Can Narine outlast the mystery?
West Indies cricket has been playing a nauseating film noir movie on loop for over a decade now. The one thing they’ve been missing is the exciting, quirky, deformed character that steals the focus. In cricket, no one does that better than a mystery spinner. Just the term mystery spinner gets people ferociously excited.
One tweet was it all it took for me to get my twitter followers fired up. The press box also got engaged. All I’d done was try to remember the name of the Australian part-time spinner who bowled a doosra as a party trick without ever trying to make a career out of it. I received blank stares from many in the press box, and from twitter names were flung at me. Some odd, like Clarrie Grimmett and Bishan Bedi. Even Colin McCool was mentioned. Probably, just because someone wanted to say Colin McCool.
Eventually it was Mike Atherton in the press box, and former Notts finger spinner Paul McMahon on twitter, who correctly named Jack Potter, the Victoria batsman-cum-spinner from the 1960s. I say spinner on purpose, as ESPNcricinfo and Cricket archive both have him down as a legspinner, but the stories are that he bowled off spin.
Jack Potter may in fact be the ultimate mystery spinner, as he never even played a Test, hardly bowled at all, was rumoured to have shown Warne the flipper, and according to Richie Benaud and Wally Grout, had an offspinner that went the other way. Yet for all the talk, stories, and interest, he took 31 wickets in 104 first-class games at an average of 41. Presumably some with doosras, others with flippers, and the rest from another ball he invented while playing Yahtzee.
Yet here we were, 44 years since Jack Potter played first-class cricket, and people were still talking about him. Mystery spinners, even the part-time ones, do something weird to cricket fans.
As is the case with Sunil Narine, who really doesn’t need a Mohawk to get attention.
I’m a sucker for any spinner. But throw an air of mystery and the unknown into the mix, and I go a bit crazy. This is possibly why during one of those conversations that you don't entirely think through; I said that Sunil Narine could be the best spinner in the world at the moment. It’s a pretty big call at the best of times, but the fact I said it to an ECB employee who is also a friend of Graeme Swann made it even more explosive. A predictable argument followed.
His perfectly sound theory was that no one who hadn't played a Test could be thought of that way. My less sound, but still reasonable theory was that mystery bowlers could only be at their best when no one knew how to pick them, and that is right now for Narine. That while players like Vettori, Swann, Herath, Lyon and others had proved themselves on the world level, Narine was probably at his absolute best right now. And I think that best could be as good as Johnny Cash at San Quentin.
Of course I could be wrong. Narine has only played six first class games, and in a poor quality domestic competition. My assertion of how good he is can only be based on the cricket I've seen him play. In the Champions League he looked a class above. Against Australia he looked like a potential home-wrecker. And in the IPL he was the best bowler in the whole tournament.
Yet, even I have to admit there have been spinners before who have bowled well in limited-overs cricket when the opposition is trying to score or smash every ball, who struggle when the batsmen play patiently in Test cricket. That could happen to Narine, but I don’t think it will.
Narine's one magic trick is a delivery that spins away from right-handed batsmen, that no one seems to be able to pick from the hand. That is not something that should only work in the limited-overs slogfest, that should work in every form of cricket, against every type of player, on almost all surfaces around the world. To virtually all batsmen who have faced him, how to pick the ball that spins the other way is a mystery, and that makes him deadly.
Mysteries don't last forever. Once upon a time Bernard Bosanquet's wrong ‘un was seen as a mystery, but batsmen worked out over time that a wrong'un had more of the back-of-the-hand facing them than a normal leggie. Of course , Abdul Qadir claims to have two wrong uns (at least). One, that eagle-eyed batsmen can see, and another called a finger wrong un that he has only ever passed down to Imran Tahir and Shahid Afridi because its power is deadly. Without Qadir talking, passing it on to me directly, I assume it is the same or similar to Anil Kumble's wrong un that is held between the thumb and index finger and doesn't show the batsman the back of the hand.
Then there is the flipper, a delivery that seemed to be handed down like a legacy to Australian leggies, in eager anticipation of the one with the skills to use it best. In the mid 90s it was a ball that batsman feared more than a snake in their pillow case. By the late 90s most top-order players seemed to have a handle on it and Warne was using his slider, which had much less of a reputation, but probably got far more wickets for him
The doosra was invented (unless you count ol’ Jack Potter’s) by Saqlain Mushtaq. Mushtaq, like creators of Golems, was eventually brought down by the very thing invented to protect them. The doosra is now the staple of several bowlers around the world. And while is legitimacy is often questioned, it seems weird that batsmen claim they can see the arm bend more than 15 degrees on a doosra, yet so many of them still don’t seem to pick the delivery itself.
