"It's the same I used to say of Chris Gayle when he was in his prime - we are happy to have him representing us, we didn't have to come up and bowl against him in an international match. It's the same with Andre Russell. He now is our Gayle, our Brian Lara, in the T20 format. He is the superstar." Chatting with a Trinidad-based radio station I955 FM, Dwayne Bravo poured his heart out in praise of his fellow West Indian.
In the second game of the IPL in 2019, The Kolkata Knight Riders needed 53 runs in the last three overs against Sunrisers Hyderabad. With this equation, the result appeared a mere formality, a situation from where the dugout and the fans will not question the approach even if the batsmen decide to just play the overs out. Fast forward three months, only the anguish of the fans was short-lived when the Indian batsmen put down their weapons against England in the 2019 World Cup when the equation was 57 off 18 balls.
For Andre Russell, the requirement fell right into his area of expertise. In the next eleven balls he faced, he smashed four sixes and three fours to ensure that his side crossed the line with two balls to spare.
With the advent of T20 cricket, the horizon of what is achievable with the bat is continuously expanding. For some who might suspect the difference in the quality of bowling between IPL and international cricket for such an occurrence - Russell plundered 21 runs off Bhuvneshwar Kumar – a seasoned international bowler for India.
A week and a half later, it was the turn of Marcus Stoinis and Tim Southee to face Russell’s wrath when from exactly the same scenario – 53 off 18 balls – he hit seven sixes off the next eleven balls to win the game for his side, this time with five balls to spare. Taking a particular liking to an ambivalent RCB attack, he looted 65 off 25 balls in the home fixture later, propelling his side to score 122 in the last eight overs, falling just 10 runs short of the target of 214.
The knocks in a chase tend to be remembered as more iconic, enabling the finisher to act and feel like a protagonist delivering the final blow. To Russell, however, the approach is no different either way. In the 2019 season, he played four knocks in the first innings where he smashed 40+ runs at a strike-rate of above 200.
Russell’s Hulk-smash with the bat is enough to make him one of the most sought after T20 cricketers in the world. As an additional incentive, he is an accomplished pacer too, possessing a lethal heavy ball delivered at 140 kmph+ on a consistent basis. To go with his 512 runs in the 2019 IPL season, he scalped 11 wickets to win the most valuable player of the tournament award. Dominating the most competitive T20 league in the world along with four others he played in, Wisden awarded Russell with the leading T20 cricketer in the world in 2020, breaking the Rashid Khan hegemony, who took the honour for two years in a row prior to this.
With cricket on an indefinite break due to a pandemic, all cricketers are itching to take the field. None more than Russell who feels ready to set the stage on fire once more. “My body feels amazing and things are really going well for me out in the middle. In the past, I was able to win a lot of matches with brute force, however, I have made strides in regards to my timing and technique. I am very excited for the months ahead,” said Russell speaking to Windies Cricket after receiving the award.
With a strike rate of 186.4 in IPL, Russel is head and shoulders above anybody who has scored even 50 runs in IPL cricket. At the peak of his game, Russell tops the list of fast-scoring batsmen in the history of T20 cricket as well.
There is little doubt that Gayle is the Bradman of T20 cricket. But, even he feels the pressure while chasing a target in excess of 180 in IPL as his strike rate drops to 136.3 in this scenario as compared to an overall figure of 151. It’s the same with AB de Villiers as well, there is a shift in approach while batting second when his strike rate drops to 136.8 from an overall figure of 151.2. For Russell, a single-minded approach is the key to his success as reflected by the strike rate of an unbelievable 198.2 in 180+ chases and 176.5 in the second innings overall.
To add a stamp to his value as a T20 player, he is one among only seven players that flaunt the double of 1000 runs and 50 wickets in IPL. His 55 wickets have come at an exceptional 18.9 balls per wicket.
Like all good stories, Russell’s journey is not all about glamour and glitz. He is among a host of match-winners that the Delhi franchise did not have the foresight to stick with. Released from the team after average returns of 58 runs in seven innings in 2012 and 2013, Russell – valued at a mere 50 lakhs – found a new abode in KKR.
Just as he was establishing himself as a formidable entity for his new team, he received a one-year anti-doping ban in 2017, triggered after he missed three dope tests that led to him missing the 2017 season.
Talking about the ban to Windies cricket, Russell asserted - "I changed my mentality since I got banned," he said. "I was slacking off. I was big. I was lazy. I wasn't practising hard. I came back stronger, leaner, more muscular. I'm hitting the ball effortlessly for six."
It was clear that Russell added a few pounds of muscle after he took the field for KKR in the 2018 season. An even stronger Russell – physically and mentally – added 826 runs in the next two seasons at an astonishing strike rate of 196.7, becoming the fastest man to reach a 1000 runs in IPL in 545 balls – the quickest in IPL history.
"Imagine Russell going for Rs 50 lakhs to KKR and Pawan Negi for Rs 8 crores to (Delhi) Daredevils. I probably wished that he (Russell) would have been there for seven years when I was playing, we would have certainly won one or two more," Russell’s skipper till 2017 in KKR, Gautam Gambhir, said while speaking on Star Sports’ show 'Cricket Connected'. Just like Bravo, even Gambhir must be relieved that his bowling plan did not involve coping with the next big thing in T20 cricket.