Carl Crowe, one of the leading T20 spin-bowling coaches in the world, is credited with revitalising Sunil Narine's career. After Narine's action was deemed illegal, Crowe worked with him to remodel it; he has also done the same with Mohammad Hafeez. A former offspinner for Leicestershire, Crowe has been a coach for a decade, and currently works with Kolkata Knight Riders and Trinbago Knight Riders and has also worked in the Big Bash, T20 Blast and the Global T20 Canada. He is regarded as one of the sharpest minds in T20 spin bowling.
Why do you think spin has been so successful in T20?
There's a number of reasons. The batsmen have to create pace onto the ball. If you're defending against seamers, probably with the pace you're still scoring runs, but with the spinners, obviously you're not.
I think the spinners who are increasingly effective and perform the best are the guys who spin it both ways. As a batsman, if you're setting yourself up to hit the ball knowing the ball is going to spin one way, it's not easy, but it's comfortable. If you've got a guy who spins the ball both ways, [as a batsman] you're very much more reactive rather than proactive, and particularly with the pace off as well.
In recent years we've seen far more spin bowled in the Powerplay. Why do you think that has been the case?
Firstly, teams probably play two or three spinners now. So you've got more spinners, and so you probably have to bowl spin in a Powerplay.
If the batsman is not prepared to create the pace against spinners, all of a sudden you get two or three dots, and the pressure starts to build very quickly. But again, I think that spinners have also been wicket-taking threats, and as we know, taking wickets in the Powerplay goes a long way towards giving yourself a better chance of winning the game. To be relevant, the best spinners bowl in the Powerplay fairly comfortably, and think nothing of it.
"You're almost bowling some bad balls on purpose, but bowling them where you want, so that the batsmen are hitting it where you want them to hit it"
What's your role as a T20 spin coach?
Whatever it needs to be, really. And that might be because wherever you are in different franchises, there's different players, different levels of ability, different experience levels. There's not always much of a chance to work on technique, because it tends to be a short period before the tournament starts. And you don't necessarily want to be thinking about technique while the tournament's going on - you're thinking about performance and outcomes.
But there can still be times you can do it. During the CPL, working with Fawad Ahmed, there were a couple of things I mentioned to him right at the start of the tournament - very minor, but technical things that he was very complimentary about, making a difference to the tournament.
It's mostly about being a sounding board. The analysts I've worked with quite a lot - like AR Srikkanth at KKR, at TKR - we work very closely together, so we'll be analysing the team before meetings, and then during meetings it will be a case of working out plans and then practising those plans in and around training, so when the boys go out to bowl, they're best prepared.
Also, reviewing the game. Some spinners like to sit down and go through the footage. Maybe that's from a technical perspective, to make sure they're doing what they want to do. Some of it will be just tactical - did you do what we talked about wanting to do?
What were the specific things you said to Fawad during the CPL?
It was about him being balanced at the crease, and just where his body was aligned to, where his bowling arm was going.
I mentioned to him what I noticed, he made a bit of an adjustment, and then kept an eye on it throughout the tournament. Also, we'd watch the footage back quite a bit. He's a big one for that.
Do you sometimes plan how you want to get a batsman out?
Oh absolutely, yeah. I think in T20 cricket, even though it's only 24 balls, a lot more of it is planned and structured than perhaps people realise. Even to the point of controlling almost completely where you're going to get hit, and knowing - and that's about the experience of the bowler, sensing that [the batsman] is potentially going to play a big shot here, giving him an attacking shot, but where I want him to hit it - where my fielders are. I'm controlling how many I'm going for, and I'm still on top. So you're almost bowling some bad balls on purpose, but bowling them where you want to bowl them, so that they are hitting it where you want them to hit it. You're keeping economy down - that's a big one.
Ravi Ashwin gave an interview to ESPNcricinfo, where he said "six well-constructed bad balls could be the way to go forward in T20". It seems like you agree?
Hundred percent. I think what was a good ball previously might not be now. So if you bowled a ball in a good area, spinning, actually they're the balls that could still go out of the park. And it's not just a case of "Well, I'll bowl a variation", it's how well you bowl the variation.
