Maturing Narine stays one step ahead
On a forgettable night fraught with soggy frustration for fans and disappointment for the exiting team, Sunil Narine produced a piece of cricketing brilliance that will linger with those who were watching closely.
The first rain interruption had shaved two overs from the match, and as soon as play resumed, Darren Sammy brought Narine into the attack. Left-hander Ed Joyce was on strike and Narine opened with a menacing offbreak; whirring through the air unnervingly, dipping, pitching on leg stump and spitting beyond the batsman's prod.
The victory was twofold for Narine. He had the batsman groping already, but there was also turn here, plenty more than there had been on previous evenings. On Saturday he had shaken off indifferent form in the practice matches to send down two good overs against Australia. Had he not overstepped in his second over and the free-hit been sent into the stands, he might have traveled at less than a run-a-ball on a surface favouring batsman.
Joyce didn't come close to hitting that first ball and, like Narine, knew now that the pitch was pulling for the bowler tonight. He also knew that trotting down the wicket might be too big a risk. If the bowler sees him coming, a shorter delivery will take enough turn on this pitch to evade him. Even if Narine didn't anticipate his advance, there would be no room for error. If the first ball was so charged with venom, maybe Narine will become even more difficult to judge in the flight as he warms to his work. Better to stay at home and play it off the turf.
Smelling the batsman's hesitance, Narine pitched another one on leg, only slightly shorter, to give Joyce an even better look at the deviation. The batsman prodded again, and again he did was beaten thoroughly. Ireland's run rate was flagging. With the game shortened and rain in the air, boundaries became more imperative with every dot ball.
Having ruled out going down the track to combat the turn, Joyce decided lateral movement would help him. As the bowler entered his delivery stride, Joyce shuffled towards off stump. This time, he might have hoped, he could get closer to the ball as it turned away from him and play it away through the off side.
Only, it didn't turn away. Perhaps seeing Joyce's movement, or maybe having anticipated it, Narine had gone wide of the crease and pitched the ball outside leg. It wasn't the off-break either, it just went straight on. Once Joyce realised this, it was already too late. His hurried sweep missed, and the ball zipped behind his pads to peg back leg stump.
In three deliveries, Joyce had not been able to get near the ball. Narine was helped by the surface, sure, but when the batsman took measures to negate that turn, Narine was a step ahead. Having set him up with two big offbreaks, he made the batsman look inept with one that barely turned at all. Narine says Muttiah Muralitharan is his idol - and given how much he rips his offbreaks, it's not difficult to see Murali's influence - but that dismissal had a touch of Shane Warne about it. He didn't rely on mystery or even just on big turn; he cornered the batsman into surrendering his wicket - a hallmark of a maturing spinner.
"He's a guy who has got a lot of tricks up his sleeve and always thinks he can learn new stuff," captain Darren Sammy said of Narine after the match. "When you see him practice he's always trying new things. New run-ups, new actions, he just looks to improve his game all the time."
West Indies now move into the Super Eights without having won or completed a full match. Their batting looks as powerful as that of any team in the tournament, but despite a good outing against Ireland, questions remain about their bowling against top opposition. Narine has already proved himself adept at this format, having earned the purple cap in this year's IPL, and perhaps he can be the bowler who quells those fears and propels his side deep into the competition.
"Narine loves when the batsmen are looking to attack him," Sammy said. "With the scoreboard pressure, and the requirement to score quickly in Twenty20, it gives him the edge with all his tricks up his sleeves. The more we progress and the more we play on these wickets, the more assistance it will give him. These are good signs for us going into the Super Eights."
Pallekele will be Narine's next test. It has perhaps been the least spin friendly of the three venues so far, and he will likely have to rely on more of that guile when the West Indies move there for all three Super Eight matches. For now, Narine may get by simply on turn and variations, but in future, opponents will grow accustomed to him. If he maintains his devotion to the spinner's art of the swindle, he might be on track to emulate the longevity he admires so much in his favourite cricketer.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka