The mysterious Mr Narine
Kieron Pollard remembers the moment clearly. Sitting at his laptop in the middle of the night in Barbados, he was following the IPL player auction in Bangalore. "When his name came up and the price started to rise, I think I was more excited than him. He is one of the guys I have seen come through the ranks in Trindad & Tobago and he has been on the fringes for a long while, and then to get this opportunity to come to the IPL and not only come but come at such a price was very nice," Pollard says of fellow Trinidadian Sunil Narine, the offspinner.
Bidding on Narine started at the base price of $50,000. Two hours into it, the Kolkata Knight Riders and Pollard's Mumbai Indians were in a tug of war. Eventually the Knight Riders had him for $700,000. Narine was in Bridgetown at the time, playing in a match against Combined Campuses and Colleges, which he near-singlehandedly won for T&T with a 13-wicket match haul. He was returning to the team hotel in the early hours of the morning after a liming session with a few Trinidad players, including Dwayne Bravo, who was being fed news of the auction by New Zealand allrounder Scott Styris on the phone. "It was four or five in the morning," Narine remembers with a smile. "Bravo asked me, 'You know you have been bought in the IPL?' I asked for how much. He said $700,000. I was like, 'Oh shit, no way, man,'"
Over the last month Narine has been delivering on that investment: he is the IPL's mystery man, whose hands, seam and "knuckle ball" quality batsmen are finding impossible to read. Going into Sunday's final, Narine has 24 wickets, one shy of tournament leader Morne Morkel, though Narine's wickets have come far cheaper: his economy rate of 5.20 is the best across all IPL seasons among bowlers who have bowled a minimum of 30 overs. Even Muttiah Muralitharan, who played for the Royal Challengers Bangalore this season, has an overall tournament economy rate of 6.48. That Narine is difficult to get away is also indicated by the fact that less than 40% of the runs he has conceded have come through boundaries (112). Compare that with Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla, at least half of whose runs have come in boundaries.
Narine is one of the few instances in IPL history where a big buy has provided value for money in the first season. Joy Bhattacharjya, the Knight Riders' team director, says that putting big money on Narine was not a risk. The team's post-mortem at the end of the 2011 season highlighted the need for a strike bowler who could also be economical bowling at the death. "Narine has fulfilled the need on both fronts," Bhattacharjya says. The Knight Riders play their first IPL final this weekend and Bhattacharjya agrees that Narine has been instrumental in them having gone so far.
"It is a little tough knowing that you have been bought for so much," Narine says. "There is a little bit of pressure. Knowing that, you still have to go out and do your best. It is not like you just got the money and didn't perform. Hopefully I can continue performing."
From out of Trinidad
Narine comes from a small family and lives with his parents and older sister in Arima, Trinidad. He surprised Sunil Gavaskar recently when he revealed in a post-match chat that his father, Shadeed, a big fan of the Indian batting legend, had named his son after him.
It was Shadeed who sparked his son's interest in sport, taking him to the Queens Park Savannah every evening. Narine is proud he has been loyal to his first club, Queens Park Oval. "I started at age seven and I'm still there at age 23."
Family support helped Narine keep faith with cricket when his teachers at school were unhappy he was getting increasingly distracted by the sport. "Some of the teachers said, 'You better concentrate on your books, because one in a million make it big.'" But his father did not let his young son be discouraged. "He said, 'Don't worry. What's for you is for you and will happen.' So I just continued playing cricket and here I am now," Narine says.
Narine is a Roman Catholic, but says he is not religious, and though superstitious by his own admission, he is reluctant to say what rituals he observes. Apart from his now-famous mohawk, he has a tattoo on his arm and wears a couple of bands on his wrists, including a metal one with his first name inscribed on it. His one kit-bag essential is sunglasses: "I have eight shades, all different colours. Just love them," he says.
He first came to notice during the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2005, his first games for West Indies. He looks at that tournament as a stepping stone, because he then graduated to play for the senior side at his club. "Before that I used to struggle to make the second team at Queen's Park." Bernard Julien, Sammy Guillen and Roland Sampath were among the coaches who played a significant role in Narine's progress at various stages of his career.
In 2011, Narine had to travel to Australia to make minor tweaks to his bowling action. Some regional umpires had raised doubts about his bowling during the Caribbean Twenty20 tournament and told the T&T manager and coach remedial action needed to be taken. The government of Trinidad funded the trip. It was a critical time, just before the T&T side was picked for the Champions League Twenty20. "If I failed I would have to start all over again," Narine says. "It was a lot of pressure." In Australia he learnt to bowl a little more side-on. "Little, little adjustments" were suggested without changing his action entirely, which worked well.
