Narine’s enduring mystery

With his bangles, Mohican styled haircut and eight different lenses for his sunglasses- one for every shade of grey might have quipped a West Indian in the overcast cool of Edgbaston yesterday- Sunil Narine looks every inch the modern cricketer. Yet he also fits into an ancient narrative; the mystery spinner who has come, as if from nowhere, to bamboozle, confuse and confound.

There was a definite gleam in Darren Sammy’s eye when he was asked about Narine. He made no coy attempt to play down the potential of his new arrival, as Andrew Strauss might have done in his place: ‘we hope he will make an immediate impact,’ said West Indies’ captain, before adding ‘he’s got a lot up his sleeve.’ Sammy has recent experience against his new spinner, although he was not one of Narine’s ten victims when Trinidad played Windward Islands in February.

It seems almost certain that Narine will play today as West Indies search for something, anything, to give them a chance. If not now, he is a certainty to play in the one-day series that follows, so either way England’s batsmen will have to solve the riddle soon enough. Time will tell, but there are likely to find this easier to do in Tests, where there is time to sit and wait and watch and work out his variations rather than in one-day games where they must make the running prematurely.

If his name does appear this morning on the team sheet then it will be a remarkable story. He has played just six first-class games and bowled fewer than 200 overs in first-class cricket. The great Shane Warne was thrust into the big time after just seven first-class games and Dan Vettori, the New Zealand left-arm spinner, after two. Generally, though, tweakers have to pay their dues, the mastery of line, length and the imparting of spin taking years to perfect. Instead, like the natural gas and oil that is so plentiful in his homeland of Trinidad, Narine has sprung up suddenly, offering potential riches to a bankrupt team.

His appearance was so sudden that when the Kolkata Knight Riders came with a massive cheque, Narine was not contracted with the WICB and therefore was a free agent. He enjoyed a remarkably successful first season in the Indian Premier League: when chatting with Kevin Pietersen recently about the Delhi Daredevil’s chances in a run chase against Kolkata, Pietersen emphasised the need not to leave things too late against Narine, much as it has been said about Lasith Malinga in the past. There was a look of wonder in his eyes.

Narine is, essentially, an off-spinner although as with most off-spinners these days he is also more than that. His variations seem to be a ‘doosra’- and like all ‘doosra’ bowlers, Narine’s action has been said to be less than pure- and a ‘knuckle’ ball, pushed out of the front of his hand by his middle and forefinger, the result of encouragement from his father and a childhood spent playing cricket with a softball that encouraged such innovation. His success so far has been startling: in first-class matches he averages 11.88 runs per wicket; in Twenty20 just 14.04; in List ‘A’ games 15.79, and odi’s his average is 20.

The arrival of a ‘mystery’ spinner always sets tongues wagging. In a sporting world where surprises are few and far between, where debutants arrive on the scene pack drilled to within an inch of their lives, the mystery spinner appeals to our longing for the unconventional, the natural and the self-taught. What does he do? How does he do it? More importantly, can the instinctive and the untrained defeat the inexorable forces of professionalism?

At Lord’s, during the opening Test of this series, a small man went largely unnoticed in the ECB box. It was Sonny Ramadhin, the former West Indian spin bowler who, like Narine, arrived in England in a shroud of mystery. More prosaically, Ramadhin ran a pub in Lancashire after his career for many years, but he remains a link in the chain that joins Narine to those mystery spinners of the past: Ajantha Mendis, Jack Iverson, Johnny Gleeson and the original mystery spinner, Bernard Bosanquet, the inventor of the googly.

There are a number of common themes. They are usually self-taught and they are often freakish. Bosanquet invented the googly after years of playing a game called twisti-twosti, which involved flicking a ball across a billiard table; Iverson had unusually large hands and strong fingers, so that the ball nestled into them, according to his biographer, ‘like a marble for squirting;’ Gleeson attributed his own strength in his fingers to a rural background, whilst Ramadhin did not start bowling spin until late in life, and was well short of Gladwell’s 10,00- hour rule when he played Test cricket.

Often, these bowlers are like fireworks in that they ignite and sparkle brilliantly but often briefly before they are found out and fizzle out. Mendis, after a brief spell of success, is no longer in the Sri Lanka team; Bosanquet took 16 wickets in his first three Tests but declined rapidly thereafter; Iverson’s was a tragic, short-lived tale in more ways than one. Ramdhin was more long-lasting, but pad-play in 1957 put an end to his effectiveness.

This is not surprising, I suppose. Word gets around, tactics are discussed and the mystery is unravelled. When, in 1995, we faced the South African left-arm ‘mystery’ spinner, Paul Adams, for the first time, I did not take long to work out that if he gripped the ball between thumb and forefinger it would spin away from me and if he held more in the cradle of his four fingers, it would spin towards me. He had success initially in the South African ‘A’ match that preceded the Test series, but was less effective after that.

Now, the mystery men are even more disadvantaged in the television age. Videos can be made and shared around; super slow-motion cameras reveal every twist and turn of the wrist and every different grip. In any case, as Gleeson admitted, there are only so many options available to a spinner. ‘That is bullshit,’ he said when asked about his five types of delivery: ‘you can only do three things: spin it from the leg, spin it from the off or go on straight.’

What is often ignored about a spinner’s variations is that it is not what the ball does when it gets to the batsman’s end that matters, but how it gets there. There is as much deception to be gained from drift and dip in the air, as off the pitch, and in this regard the orthodox Graeme Swann bends his knee to no-one. It was arguable that for all Mendis’ variations, Swann had more guile and mystery in the flight than the Sri Lankan’s flat trajectory.

So, as much of a puzzle as Narine presents this week, his longevity is not likely to rely on his mystery alone. That will be worked out soon enough. When the mystery fades, he will need to show many of the qualities that have sustained spinners down the years: accuracy, cunning and an ability to withstand, or even enjoy, an onslaught.  Some runs on the board would help, too. ends