Then there was perhaps the most intriguing mystery spinner of them all, Jack Iverson. Flicking the ball from Hercules-like fingers like a kid playing with marbles, he predated the carrom ball, and got the ball to spin in both directions while doing so. He only played five Tests, yet Gideon Haigh wrote a whole book about him, and the famous photo of Iverson's grip is as good as any image from any horror film. Iverson didn’t last long, but like the Velvet Underground, he encouraged others. John Gleeson was one. Gleeson was not as devastating as Iverson, but the English players had a lot of trouble with him. There is the legendary, and perhaps apocryphal story, that Boycott had worked out Gleeson, but didn't tell the rest of his team-mates so he’d look better.
The very best of batsmen, like Boycott use very low fi ways of working out mystery spinners. The Australians decided that if they played Saqlain Mushtaq like a leg spinner, not an offspinner, so they'd be able to handle his doosra. Paul Adams bowled his legspinner and wrong un at two different vastly different speeds. Even Murali early in his career would bowl his doosra from wider on the crease giving alert batsmen a chance to spot it. There are many tells that help batsmen. A ball that spins usually drifts in the opposite direction. It also has to be pitched in a different place. Some batsmen can see which way a ball is spinning before it lands. And of course, it comes out of the hand differently in the first place.
At the moment it seems no one can pick Narine out of the hand. He bowls a mixed seam so it’s hard to tell which way the ball is spinning, his pace and position don’t seem to vary, the ball doesn’t drift much for him, and his position on the crease isn’t an obvious giveaway. Perhaps only his placement of the ball tells you which way a ball is going to spin, but even then, if that’s all you’ve got to go on, you’re rolling the dice on each delivery.
That doesn’t mean that he will be the best spinner in the world for the next ten years. It may mean for a short while he will be virtually unplayable, and then may just fade away.
Logic would suggest this is the case. Ajantha Mendis is the obvious modern story of a mystery spinner breaking onto the world stage. In Mendis’ first four Tests he took 33 wickets at an average of 18. And that included three Tests against India. He was a sensation. His carrom ball was unpickable to the Indian players, and most other international players. According to many he was to become the next Warne, Murali or Kumble.
But the modern world got hold of Mendis. Unlike Gleeson, no players kept their secrets about Mendis. Because of the IPL, many players discussed the Mendis’ giveaway of his carrom ball. Which had first been picked up by video analysis. This giveaway was simply that when he bowled the carrom ball, unlike his other deliveries, he kept his fingers up like accidental antennas that alerted the batsmen of his intention. He was caught in the modern age of super slow replays, Youtube and the IPL helping players share secrets.
In Ajantha Mendis’ last next 12 Tests he took 29 wickets at 48. He is still a handy limited-overs performer. But was overlooked for the World Cup final and hasn’t been a regular in the IPL for quite some time.
Mendis was all mystery. His problems is that while he is a spin bowler, he doesn’t spin the ball much at all. He has virtually no drift, doesn’t drop the ball, and never beats batsman in flight. He is essentially a slow medium pacer who can move the ball slightly in both directions with a bit of help from the pitch. And his biggest problem is that his stock ball is not dangerous in the slightest. Without a stock ball that creates danger, you’re always going to struggle in Test Cricket.
Narine seems more like a spinner, who has some mystery to him right now. Narine has a brilliant stock ball. So brilliant that the first time I saw his carrom ball, I thought he should bin it, because it just limps off the pitch away from the right-hander whereas the offspinner of Narine is brutal. It rips and bounces. Even without a mystery ball, you can see why Narine would be a handful. It’s also just more than what he can deliver, it’s his poise and intelligence that stick out. He seems to bowl differently to each batsman, almost using their ego or batting stlye to his advantage, like some cunning super-villian. It is old school spin bowling.
I think Narine can survive and even prosper once his mystery is unlocked. But maybe I just want to believe that West Indies have a bowler that can win Tests for them for the next decade. The fear is that he will be a guy who can take a few wickets and be nothing more than a quirky little character actor in this long running dark period in the West Indies. They need a hero, or even an anti-hero, and I’m betting and hoping that Narine can be that guy while solving a lot of their problems.