Getting cut is incredibly important - having the skill as a bowler to control getting cut to your fielder is one of the key skills for a spinner. Batsmen from a young age, you see a ball short and wide, you're programmed to cut it. As hard as you can. Whack it. In Test cricket, and maybe even some 50-over stuff, that's four runs straight away. In T20, put your field right, and you bowl a short, wide one, it's one run. So the batsman sees it's short and wide, is programmed to hit it as hard as they can on the cut shot, your field's right, it's one run. So if you've got a couple of dots in, the batsman's about to play a big shot, you get cut for a single - there's three balls you've controlled completely. You've controlled building up pressure, and you've controlled where you got hit. So tactically you're well ahead.
And equally, bowling the ball on the hip. Now if you can get a good into-the-pitch ball onto the hip, the batsmen are pretty well programmed to knock it into the leg side down to deep square for one. And even though they're shorter balls - they're short balls, conventionally, and in Test cricket, again you might get someone that can pull it - the batsman is cutting or hitting it off the hip, it's one run, and you're getting them to rotate the strike and you're tactically ahead of the game.
Of course, it's about variation, it's about bowling very good balls, but if you're tactically ahead of the game as well, that's where spinners have really taken a march forward. So Ashwin's comment, yeah, I completely agree with it. And actually, that's exactly what we work on in the nets. We work on controlling your bad balls, because in T20 they're not bad balls. If you bowl a standard-length ball - a good ball in Test cricket - there's every chance it will go out of the park.
Some people in T20 say that if you're a spinner and you turn the ball a lot, that could be dangerous. And if you turn the ball less, you're reducing the angles.
You've got to have the ability to do everything and at will. So if I want one to spin big, I [should be able] to, but if I want it to go straight on, I should be able to do that as well. If you become too predictable, then you'll struggle - if it's straight breaks, you'll get taken; if it's big spin, you'll get taken eventually.
"With Narine, you've got very little chance of being able to set yourself up well and have a real clear game plan all the time. You're being very reactive"
Now that predictability, at times it can work for you, for a small period, but if you start being predictable for a long period - I'm talking eight, ten balls - then you're in trouble. So to have the ability to do everything would be key for me. And you do see that. Some of the bowlers, like [Ravindra] Jadeja, for example, where I think he's a master is that - particularly sometimes where he delivers from his trajectory - he has natural variation. So sometimes it will spin big, and then sometimes with the same trajectory it will go straight on. And I think that allowing that natural variation to be your friend - again it's a left-arm spinner's trait as well.
With Khary Pierre in the CPL, we worked incredibly hard at natural variation - dropping his arm, getting the ball to… some would kick, some would go straight on. And if he doesn't know what's happening, the batsman's got no chance. So the natural variations of the left-arm spinner's slider into the batter is a real challenge for batting in T20 cricket.
You've worked a lot with Sunil Narine. Can you talk about that relationship?
It's obviously well documented he had a few problems with his action for a number of years, so we started working together, probably three or four years ago.
My remit was to keep him playing, but I think what's really, really important was to keep him playing at a standard. You know, anyone can just bowl with a straight arm, but he's been possibly the best T20 spinner for a number of years. And for me it's a case of, okay, yes, we're going to keep you legal, but the standard's got to be the same. You've got to be the best in the world, you've got to keep getting MVP in the IPL, you've got to keep winning tournaments.
Why is he so good?
Look, clearly his variations are world-class. Very few guys can pick what he's bowling. We're continually trying to stay ahead of the batsmen by working even harder or disguising what he does. And because he delivers the ball out of the front of his hand, so many batsmen I talk to in and around cricket are saying, "We can't pick him. We don't know which way the ball's going." So you've got very little chance of being able to set yourself up well and have a real clear game plan all the time. You're being very reactive.
For me his super strength is that mentally he's incredible. Averages and stuff don't bother him at all. His answer will always be "whatever the team needs". So if you look at when he bowls, he will often be the one bowling in the toughest conditions, against better players. He'll bowl Powerplay, he'll bowl middle phase if the best players are in, and wherever you go around the world, he's the go-to bowler. For a period of time he was under scrutiny every single ball he bowled, and still put his hand up to bowl at the best batsmen in the toughest conditions - that takes an incredible amount of mental strength.
How exactly did you remodel his action?
Having worked with a few bowlers on remodelling, the most important thing for me is being balanced at the crease and using your whole body to bowl the ball. You get spin from hips, you get spin from your legs, you get spin from the rotation - all that kind of stuff. That's where you get speed as well.
