The conundrum of mystery bowlers
Since the introduction of Twenty20, the mystery bowler, particularly the mystery spinner, has had an unprecedented impact on the game. Coupled with the addition of the Decision Review System, which has seemingly instilled a greater confidence in umpires to award marginal decisions, mystery has thrived. Ajantha Mendis became perhaps the first authentic mystery bowler of this era. Initial success stemmed from being undefined. He seemed to possess countless deliveries, with players such as Sunil Narine and R Ashwin replicating this. Carrom balls have overtaken the doosra, and the cycle continues.
However, quickly batsmen have studied these variations, implemented the necessary technical adjustments and have successfully combated the creation of different deliveries. Mendis was swiftly rendered useless, and doubtless Narine will follow the Sri Lankan to the wayside.
Jade Dernbach, the England fast bowler, may share little with the mystery spinner. He is, though, remarkably alike. He concocted a devastating back-of-the-hand slower ball, alongside several others which deceived batsmen with astonishing success. Yet, he seems to have gone the way of the mystery spinner. The central flaw in Dernbach's method was always his lack of a "stock ball." While possessing indisputable skill, so as to bowl the impressive slower deliveries, perhaps his tenacious development of this particular ball had prevented or inhibited the basics to be sustained. Usually, these additions merely complement a consistently fast, good-length ball. Eventually batsmen played Dernbach with greater ease, knowing that the likelihood of a slower ball was high, but the likelihood of a brilliant ball low. He seems to have copied the timeline of a mystery spinner - successful in the short term, yet unproductive in the long-term.
T20, though, has given an opportunity to these mystery bowlers. An allotment of four overs is such a small period that consistency is not required. Coupled with the batsman's natural aggression, wickets are likely. Dernbach continues to prosper in the shortest format, but struggled in 50-over cricket where regularity is essential.
This is not to say, though, that variation is disadvantageous. Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne perhaps stimulated the utilising of spin as an attacking weapon. They both possessed variation. Yet, they also, as is imperative in spin bowling if success is to be maintained, used variation in flight and dip, alongside a rarely exploited turning difference to great prosperity.
To bowl 30 overs in a Test innings requires a certain level of consistency. Mystery does not provide this, perhaps as a result of not having a "stock ball." As mystery spin, specifically, does not seem to mean deception in flight, but variation in turn, part of the most potent weapon of a spin bowler is lost. As Dernbach discovered, a fast bowler has to be able to bowl a good-length delivery to survive in longer formats, not just change his pace.
Therefore, mystery bowling's greatest strength, the unpredictability, is also its greatest weakness, the inconsistency. Paradoxically, the unpredictable, with time, becomes predictable, the mystery eventually revealed. This is the conundrum.