April 19, 2013

Spinners alive and kicking in T20

Big bats, unorthodox strokes and short boundaries can't beat a canny spinner

For about 20 minutes in Mohali, that rather sleepy adjunct to Chandigarh where fast bowlers are allowed an existence in India, two spin bowlers deceived and tormented batsmen and reminded us that while the bat is a powerful weapon, the ball can hoodwink it.

They had travelled a long way and neither spoke the local language. One was a phlegmatic West Indian with a gelled mohawk that rather resembled a large centipede stuck on a head; and the other a slightly stern looking Sri Lankan, not quite as physically eye-catching as his new team-mate. They spoke in distinct accents, but between them they mesmerised batsmen.

Sunil Narine is from the Caribbean, a land of great joy, where spinners were, until recently, in danger of extinction from big, jolly fellows who bowled as fast as the tornadoes that often visit its shores. Some years ago I interviewed the giant Nixon McLean, who told me his father "hated dem speeners". But Narine comes from Trinidad, where the pitches sometimes support the twirlers. His coach must have let him be, because he could never have come through a modern coaching factory.

Sachithra Senanayake comes from a land that has always produced very genial, modest cricketers, where mystery in spin bowling is almost a tradition now. They follow in the footsteps of the great Muralitharan, who if he ever swore violently did it when no one was watching. Murali was a wristspinner really, but Senanayake uses his fingers and the ball seems to enjoy following their instructions. In Mohali, he and Narine were like two puppeteers. They told a story with their fingers.

Adam Gilchrist might be in his early forties but he can recognise what a cricket ball does. He sat on his back foot, waiting for the ball from Senanayake to spin away so he could cut it past point. It took some time getting to him but once it met the turf, it hissed at Gilchrist and went the wrong way. By the time the bat came down it was too late. It was a typical stealth operation. Slow, slow, slow, then pounce.

Young David Miller from South Africa, where they know everything about big seam bowlers who bang the ball onto a hard surface but not too much about guys with short run-ups who bowl whodunits, was similarly bamboozled. Senanayake bowled the offbreak - he is described as an offspinner - but he also bowled the carrom ball, deceptively, flicking the ring finger, and other assortments with the seam up or scrambled.

David Hussey was looking good until an offbreak from Narine sprang up at him and took his glove on the way to the wicketkeeper. Azhar Mahmood, originally of Pakistan and brought up in the same side as the inventor of the doosra, Saqlain Mushtaq, got one that he believed would turn into him. It took his leading edge. Then young Gurkeerat Singh came in and played inside the line. Or what he thought was inside the line. It pitched and seamed away like a legcutter does on a matting wicket and hit the top of off stump. The ball might have been waving at him as it passed by. Three balls, three deceptions, three wickets.

Senanayake and Narine, two cricketers revelling in unorthodoxy and playing for a team based in a city steeped in tradition. It was deliciously ironic.

But if we thought T20 was all about the unconventional and the deeply mysterious, Amit Mishra showed there can be room for an orthodox legspinner who bowls legspin exactly as it has been bowled for a hundred years.

Mishra is a little, rather round, man in no danger of being called athletic. He often wears a slightly pained expression and looks like he might have been bullied in a boys' school. But with ball in hand he comes into his own, expresses himself, displays the complete range. He took four wickets in an over with a classical legbreak, a googly, a skidder and a beautifully tossed-up ball, and it is fair to say that the batsmen looked more than a bit bemused; a bit stupid, actually. Those big clubs in their hands weren't doing too much for them since they were being outwitted.

When T20 first arrived, it was thought there would be no space there for spinners. But just as the beauty of words has withstood the Twitter era, the charm of spin bowling has stayed alive, even flowered, in T20 cricket. And that is so nice to see.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. He is currently contracted to the BCCI. His Twitter feed is here

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