April 16, 2016

Arjun Nair, the YouTube kid

Australian cricket has unearthed its first carrom-ball spinner, a teenager inspired by watching clips of Sunil Narine and R Ashwin in the IPL

"I always like to be different, whatever it is. Doing something different will hopefully show a different aspect of spin bowling in Australia" © Getty Images

Next summer will mark ten years since Shane Warne retired from Test matches, a decade in which his giant shadow was cast over all Australian spin bowlers who followed him. Just this week another chapter of discontent unfolded, as Cameron Boyce chose to leave Queensland for Tasmania in search of the opportunities seldom found by those who carried on in their forebear's 700-wicket wake.

Time changes all things, of course, and under the flight path of Boyce's journey from Brisbane to Hobart a rather different slow-bowling emergence has taken place in Sydney. Lacking the services of Steve O'Keefe due to injury, New South Wales' selectors chose to thrust the 17-year-old offspinner Arjun Nair into their Sheffield Shield side for the final two rounds.

Nominally an offspinner, he boasts five variations and is presently working on a sixth. Rather than being moved to try spin by Warne's exploits, Nair first experimented with different ways of breaking the ball after watching IPL spells by Sunil Narine and R Ashwin on YouTube. In the technically staid world of Australian spin bowling, this is quite a departure, and a breakthrough.

"A couple of times I'd put an idea to him and he'd be quite confident in saying no and going with what he thought was his best option to get a wicket"
Nic Maddinson on captaining Nair

"I've got the offbreak, carrom ball, topspinner, slider, the legbreak is something I'm working on," Nair says. "And I've got another ball I'm working on that looks like a legbreak but comes back in. I'm trying to work on that for next season, so we'll see how it comes along - something different.

"I'm an offspin bowler, and my stock ball is definitely my strongest ball, it's just about finding out how to vary it and what are the best combinations for the batsman to play. When you start you want to know how many offspinners to bowl before you bowl a carrom ball - trying to understand my own game is the key.

"I always like to be different, whatever it is. It's a good opportunity for selectors to see something different, I guess. There are a lot of traditional offspinners and legspinners out there. Doing something different will hopefully show a different aspect of spin bowling in Australia. The pitches here don't spin as much as they do in India, for example, so if you have the variety there, it will be harder for batsmen to play you. Everyone has different strengths and mine is variety."

Spin bowling itself is still relatively new for Nair, who was four when his father, Jay, first tossed balls to him. For most of the next decade, batting was the path Nair followed, and handy scores in his first two Shield matches for the Blues showed there is talent in both disciplines - numerous good judges in NSW think his batting may yet overtake his bowling.

Arjun Nair started out as a batsman and part-time legspinner © Getty Images

But the breakthrough from junior and club cricket for Hawkesbury in the Sydney grade competition arrived after Nair began slowing down those aforementioned YouTube clips. He practised his variations in a compact backyard net constructed at the family home in the western Sydney suburb of Girraween, over time adding more pace, power and revolutions.

"I was mainly a batsman who bowled part-time leggies," Nair says. "Then I started watching a bit of YouTube, clips of guys bowling carrom balls and stuff. I'd watch clips of past matches, slow it down, watch replays and pick things up here and there.

"I started trying that for fun at the backyard with my dad and he couldn't pick it. At first I couldn't get many revs on the carrom ball, but over time and getting used to it, I've started to get more on it and my accuracy has improved.

"I was 15 when I started bowling it, and I was bowling it in matches about four months after that. So it wasn't too long, but because batting was my main thing, it was just fun for me, I didn't really think about it too much, there wasn't pressure on me to quickly work on it. Now my bowling is getting ahead of my batting so it's worked both ways."

Nair's development was noted by NSW talent spotters, and he was encouraged through the fold of Under-19s and then the Futures League. Anthony Clark, a former NSW offspinner, and the one-Test wristspinner Beau Casson are useful sources of advice, while the NSW coach Trent Johnston has been influential too. Via Hawkesbury, Nair has also worked with Neil D'Costa, sometime mentor to Michael Clarke, Phillip Hughes and Mitchell Starc, to name three.

"I started trying that [carrom ball] for fun at the backyard with my dad and he couldn't pick it. At first I couldn't get many revs on the carrom ball, but over time my accuracy has improved"

"He's talked to me about backing my skills," Nair says of Casson, who was compelled to retire early from the game due to a heart condition in 2012. "What's got me to this level is what I've done previously, so I don't want to change too much. He also talks to me about my flight and different strategies I can use. He's been a good help."

D'Costa, known primarily as a batting coach, is trying to make Nair work harder. "He's been a good motivator, he has his own way of motivating people," Nair says.

He is very much a product of the T20 age. For instance, his support of sporting teams depends largely upon who is playing for them. His admiration for Cristiano Ronaldo has made him a devoted follower of Real Madrid, and a similar story is told when the topic turns to IPL teams.

"Right now I go for Kolkata [Knight Riders] because Narine plays for them, one of the bowlers I looked at," he says. "I support players more [than teams]. I used to like Adam Gilchrist so I supported Deccan Chargers back in the day, so I support players and whichever team they're in I support that team."

This is not to say Nair is in any danger of leaving NSW anytime soon. He feels confident he is in the best part of Australia to develop as a spin bowler, and a range of contributions in his first two Shield matches helped build a sense of belonging. His captain in these matches, Nic Maddinson, was impressed by Nair's skill, and also his confidence.

Former Australia spinner Beau Casson helped Arjun Nair develop as a spinner © AFP

"I know he's very confident in what he does," Maddinson says. "A couple of times I'd put an idea to him and he'd be quite confident in saying no and going with what he thought was his best option to get a wicket. I think that's good in a young player. A lot of the time they can be persuaded by someone a little bit older to do what they want and then not feel as confident when they're actually bowling.

"A lot of the time we're playing on nets that are like first-day wickets, so there's not a lot of turn, but I think he's quite cagey in the way he changes his pace and I think he understands bowling quite a lot for a kid his age. It's a positive, someone who is 17 and knows what he does well and what he doesn't do well, that's all you can ask of him at this stage. He could be anything as a cricketer. I really like his batting as well, so an exciting player to watch."

Something Nair admits about his first two matches is the fact that first-class cricket provides batsmen with more time to size up his bowling, as demonstrated by the stonewalling defence Cameron White used in Alice Springs to squeeze Blues out of the Shield final. Slower pitches than he had encountered in club competitions also tested Nair's pace, but he is eager to find the right method for challenges that contrast with the T20 contests that first caught his imagination.

"When I beat the batsman and they don't pick it I feel, 'I'm on top here', and that's when you go in for the kill," he says. "I found the pitches played a touch slower, so it was a bit easier for a batsman to play me off the pitch rather than out of the hand. They had a lot of time to see which way it was spinning, but that's something I can work on too, to maintain a higher pace.

"In T20 it's harder to play me because there's less time to watch the ball before you go for the big shots. In the longer format they have more time to look at it and play carefully. That's something I need to keep improving and working hard on, trying to be hard to play."

Australian batsmen have returned from numerous overseas tours in recent times wondering at the wiles of spin bowlers whose approaches have seemed at times to be a long way removed from the Warne model. While Nair has plenty of work ahead, his mere emergence tells of a sea change in Australian slow bowling. As Maddinson put it: "He's got a different way of bowling, and I think we might need that."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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