Big-match temperament and growing tactical acumen makes for a compelling package
For seven years, the identity of England’s next white-ball captain was clear. Jos Buttler served as Eoin Morgan’s No. 2 between 2015 and 2022, deputising in nine ODIs and five T20Is, and was the obvious successor when Morgan called it a day last year.
Now, there is a level of uncertainty. Moeen Ali is Buttler’s vice-captain and has thrived in that role, captaining England to a 4-3 T20I series win in Pakistan last year and making several unheralded contributions to their success in Australia. But Moeen is 36, and unlikely to play ODIs beyond November; next year’s T20 World Cup looks like a natural end-point.
Buttler is only 32 and is the strong favourite to captain England into the 50-over World Cup in 2027, but there may well be a vacancy for the white-ball vice-captaincy as soon as next summer. In the short term, there is a three-match ODI series against Ireland in September in which the World Cup squad are unlikely to feature, which will require a stand-in leader; in the long term, there is no standout candidate to succeed Buttler.
Enter... Sam Curran? It might seem a left-field suggestion, but at 25, Curran is England’s youngest white-ball regular. His diffident public persona does not suggest an obvious captain in the making, but those who have worked with him speak highly of his cricketing intelligence and leadership credentials. Quietly, he has become a viable contender to eventually succeed Buttler.
Curran has only captained six games at senior level, and admits it came as “a big surprise” when Trevor Bayliss asked him if he would deputise as Punjab Kings captain at the IPL earlier this year. “Shikhar [Dhawan] was injured, and Trev just asked, ‘do you fancy doing it?’” he recalls. “I was more than happy to. The games went pretty well and I really enjoyed it. Who knows what will happen?”
Under Curran’s leadership, Kings won two out of three - and the wins came away from home against sides that ended up qualifying for the play-offs: Lucknow Super Giants and Mumbai Indians. With Curran returning to the UK before Chris Jordan, Surrey’s regular T20 captain, he filled in for another three games at the start of the Vitality Blast.
Ahead of the Hundred, Tom Moody, Oval Invincibles’ head coach, was keen for Curran to take a more active role in leadership, perhaps in part to lessen the burden on Sam Billings - one of two players in the Hundred, along with Buttler, who captains while keeping wicket.
Along with Jason Roy, another senior player, Curran has been part of pre-match strategy meetings this season and is part of Invincibles’ leadership group. “It’s just about having chats with analysts and guys who want to chat about different scenarios,” he explains. “Obviously I know Bilbo very well, and we’ve had a lot of conversations.”
In-game, Curran often fields at mid-on or mid-off during the Powerplay and returns the ball to the bowler, offering a word of encouragement or advice as he does so. He consults with Billings on reviews, and hurries his team-mates up during end-changes when they fall behind the over-rate.
Does he enjoy the tactical side of the game? “Yeah, I do,” Curran says. “It was something new to me, but when I did it, I really enjoyed it. It helps when you’ve got senior players and experience around you.”
By his own admission, Curran is “not a massive planner”. Instead, he says he is “a big reaction person”. He explains: “I’m not massive with watching videos. You obviously plan for the game in your mind, but I like turning up on the day and reacting to conditions and dimensions.”
Regardless, analysts say that Curran’s reading of the game tends to marry up with their insights - and he has shown that adaptability in his own bowling, most obviously at last year’s T20 World Cup, where he took home the Player of the Tournament award as well as the trophy.
In the final, he bowled shrewdly to the MCG’s vast square boundaries. Two of his three wickets came from batters pulling good-length balls to deep midwicket, as he finished his four overs with 3 for 12 to be named Player of the Match.
“We are very lucky as players in this day and age,” Curran says. “We’ve got great analysts who work with us who can show you anything you want: videos, trends, match-ups and all those types of things. But for me personally, that might just confuse the game a little bit. I try to react to what’s in front of me.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Curran would be his workload. England have had bowlers and allrounders as ODI captains before - think Bob Willis, Adam Hollioake, Andrew Flintoff and Paul Collingwood - but not in the modern era of a relentless, three-format international schedule.
And Curran is in high demand in franchise leagues: Bayliss made him the most expensive buy in IPL auction history last year, and he has been retained for a second season at MI Cape Town in the SA20. By the time Buttler steps away from the captaincy, the global landscape could look fundamentally different.
Curran has not been at his best in the Hundred, scoring 120 runs and taking five wickets across eight group games. But Sunday’s final will provide him with another chance for him to perform on the big stage, and to underline the big-game temperament that has been such a feature of his career.
If Invincibles win the men’s trophy for the first time, it will rightly be Billings who takes the plaudits for his savvy leadership over the last four weeks. Yet in Curran, England might well have stumbled upon a long-term option for the limited-overs captaincy. –Cricinfo