How Phil Salt went from unreliable smasher to England ace in the pack

how phil salt went from unreliable smasher to england ace in the pack

Phil Salt delivered an inspiring innings against West Indies in St Lucia overnight - Getty Images/Alex Davidson

Last August, Phil Salt was in danger of becoming a Twenty20 equivalent of Mark Ramprakash: a magnificent domestic player, but unable to transfer this pedigree into the international game.

As Salt turned 27, he was dropped for England’s Twenty20 series against New Zealand. And he could not really complain: in 16 Twenty20 matches for England, he averaged only 22. While his strike rate of 149 still showed his explosiveness, England thought they had other players who could match this but remain at the crease for rather longer. Salt had been dismissed in six balls or fewer in the majority of his T20 international innings.

Less than a year on, Salt is one of the leading Twenty20 openers in the world. He is fresh from an outstanding Indian Premier League campaign, plundering 435 runs at an average of 39.6 and strike rate of 182. His England exploits have been even more imperious: in 12 games since his recall for the tour of the Caribbean at the end of last year, he averaged 59.6 with a strike rate of 184. No longer is Salt merely setting games up – thrillingly and selflessly, yes, but too unreliably. Now, he is winning them: Salt’s 87 not out in the Twenty20 World Cup on Wednesday night followed back-to-back centuries against West Indies in December.

The upgrading of Salt’s Twenty20 game is the tale of a little more brawn, and a lot more brain.

First, the brawn. Last September, Salt consulted Lancashire about how he could develop more power from his 5ft 10in frame. “I wanted to make myself stronger, quicker and bigger,” he later said. His new regime combined a more vigorous gym programme with eating 3,500 calories a day. While Salt only gained three kilograms, he emerged far better-equipped to clear the ropes. From hitting one six every 19 balls in T20Is before bulking up, Salt has hit 33 sixes for England in 292 deliveries since: better than one every nine balls.

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Yet the greatest change has less been in Salt’s physical gifts than how he uses them. Rather than treating all bowlers with equal contempt, he is now more calculating.

After the end of the Powerplay, Salt once had the air of a candle about to burn itself out. He would continue to play in the same way, no matter that five fielders were now allowed outside of the 30-yard circle. Lofted shots that previously found unguarded boundaries instead landed in fielder’s hands.

Now, Salt has recalibrated his ambitions. He is still intent on maximising the fielding restrictions; by pulling the very last ball of the Powerplay for six, Salt took England to 58 for no wicket after six overs. But he is also content to slow down as well as speed up. From 35 runs off 20 balls during the Powerplay, he then went 17 balls without hitting another boundary, recognising that what England needed from him had changed. After Jos Buttler was dismissed in the eighth over, “I was always going to play the anchor role,” Salt said. “It was about me just batting through that period and waiting for my time to strike.”

Salt beats W Indies at own game to boost England’s run rate

Salt did strike, and how. By pillaging 30 from the 16th over of the innings, delivered by Romario Shepherd, Salt ensured that England would not just win but do so in a way to boost their net run rate.

It was in many ways a characteristic West Indian Twenty20 innings, played out at a tempo best described as fast, slow, fast. The essence of this method is about managing risk: being content to rein yourself in against more difficult bowlers, and then doubling down when the odds – because of the bowler, and the wind – are in your favour. It is normally shrewder to take risks against weaker bowlers, because the payoff is greater.

For Salt in St Lucia such a clinical approach ran through his innings. Against West Indies’ fine spinners, Salt was more accumulating than audacious, scoring 30 from 27 balls. But against pace, he smote 57 from just 20 balls.

Batting in the Caribbean, as England’s consultant Kieron Pollard has emphasised, is also the art of using the ground and conditions to your advantage. In St Lucia, the longer square boundary was nine metres greater than the shorter one; the difference was multipled by a north-eastern breeze. Salt scored a modest 27 from 22 balls at the pavilion end, when hitting into the breeze towards the larger boundary. He could largely eschew risk from this end because of his knowledge of what what possible at the other end: when hitting with the wind, to the shorter boundary, Salt thumped 60 from 25 balls.

Such a combination of ruthless and shrewd batting underpinned West Indies’s two Twenty20 World Cup triumphs, in 2012 and 2016; in the stadium named after him, Daren Sammy, West Indies captain during those World Cups and now head coach, could have recognised as much. So would Pollard. The greatest testament to Salt’s innings, perhaps, is that it bore the indelible stamp of the man who has won 16 Twenty20 titles.

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