Can Narine trick England?
No doubt all eyes will be on Sunil Narine at Edgbaston. The mystery spinner from Trinidad. The knuckle-ball wizard. The offspinner, whose hand batsmen have found hard to read. The man, who Darren Sammy, the West Indies captain, feels has the expertise to tease and pose problems against England.
Equipped with strong wrists, a scrambled seam and smart brains Narine controlled Australia like marionettes during the one-day series in April, which West Indies drew 2-2. Last week he finished as second highest wicket-taker in the IPL, where he was also the most economical bowler and instrumental in Kolkata Knight Riders winning their maiden title. Narine turned 24 just ten days ago and on Thursday there is a strong possibility of him making his Test debut. Rarely have so many expectations in the Caribbean rested on someone so young.
Narine was drafted as a replacement for Kemar Roach, who was the ruled out of the series due to injury after the Trent Bridge Test. It was a curious inclusion in that Narine had decided to play in the IPL instead of making himself available for the Australia Test or England series. You can't blame him only because Narine still has no WICB contract and he will have wanted to safeguard his future by selling his wares in the best marketplace in cricket - the IPL.
But can West Indies really pin all your hopes on Narine? The pitches in England do not turn much. The conditions have been severely cold as Shane Shillingford, the other of spinner in the West Indies squad, experienced. He complained that he could not grip the ball firmly and would much rather sit out of the first Test at Lord's. When he did play in the second Test at Trent Bridge, Shillingford managed just one wicket, and finished as the most expensive bowler on both sides.
Sammy was therefore cautious about what to expect from him. "Everyone is calling him the mystery spinner and he could come in and make an impact for us," he said. "It's a difficult place for spinners to make their debut but he has a lot up his sleeve and we're backing him to make an impact."
"He has enough variations in flight, bounce and turn and he can pose problems to any batsman. Sunil is different. He has a wide array of balls. So far nobody has been able to pick him at least in Twenty20 cricket. So hopefully he can come in and make a big impact for us in this Test match."
If Narine stands up to the challenge, it will be an immense shot in the arm for both him and West Indies cricket. Most successful Test teams have had an effective slow bowler - one of the exceptions being the West Indies side of the 1980s and early 1990s - with the ability to play the dual role of being the sponge which can absorb pressure while turning into the impact player who is able to win matches by dominating batsmen mentally using various tricks from his bag.
Narine has not even played enough first-class matches to use up all the fingers on both hands. Yet with every match he has shown the aptitude to learn and an appetite to take wickets in big numbers. In his last first-class match, against Windward Islands, Narine bagged two five-wicket hauls for Trinidad and Tobago while opening the bowling. Sammy, leading Windward, remembered the match with an embarrassing smile; Narine removed the West Indies captain in the first innings although Sammy made 88 in the second.
He tries to outfox the batsmen with changes of pace, but his biggest strength is accuracy which is highlighted by a Twenty20 economy rate of 5.20 and an ODI figure of 3.79. Also since he bowls with the scrambled seam, he makes it difficult for the batsman to read which the ball is going to spin. He then forces them to read off the pitch which means the batsman has to sit and wait. It is not an easy job as Australia will attest to.
So it will be interesting to see Narine bowl to the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell who do not think twice before jumping out of the crease to dominate the spinners. Kieron Pollard, Narine's team-mate and friend at Trinidad and Tobago, thinks Narine has the patience and the temperament to withstand pressure. This is as good a time as any to put Pollard's opinion to the test because West Indies need a matchwinner desperately.
Unlike England, who can afford to rest their leading bowler, James Anderson, due to strong bench strength, West Indies have been forced to recast their line-up owing mainly to injuries. In the absence of Roach, the onus will be on the pair of Ravi Rampaul and Narine. Rampaul is an honest workhorse but cannot single-handedly run through opposition. At the same time it would be unjust to ask Narine to change West Indies' fortunes singlehandedly. The potential, though, is huge.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo