Unravelling the Narine mystery
It's hard to remain a mystery today, what with all the footage available for replays in slow-motion and every player painstakingly scrutinised. The action has shifted from the 22 yards to the editing table.
Yet Sunil Narine continues to beat technology and stay ahead of most analyses. Even though he has been scanned time and again, he manages to get the better of batsmen and fascinate spectators.
He's not the first mystery spinner; there have been quite a few who batsmen couldn't decipher immediately, if at all. Yet there's something about this lad from the West Indies, with a peculiar hairdo and an equally peculiar action that has enthralled aficionados worldwide.
In his debut IPL season, last year, Narine took 24 wickets and helped Kolkata Knight Riders win the trophy for the first time. But it isn't just his ability to take wickets that makes everyone sit up and take note, it's the way he spins around hapless batsmen.
One particular over that he bowled to his fellow West Indian, Andre Russell, in the opening match of this season's IPL comes to mind, because it looked like Russell had no idea which way the ball would turn after pitching. Each time almost, he played down one way when the ball was heading the other.
It's not too hard to decipher a doosra or a carrom ball from an offspinner while watching on TV, when the camera gives us the view from the back, but Narine's variations are hard to pick even for viewers sitting at home. So what chance did Russell have?
By bowling even his offspinners with a scrambled seam, Narine manages to keep the batsman guessing which one will head the other way. And since he bowls both his variations from the front of the hand (the doosra is usually bowled from the back of the hand), you have to look very closely at which way his fingers are turning at the point of release - not an easy job.
But it isn't just the variations or his ability to disguise them that make Narine a difficult bowler to bat against in T20. There are many bowlers who have more variations up their sleeve. All good legspinners have three deliveries (legspin, googly and a flipper), and most offspinners these days also possess more than a couple variations (offspin, doosra and a carrom ball), but it isn't about the quantity, it's about the quality of execution. Having different types of deliveries won't mean much unless you know when to use them.
In fact, Narine has only two variations in his bag - a regular offspinner and the one that goes away after pitching. But unlike other spinners, he is a master when it comes to using his subtle variations, and he rarely overdoes them.
In his first over in this year's IPL, he did not bowl a single away-going delivery. He realised that there was some turn and bounce on the Eden Gardens pitch, so he was better off bowling offbreaks. In fact, in the entire game, he didn't bowl a single away-going delivery to the well-set Mahela Jayawardene, having arranged a leg-side field for him. If Jayawardene had picked the variation, Narine would have run the risk of leaking runs. But against Russell, Narine strengthened the off-side field, with a slip as an attacking option, and bowled the other one repeatedly. His ability to judge the demands of the situation and then move from being smart and defensive to brave and aggressive sets him apart.
In addition to his game sense and variety, Narine's pace and his effective stock ball make it very tough to score off him. He bowls really flat and slightly quicker but without compromising on turn off the surface. If there's something in the pitch for the spinners, he really rips them across the right-handers and away from the left-handers.
The delivery that got David Warner in the first match was an example of his ability to turn the ball with bounce at reasonably high speed. His pace and flat trajectory take away the batsman's crucial attacking strategy - stepping down the track to play the lofted shot. There aren't many who can hit the long ball without coming out of the crease.
If you can't come down the track, you look to either slog-sweep towards cow corner or go deep into the crease to pull the slightly shorter deliveries. Narine's extra turn and bounce on pitches like the one at the Eden Gardens make both these shots tough to execute. The turn ensures the ball misses the bat's sweet spot. If that fails, the bounce ensures the ball's impact on the bat is higher than the batsman is comfortable with. Either way the batsman rarely gets the intended height or distance.
If batsmen look for five or six runs off a Narine over instead of going after him, he might not turn out to be such a prolific wicket-taker. Unfortunately for all IPL teams, Knight Riders' captain, Gautam Gambhir, brings Narine on either in the Powerplay or during the death overs. That forces batsmen to go after Narine and increases his chances of picking up wickets. I won't be surprised if he finishes as one of the top wicket-takers this season as well.