June 2, 2014

Watch, move, and play late

New Zealand's batsmen need to clear their minds and trust their footwork to avoid being rolled over by spin in the Caribbean

Kane Williamson: the key to New Zealand's chances against West Indies' spinners © Getty Images

As New Zealand tour the West Indies in what will be a close fight, it is likely it will come down to who spins their wheels the best. Years back, when touring the Caribbean, there was a queue every second day to get an X-ray for a possible broken bone, but not now. These days it is slow spin that will determine the outcome, and cause the pain.

Mystery spin would normally be West Indies' trump, via Sunil Narine and Shane Shillingford, while rookies Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig carry the responsibility on the other side of the trenches. But shockingly, Narine has decided to turn his back on his country to play a domestic T20 game over a vitally important Test series. I will say no more, until the end of this piece, except to say : in my heart it doesn't wash.

Instead, let me speak of what the secrets are to playing quality spin, even the mysterious kind.

To assess the virtues of what it takes to play spin well, I will refer to two great specialist players of spin, rather than just go to the obvious list of greats who dominated the game against all bowling. The two specialists were Pakistan's finest, Javed Miandad, and John Reid, the left-hander for New Zealand during the '80s.

Both were different in method. Javed was the busier of the two, John the more poised and composed. What they both possessed was an open stance to see all possible lines, and an acutely watchful eye to fend off any last-second danger. In essence, they were attracted to the slow, spinning nature of the ball, far more than the split-second flurry of pace.

They also, as did the greats, did not ever fret over picking the mystery ball, or what approach to take. They simply saw the ball at its earliest release, and with a clear mind, zeroed in on the detail of the delivery. This gave them the information as to what was happening and what was the correct response, even at the very last moment.

These days many players feel a need to analyse, to delve into what the mystery is. This is the worst approach. To fill the head with theory and second-guessing will not only confuse the mind and create doubt, it will inevitably block the ability to see what is real, the ball spinning in mid-air and seeing it for what it is. The crux is in the over-analysing and subsequent confusion.

Most important of all is the need to not overthink the situation or challenge. Far better to just practise it, absorb it, find trust in what you have, to counter spin

Narine, for example, is unique with his finger-flicking technique. It's cool to watch. And it is challenging also, for he is deadly accurate and bowls a nagging length. That he spins it a bit both ways makes him a truly effective international bowler. But he is no Qadir, Warne or Murali. And so the approach should be respectful and simple.

The key is clearing the mind. To not think. A good routine will assist this. What is needed is to turn off from the last ball and to wait 30 seconds before turning on a fierce focus to the next ball. And then the focus becomes the ball, and watching it, gathering the information as you witness the delivery unfolding, curving and spinning through the air.

With the use of good, agile footwork and a steady blade, the ball should be countered and measured surely enough, given the time involved. If the mind is pre-empting what might happen, or trying to make a snap decision as to which way it will spin once arriving, then the chances of playing it correctly are limited.

Too often young players and coaches will believe they need a plan. They don't. As with Reid and Miandad, they just need simplicity and trust. Trusting what they see will be enough, in which their sure feet and hand-eye feel for the ball's twists and turns will be ready at the right time. Reid and Miandad grew up with a natural background of playing on surfaces that spun. This gave them their natural instinctive trust.

When you play in a foreign land on unfamiliar surfaces, it's vital you spend as much time as possible getting exposed to what will be served up come Test time.

Most important of all is the need to not overthink the situation or challenge. Far better to just practise it, absorb it, find trust in what you have, to counter it. Don't spend that practice time going over the various theories undoubtedly on offer. Avoid them at all costs. Simply clear the mind and watch, move and play late.

Kane Williamson will hold a key to his team's fortunes. He is a terrific player, reminding me of Reid himself. With his open stance, bat down, softly held, and fast, trustworthy feet at his disposal, he can anchor the innings. Why he still feels the need to double-pump his bat held high to the quicks is puzzling and self-defeating, especially when he provides a perfect set-up to the spinners. However, if he gets past the quicks and settles in as he can against spin, he will allow Taylor and McCullum to also get in and go big. These three hold the secret to keeping it simple for the rest.

It's a big series this one, for both teams. West Indies have a new captain in Denesh Ramdin, a rapidly slowing Chris Gayle, and many other factors to decipher, which means the local team has a few issues to sort. Yet they can't afford to let this series get away from them, especially after smashing the same opponents two years earlier in the same conditions. Back then Narine dominated majorly, but this time around he won't show. It's his decision, and he isn't the only one to have done this, but under Richard Pybus and a new "West Indies First" mandate, it's a crucial blow for a once-great team to climb the ladder again.

Narine's decision shows we have a problem running too deep for comfort, and I am not looking forward to the spin that will follow.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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