If you were to close your eyes and think of the T20 hitter of the distant future, you’d probably picture someone who looks like Marcus Stoinis. Big, muscly, sitting deep in his crease to pummel your marginally misdirected yorker to distant parts.
On some days, the real-world Stoinis and the Stoinis of our collective imaginations align perfectly, and you get an innings like, say, this one. At other times, there’s a disconnect, and he looks like a Renaissance sculpture attempting to wield a bat.
Earlier this month, for instance, Stoinis walked in at No. 5 with Australia needing 36 off 30 balls to beat England in Southampton. He finished with 23 not out off 18 balls and England won by two runs.
Stoinis has lately found more cheer batting further up the order, and the rest of that England tour brought him useful top-order runs but not enough to suggest he’d made any sort of breakthrough. Then he arrived at the IPL, where the Delhi Capitals only really had room for him in their lower middle order. It wasn’t like he could dictate where he would bat; this was his third franchise in his fifth season.
He didn’t seem a certainty to play Sunday’s game against Kings XI Punjab, and it was probably his bowling that got him picked ahead of Alex Carey, who ended Australia’s England tour with a match-winning ODI hundred.
The expectations, in short, were probably not sky-high. The Capitals were struggling when he walked in: 86 for 4 after 14 overs. His first three overs at the crease brought his team only 14 runs.
You expect Andre Russell to defy that sort of scorecard with a blaze of sixes. Or Kieron Pollard. Stoinis, not so much.
But sometimes, it only takes a few things falling in place.
For one, Kings XI’s end-overs bowling was, for this level, not particularly great; too many of Chris Jordan’s slower balls landed right in Stoinis’ hitting arc, and both he and Sheldon Cottrell kept missing their lengths while attempting the yorker.
But you need to do exceptionally well to face 14 balls of mediocre end-overs bowling and score 49 runs off them, especially on a day when the rest of your team-mates and extras have cobbled together 104 off 99. And it’s quite possible that Stoinis made Cottrell and Jordan’s efforts look worse than they actually were.
The Stoinis who lit up Dubai on Sunday was a different Stoinis to the one who’d repeatedly played and missed in Southampton a few weeks ago. There seemed to be a greater sense of stability at the crease, a decisiveness in his footwork and execution.
The most obvious change between Southampton and Dubai was in the guard he took. Against England, Stoinis had started with his back foot on middle and leg, and then made a small trigger movement across to off stump just before the bowler delivered. Here, he was starting on off stump, and deeper in his crease.
At the innings break, Stoinis told Star Sports that he had shifted his guard across as a response to bowlers trying to restrict him with wider lines and the wide yorker in particular. Fast bowlers often use this tactic against statuesque hitters like Stoinis, who rely on a stable base for their power and don’t move around their crease too much.
By shifting his guard to off stump – and then moving further across in his trigger movement – Stoinis achieved a two-fold benefit. He was able to get closer to the line when the bowlers went wide of off stump, close enough to hit into unexpected areas. Jordan definitely wouldn’t have expected to see the first ball of his final over – which eventually went for an eye-watering 30 runs – sail over the square leg boundary.
The off-stump guard also left Stoinis in a better position to deal with the full ball on the stumps. England’s quicks had cramped him for room with this straighter line in Southampton, landing the ball roughly in line with his toe. Here, whenever Jordan or Cottrell bowled a middle-and-leg line, Stoinis was far enough across his stumps to be able to place the ball either side of short fine leg. On one occasion, he even scooped a short ball from Cottrell over this fielder.
Sitting deeper in his crease also reduced the margin for error when the Kings XI quicks attempted the yorker – when Cottrell underpitched in the 19th over, Stoinis drove him between mid-off and extra-cover, and when he served up a full-toss in compensation, he sliced it away between backward point and short third man.
The slower ball is usually the best response to a batsman sitting deep in his crease, forcing him to reach for it and lose shape in the process, but on this day Stoinis was always perfectly balanced and Jordan’s offcutter in particular seemed too easy to pick out of the hand.
The balance was perhaps the most striking feature of Stoinis’ innings. In Southampton, his trigger movement seemed a touch off-kilter, leading him to hurry through his shots, whereas in Dubai he was moving when he had to and staying perfectly still when he had to.
Perhaps it was just a question of rustiness at the start of that England tour, after months spent without the feel of ball on bat. Perhaps that rustiness is gone now, and Stoinis has arrived in the UAE in perfect rhythm, ready to finally show the IPL what he is and what he can be.