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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on June 3, 2014, 14:15 GMT

    IPl on turning pitches proved that the most effective shots vs spin are back knee on ground cross batted straight hit & slog sweep

  • Adam on June 3, 2014, 12:17 GMT

    Of course you need a plan. If batting is anything, it is planning. To bat without a plan is not to bat at all, it is to simply swing a bit of wood.

    What you mean is that you cannot come into an innings with a rigid, preconceived plan. You must wait until you get to the crease, see where the gaps are, what areas the bowler is putting the ball in, and a plan should begin to form in your head about what shots will be required to put the two together.

  • hamish on June 3, 2014, 9:22 GMT

    It is a shame that after reading an excellent article about technical requirements for playing spin that 95% of the posters are writing about the Narine's situation and the merits of club vs country/T20 vs test.

    While not a technical thing, I hope that the batsmen are able to look for singles to turn over strike and keep the score ticking over. I don't want it to be block, block, bash, block, slog as our batting against spin often tends to be. It is going to be a real battle of attrition and 250 runs in a day could be match-winning, but singles need to be scored. Besides, the likes of McCullum, Taylor, Anderson etc can easily accelerate later on when the bowlers and fielders are tired (or even the likes of Watling, Sodhi, Southee etc down the order). I just hope the openers repay the faith put in them and we get a decent foundation.

  • jayaesh on June 3, 2014, 8:39 GMT

    I am in mid 30's and i was brought up on a diet of international cricket, Summer Olympics and Football World Cups, so it was a shock to my system when my much younger cousin introduced me to the world of European football leagues 14 years back.Any national team is elitist in nature because not more than 15-16 players can represent there countries while in all these leagues 300-400 odd players get a chance to shine.

    One has to keep remembering that IPL final was only clashing with preparatory camp and not the actual test match and Narine would just have missed 2 days of the camp .I am an proud Indian and always love and prefer watching Indian cricket team but i also watch IPL,Ranji,U 19 matches with equal relish, cmmon let common sense prevail and please give IPL a two month window so we can avoid these club vs country debates.

  • jayaesh on June 3, 2014, 8:24 GMT

    Well Narine feels valued and loved by KKR which he doesn't by WICB , and it not just WICB , look at various other boards where various players associations are locked in a battle with there respective boards, in every other sports like Football,American sports ,Tennis we have made peace with the fact that club comes first so why Cricket should be any different ?? don't we see the likes of Nadal,Federer,Djokovic put there career first aheadof playing Davis Cup matches.We all love our Man Uniteds,Liverpools,Barcas,Madrids of the world and before the start of WC in Brazil about 100 odd players won't be there because of various injuries they picked up over the course of a grueling 9 month long season , you don't see football fans and football media raise a hue and cry about it. @ Josiah M Philips, you are a Chelsea fan how would you feel if your star players like Hazard,Ramires,Cahill,Willian etc pick up an injury while playing for there countries .contd

  • joe on June 3, 2014, 1:41 GMT

    I think that it is because of players playing for there country is how they are noticed in the first place so they owe it to there country and should be 100% committed to there country first and foremost without playing for their country how else are they exposed to the rest of the world. W.I.c.b laid down the criteria and narine chose the ipl a choice that he will have to live with besides its only the first match he is missing but as a new Zealander I'm happy with his decision :)

  • Android on June 2, 2014, 22:33 GMT

    Ipl is still DOMESTIC cricket. in no way shape or form is it as big as an international game, with international standard players.

  • Dummy4 on June 2, 2014, 22:20 GMT

    West Indies is not even a country, so country vs club debate is meaningless. I remember Dwayne Bravo making some interesting comments a few years ago about how his priorities lay first with Trinidad and Tobago, then his IPL side and then the West Indies, as T&T was his nation.

    And regarding Test(boring circus) vs IPL/T20(exciting circus), most of the people are turning to T20, even the South Africans are not able to fill stadiums even after being world No.1 and the series being Kallis retirement series.

    The test lovers should note that by pouring vitroil and abuse on IPL and T20 they are just pushing away the young fans from watching tests, that is the reason i smile whenever a test series is cancelled for ODI's/T20 and when the Test match world cup was cancelled.

  • Dummy4 on June 2, 2014, 18:23 GMT

    @shane-oh. I'm not comparing anything my friend. I was trying to point out that every team wants to win ('country first') yet somehow accommodates the needs of a player if the need is real. Family emergency is one such real need. Equally real can be (depends on who you ask) commitment to see one's team through. However, in Narine's case, the reality, will always smell of money to some. Did Narine do it for money or was he was truly committed to KKR's campaign? The truth in this case, unlike a family emergency, is gray, isn't it? Could the WICB have given him 48 more hours to join the camp? Now, that is an answer which may be less gray. Don't you think Shane-oh?

  • Kalyan on June 2, 2014, 15:27 GMT

    Narine's decision was forced on him by WICB who wanted him to give up the biggest match of the year, just to prove a point...agree 100% with thinkingcricket. and it's not like narine doesn't care, right? he appealed to the board, and even the KKR mgmt offered to fly him back on the earliest and fastest flights hom after the final, but it wasn't good enough for the bosses at the board. a fiasco that a format struggling for survival could rreally do without.

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