Though West Indies as a whole may not quite be a haven for spin, T&T does not lack for slow bowlers. Narine was pitted against the likes of Dave Mohammed, Samuel Badree, Amit Jaggernauth, Sherwin Ganga and Imran Khan. It helped, then, that the first time he was selected for a trials game meant to pick the Trinidad team, in 2008, he took all ten wickets, including that of West Indies opener Lendl Simmons. It immediately catapulted him over the competition. Narine says he has learned from the rest. "Probably their motivation and love for cricket and the pride they take in representing the country. They are quite serious about their game, and attitude-wise they are brilliant," he says.
The knuckle ball
As a youngster, Narine played "windball" cricket with a soft ball, where the bowler squeezes the ball during delivery to make it spin. Shadeed had watched the Sri Lanka offspinner Ajantha Mendis bowl his "carrom" ball, and urged his son to try the knuckle grip. So did Darren Bravo. "I was practising in the nets and then one of my friends, Marlon, and small Bravo told me why did I not try it in club matches," Narine says.
He found it hard initially - it's one thing squeezing a soft ball and another propelling a hard cricket ball across 22 yards - but says he has improved with time and practice.
The knuckle-ball grip involves bending the forefinger and middle finger and using them to propel the ball forwards. What is distinct about Narine's away-going delivery, as opposed to a carrom ball bowled by someone like, say, R Ashwin, is that the Indian uses one finger to push the ball away while Narine uses two.
Narine has used his knuckle ball sparingly, and says his stock ball will always be the offbreak, which he delivers with more side spin. He also has the topspinner, and a faster ball, which he uses varyingly to keep batsmen in check.
The first glimpse the world at large got of Narine's repertoire was in T&T's crucial match against the Chennai Super Kings in the 2011 Champions League Twenty20, when he dismissed Murali Vijay, Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni - the last two caught and bowled. "When I came on, they were under pressure, so I was happy to bowl," he remembers. "Against Dhoni, I know he was looking to hit me for a six. So I mixed my pace and got him." He rates the performance as one of his best spells to date. "It was my first real exposure to that level of cricket."
Former England batsman Owais Shah, who moves about a lot in his crease, is the kind of player Narine finds difficult to bowl at. At Eden Gardens in April, Shah came in to bat for the Rajasthan Royals against KKR after a solid half-century against Mumbai Indians a couple of days before. "He is pretty hard to bowl at because he is not stable at the crease," Narine says. His game plan was to not give Shah any room, and to bowl as close to the wicket as possible. It worked and Shah was stumped when he charged down against one that left him.
Two days later Narine took a five-for against Kings XI Punjab at the same ground, including Adam Gilchrist and Shaun Marsh in quick succession. Marsh, one of the best Twenty20 batsmen around, was bowled by a knuckle ball that came in through the gate.
Narine's favourite wicket of the season so far, though, has been that of Sachin Tendulkar - who was bowled by a sharp offbreak that cramped him for room as he tried to cut it.
Hungry for the big game
Narine may have bowled only 81.5 overs in international cricket but he has left a mark there as well. As the Australians, the No. 1 ODI team in the world, found out recently, in particular Matthew Wade, who Narine got three times in 20 deliveries for just two runs in the series in the Caribbean.
Narine's strength is his consistency, Pollard points out. "The way he analyses situations and batsmen, and if you watched his pitch map in the Australia series, the percentage in one area was very good." Pollard thinks Narine is learning quickly to adapt, knowing that teams will work him out in international cricket over a period of time. "He will try to keep one step ahead and he will work hard as he is a humble human being."
Narine for his part says he is still learning to bowl under pressure. "Two things can happen: you can bowl good and get a better name for yourself. Or you can go there and get smashed and then you have to work on something. So I take it up as a challenge each time I go in to bowl to be consistent," he says.
Geoff Lawson, the former Australia fast bowler, who was in the West Indies as a television commentator for the series, thinks if Narine had played in the Test series, West Indies might have won it - if only because the pitches for the Tests had more bounce. "He does put a lot of work on his offspinner, which makes it effective - he doesn't just roll it out, so batsmen have to be looking to play for significant deviation off the pitch," Lawson says. The other thing about Narine that struck Lawson was that he bowls with a scrambled seam. "When you bowl both the offspinner and the topspinner and doosra with a scrambled seam, it is very difficult to pick the actual rotation. If the batsmen aren't getting good visual clues out of the hand, then they are reduced to playing the ball off the pitch, which has obvious limitations in terms of time to play shots."
Narine says he is ready and "hungry" to play Test cricket, and reckons his time is nearing fast. "Hopefully I will be fully prepared and fully ready for it," he says.
He is 24 today. The biggest challenge ahead, he reckons, is to keep his feet on the ground. "I want to learn to adapt to not being successful - how to keep a mindset when things are not going well for me. In cricket there are less ups than downs, so I want to learn to bounce back from a bad over, a bad innings, bad match."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo