Why Phil Salt bats for a good time

Phil Salt celebrates his 51-ball century Associated Press

Among Phil Salt's favourite games of cricket is the CPL final in 2019. He scored a duck.

"Did you see that?" he said, using one hand to trace the path of the delivery and the other to act as his elbow because that's what the ball hit before ballooning up in the air and resulting in his dismissal, caught behind.

He shook his head, recalling all of it, but there was a big smile on his face. Spend the week holidaying in Miami. Drop into the Caribbean to play a bit of T20 cricket. End up champion. There are worse ways to live.

Salt is an opening batter but that doesn't even begin to describe who he is and what he does. His strike rate comes close. At 166, it is the third-best among those that play T20I cricket for Full-Member nations (min. 250 balls faced). He is a professional risk-taker. There's a one in two chance that he'll start the innings by finding the fence.

"I suppose it's about taking the bowlers off their natural lines and lengths," Salt said. "It's all about me imposing myself on the game and doing what I want to do and taking them [the bowlers] off what they want to do. Ultimately, if I can hit the first over for more than ten, I'm putting someone under pressure big time. And if they come back, and I can take them on again and again, it's ruining their day and they've got to go to their weaker option. It's just about your skill vs their skill, one ball at a time. That's about as complicated as it gets really."

His career, even at domestic level, began after the 2015 World Cup. By then, England had become suspicious of the very concept of caution. Salt "spoke to Eoin Morgan, who was captain at the time, and he said there is only one way to play if you're going to play for us and it's not for yourself. It's for the team. So from that moment onwards everything was sort of lined up to play for the team and that's where I had success. And that's what I will keep doing."

Salt has kicked off 95 of the 188 T20s he's been at the top of the order with a four or a six in the opening exchanges. He has the second-highest boundary count in first overs since he made his debut in May 2016, behind Paul Stirling but ahead of the man he has replaced at both England and Kolkata Knight Riders, Jason Roy. He has fought to be like this.

"There's been a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes," Salt said. "It's probably one of the things... Probably the only thing that does wind me up slightly is when people say, 'Oh, I'm talented and I'm this and that'. They don't see how much hard work, the stuff I've had to overcome in my short career so far, they don't see it.

"Every cricketer has got a story. From having coaches who change how you want to play... Sticking to my guns and knowing where I want to be and what I want to do as a cricketer, that's the sort of stuff I've come through, I suppose. So, I'd say 90% of it is hard work and I think I've always had the ability to strike a ball or kick a football (laughs)."

It isn't just power, though. Salt is capable of accessing both sides of the wicket. Last year, at the Hundred, he had 30 off 10 before his much more senior partner got to face a single ball. Jos Buttler was a spectator as he watched the game start with a cover drive for four and then, when the bowler adjusted his line and brought it closer to middle, get flicked off the stumps for six.

Salt made 86 off 32 for Manchester Originals against Trent Rockets that day. But the most stunning detail of that performance was that he came into it with four single-digit scores, including a duck, in five matches. He had every reason to throttle down. Instead, he played one of the Hundred's top five innings by strike rate (min. 15 balls faced) and bettered it the very next week.

Salt didn't let failure hold him back. He understands it is a necessary part of his job, that some risks come off and some don't. "You have to learn how to manage that and stay level," he said and hinted at how he does it. "Hopefully you can win a few games for your side." That's the metric he judges himself against. Not runs or fifties or hundreds. That's why every time he goes out to bat, he carries the potential to be devastating.

KKR have bet on that, and by pairing him with Sunil Narine, they've ended up with the quickest scoring first-wicket partnership (12.83 runs per over) in IPL 2024, which Salt must love considering this tournament and Narine's old team are part of the reason he does what he does.

"It's probably from watching TV, watching the IPL," he said, "That's around the age where I started watching more cricket. Champions League [CLT20] was also on and that was awesome. I was talking to Sunil the other day about Trinidad & Tobago [Trinbago Knight Riders] and how good a side they were. I loved watching that and I saw the way the openers were going about it and I just thought, 'I wanted to do that'.

"We don't talk a lot out in the middle, though. It's mainly about which bowlers we want to take down and how we're going to adapt to the conditions. We keep it very, very simple. All of our chatting is done the night before and when we go out there, we just play. The aim is to put our side in the best position possible going forward and that's all we keep it about. I think that's the same all the way through this KKR line-up. Nobody is batting for themselves and nobody is going, 'I'm going to have the orange cap at the end'. Nobody in the dressing room thinks about that, which makes it such a good batting group to be part of because everybody is aligned to the same goal."

Born in Bodelwyddan, Wales, raised in Bridgetown, Barbados, once so starstruck at seeing Sir Garfield Sobers in a restaurant that he took the wrong order home, then being in the crowd to celebrate England's T20 World Cup title in 2010 and now with a chance to do that as a member of the actual team. Salt is living the dream, but knows enough to not take anything for granted.

"The whole game is a learning curve," he said. "I remember MS [Dhoni] saying last season that he's constantly learning as well. It's one of those things. Every cricketer keeps evolving. Because if you stand still the game will pass you by and if you want to get the best out of your ability, you have to keep learning.

"The more conditions that you can expose yourself to, the better. Franchise cricket has helped, no doubt. But as a player, you can go out of your way to create those experiences for yourself. I remember before a T10 tournament, I came out here by myself for ten days in Mumbai, organised by Sachin Bajaj [who runs the Global Cricket School, which county players frequent to improve their game against spin]. So, I feel the more you can expose yourself to different conditions, in different parts of the world, the quicker it's going to take your game up for sure."

Salt has played in Australia (32 T20s), Bangladesh (3), England (114), India (13), Pakistan (21), South Africa (20), Sri Lanka (10), UAE (10) and West Indies (9). All of that means unless there's a dramatic breakthrough at some point in the near future and our game is transported off planet, he knows exactly what the conditions are in almost every country where a T20 World Cup can take place. That is a serious advantage, the feeling of having been there and done that, the comfort of knowing what to expect, if not from the opposition then at least about the conditions.

For the moment, Salt's eyes are trained on the IPL. Soon it will shift. In June, he will likely be part of the England side headed to the Caribbean to defend their T20 crown. His career is proof that batting for a good time, not a long time, can bring success too.