But if one of those parts of your action's breaking down, you try and get that energy or pace from different parts of your action.
And that was probably similar with Sunil, so we just made sure that we worked on his alignment, we worked on making sure he was using his whole body to get the ball down there and spin the ball, rather than just certain parts of his body. And at times some of that was quite major work, because he's been bowling a certain way for a long period of time, so we had to break a couple areas of his action down and sort of almost start again in some areas. So again, the fact that he kept performing and kept playing was testament to him.
Are there any young spinners you're working with and you're excited about?
A young lad called Mark Deyal, who's in Trinidad. He has grown up watching Sunil bowl, so he's a big influence on him. What I really like about Mark is, firstly, he's a fine batter. He's played CPL, he's played in the Canada league as a batsman, and having been away at school, at university a couple years, he's come back and is giving cricket his all now.
He spins the ball both ways with his knuckles. So while many guys who bowl the carrom ball spin it one way with their knuckle and they're conventional with their offspinner, Mark spins the ball both ways with his knuckle, so it's very, very difficult for him to be picked.
They've played in some trial games in Trinidad, and guys are coming up to him and saying, "Do you know what you're doing, 'cause that ball spun the wrong way." And that for me is brilliant feedback from batters and keepers because no one's picking it up at all. So we're working hard to improve him, to get him up to a good standard, so when the ball's spinning both ways it can be an exciting one to watch out for in the future.
"The great thing about working somewhere like Trinidad or India is that the kids are not afraid to try things"
So he's very much in the mould of Narine. Is it an uncanny resemblance?
No, the action is different. But in terms of the release he's very heavily influenced by Narine.
I think maybe in this country [England] we've been guilty of coaching kids to do it in a certain way. The great thing about working somewhere like Trinidad or India is that the kids are not afraid to try things, not afraid to try bowling differently to how it has been taught in years gone by. And as a coach it's so good, because it keeps me open to so many new ideas.
What are the trends you envisage in spin bowling in T20 in the next couple of years?
It's more guys spinning the ball both ways, with different ways of doing it, and idiosyncratic actions where it's difficult to pick up. People like Rashid Khan, Mujeeb, these guys are so exciting to watch, but what's great about them is, they're not orthodox. If you think about what a spin bowler's action normally looks like, Rashid Khan doesn't have some characteristics, but he's found a method that works for himself incredibly effectively.
So with the prevalence of T20 cricket, with lots of it on TV, I'm always hoping kids out there are watching what's going on and trying things for themselves. There was a guy I worked with last year during the IPL, who came and did some net bowling for us and spun the ball both ways. He didn't actually know what he was doing. He told me he was doing one thing, but he wasn't. He was actually doing it slightly differently. But he had no real idea in terms of how it was being released. All he knew was he could spin the ball both ways. And that's what's exciting for me, because there's no bounds of what we can do and how we go about doing it, and I think we're seeing so much innovation now.
Do you think we'll see spinners having their own freelance coaches who they take around the world with them all the time?
Possibly. Obviously I've worked closely with Narine for a long period of time, done quite a bit of work with [Mohammad] Hafeez and quite a few guys.
If you look at T20 cricket, it can be quite a lonely existence in that you sort of pick up and go somewhere for a month or six weeks, and you disappear off somewhere else for two weeks. You go around playing different tournaments. And it's almost becoming more of a golf-tennis world than it is a cricket world, where lots of players have their own coaches, as opposed to a team coach, per se. So I think you might get that. Particularly if the money continues as it is, individuals will want someone who knows their game very well. So, someone like Sunil, if he's in a tournament, and I'm not there, I still get the footage, we'll still talk, and I'll always be there for him.
You go into the franchise and if it's a four-week tournament, you might have only got to know someone by week three, and so to be "coaching" them, in terms of any technical stuff or on a deeper level, you haven't really got time to do that. It's about just making them the best at performing in that short term. But in terms of long-term support, yes, I think you could find more and more guys employing coaches personally to make sure they've got that one person that they can fall back on, who knows their game, who they can rely on for honest feedback, and who can continue. And because the money's pretty good they can afford to pay that coach themselves to prolong their career or make their cricket more effective. I do think that will happen.