The Finisher: George Dockrell’s roundabout journey to premier power hitter

Former left-arm spinner turned career around in recent years and is now making international opponents take notice

In the ninth over of the Irish innings during a defeat to Afghanistan on Monday evening, visiting skipper Mohammad Nabi paid a significant compliment to George Dockrell. After the Irish batter powered Afghanistan’s talisman Rashid Khan straight down the ground, a fielder was placed directly behind the bowler in front of the sight screen; it was an unorthodox position between long on and long off.

One name quickly springs to mind when you think of the batters who have prompted the rise of that new fielding position: Kieron Pollard. The West Indies legend — with over 600 T20 appearances to his name — is seen as one of the world’s premier back-end boundary hitters due to his ability to hit the ball straight.

Dockrell’s success as Ireland’s finisher, the man entrusted to hit for power at the end of an innings, is no longer a new phenomenon. Since the World Cup qualifiers in February he has made the spot his own, while his domestic form for the Leinster Lightning leaves little doubt as to who the best option in the country is for scoring at a high strike-rate when deliveries remaining are at a premium.

But the fact that experienced captains like Afghanistan’s Nabi are setting such unorthodox fields to try to counteract Dockrell shows that other national sides are taking notice of his strength down the ground late in an innings. In an exercise of damage limitation, they are giving him the Pollard treatment. How could they not? During this home summer (including the two games against South Africa played in Bristol), Dockrell has scored 243 runs in 11 innings at a strike-rate in the 150s.

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Average isn’t as an important stat for a finisher given fast runs are more valuable than the individual wicket, yet Dockrell has still been remarkably consistent with an average touching 50. In the 3-2 series win over Afghanistan, he has scored 141 runs off 92 balls without being dismissed across the five games played, a player of the series-securing effort.

Not all of Ireland’s opponents this summer have played full strength XIs, but by still facing the likes of Lockie Ferguson, Umran Malik and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Dockrell has tested his ability to hit powerful shots down the ground against a combination of some of the fastest and most adept death bowlers in the game. New Zealand even changed tack to try to stop him in July and offered up plenty of short stuff, another challenge he surpassed, most notably with an ODI career-best score of 74.

As one former coach who worked with Dockrell before his breakout campaign with the bat noted, his short ball skills have always been naturally good, but now he has a more complete game.

“I hadn’t had success against top teams,” said Dockrell after that knock against New Zealand. “This year is the first time I’ve had that real set idea that I’m going in and trying to be positive. It’s quite an exciting role to be able to play, trying to change the momentum of the game when it is a bit tricky or just trying to finish off the innings.

“It’s quite a fun group to be a part of, practising that, the amount of range hitting we do, the amount of technique work we do on the power game, it’s why you see those results.”

It’s all well and good comparing Dockrell to the premier players at his position in the world, but his path to such comparisons is remarkable. He debuted for Ireland aged 17 — just over 12 years ago now — as a left-arm spinner, not a batter. He honed his bowling craft in English county cricket; as one former county opponent put it: “Wasn’t he the gun left-armer for Somerset?”

He played for the west country side until he was released in 2015. Aged 23, he returned to Ireland only to lose his place in the national side in 2019, and with it his central contract.

Dockrell has been trying to improve his batting since he learned of his impending Somerset departure, but it was only when former Ireland coach Graham Ford said that he saw him as a batter that attentions switched over fully in a bid to earn back his contract.

“I probably didn’t work on hitting sixes until I was about 23, 24 and I batted a lot more,” explains Dockrell. “My last season at Somerset I was aware that they weren’t going to keep me on and I went to the second XI coach and just said, can I try become a batter this year for the seconds?’ I batted five for the seconds in T20 and the three day stuff and just tried to start whacking it around a bit more.

“That kick-started my batting. It was something I really enjoyed, it’s definitely a batter’s game so it was better being on that side of things.

“I also went over to Australia, played a bit of club cricket over there and made a couple of real drastic changes to my technique. I was very limited, I could do what I could do but had a load of weaknesses. So for the first time I said, right, how about we work on that. Changed my stance, changed my grip, trialled around with a few things and then came back to Ireland and tried to put it into a place with club cricket and the interpros.

“I’m trying to work on my swing. A lot of it is working on that base, getting nice and low. A lot of it is also feeding off some baseball stuff, loading up on that back foot and pushing off the front foot to snap through with the hands.

“Since then I’ve had a few more scores of substance but it’s been slow progress, things didn’t click early for me but I was trying to get better each step along the way.”

From a personal financial point of view, Dockrell is probably Ireland’s best player not to have a franchise gig lined up — though it is easy to see that change soon given current form.

Of course, sod’s law dictates that now his batting is in such a good place, all of a sudden Dockrell is bowling relatively often again, and with success. He took 2-7 off just two overs in the first T20 against Afghanistan but has not bowled since. “His shape on the ball was outstanding, I’d actually love to see him bowl more,” was the opinion of new spin coach Nathan Hauritz.

Given the way Dockrell has turned his career around in the last number of years, one wonders where his career would be if he started working on his batting earlier with Somerset, or if he came home in 2015 to a similar standard of facilities and fixture volume found in county cricket.

Still, in a team where player roles have a recent history of constant change, Dockrell has found stability. He is going into the World Cup as one of the world’s form finishers. Not bad for a player who only three years ago had few international prospects.

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns is an Irish Times journalist