows it’ll be caught. He just knows he is too good.

This flexibility that Russell offers – he’s said yes to bowling 25% of his deliveries in the death – enables Sunil Narine and Varun Chakravarthy to come on at a time they much prefer and as a result of that do very well themselves. Thanks to those two mystery spinners, KKR have been the most dangerous bowling unit in the middle overs this year, with 47 wickets (rank 1) at an economy rate of 8.42 (rank 2).

IPL 2024 has been all about the batters and ESPNcricinfo has an algorithm that ranks them based on not just the runs they’ve scored but the difficulty they faced – the quality of bowling, the match situation, whether their performance was the key to securing victory. Here it is.

Russell has had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the league phase and now he’s coming for dessert. Eight of his 15 wickets are of batters who are in the top 20 on this list. That’s Suryakumar Yadav and Rajat Patidar (twice each), Abhishek Sharma, KL Rahul, Nicholas Pooran, and Marcus Stoinis (once each).

KKR haven’t played in Ahmedabad yet in this IPL. It is a ground that tends to neutralise spinners. But till date, it is hard to tell if anything but his own body can neutralise Russell. He produced a match-winning 64 off 25 balls and backed that up with two wickets when they faced Sunrisers Hyderabad earlier in the season. Tuesday could be time for an encore. (ESPNcricinfo)

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