Sunil Narine’s mystery still remains unravelled in Twenty20, although he has not really managed to spin such tales of intrigue in Test matches. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the careers of different mystery spinners across cricketing history.
It has been quite a while since Sunil Narine spun his web for the first time on Indian soil. Since then, Indian Premier League teams have gone over the footage of his bowling in painstaking detail, trying to unravel the exact twitch of the magical fingers that makes the ball turn this way or that. Yet, none have quite succeeded, even with all the franchise powered analysis teams at their disposal.
Narine makes things confusing. When he suddenly produces one that goes away from the batsman, it confounds many of a batsman since the ball is released from front of his hand. He bowls his normal off-breaks with a scrambled seam. Life is indeed extraordinarily difficult for the opposition batsmen, especially when they want to belt him out of the park. In that context, even without his stock ball, he is supremely difficult to get away. He keeps it flat and does not try to mix things any more than necessary. He attempts ambitious turn only on genuinely helpful pitches. This leads to his outrageous economy rates of sub-six in Twenty 20 and sub-four in One Day Internationals.
His amazing strike rate and average in the IPL is partly indebted to the canny strategy of Gautam Gambhir, who brings him on when the only option of the opposition batsmen is to go berserk.
What remains to be seen is whether he is able to replicate the success in Test matches, where hitting every ball out of the stadium is not that important. Till now, apart from an expensive five-wicket haul against New Zealand at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua, Narine has not really set the Test world on fire. His recent returns in Bangladesh have been atrocious, three wickets at 114.33, taking 157 balls over each scalp. While he continues to raise hopes in the domestic Shell Shield, in which he has captured 42 wickets at 11.54, his credentials in Test cricket remain dubious.
It makes one wonder whether his variations and style, while of obvious match winning quality for four overs, are enough for bowling through a complete day and more. Only time can tell.
Sunil Narine with the ball
Mystery spinners down the ages
Being a mystery spinner has its pros and cons. The initial days laced with the surprise element can get one wickets by the bucketful. Yet, down the line, the enigma can be unravelled and counter-techniques may be discovered and shared across the batting fraternity. The sparkling edge can soon be blunted and the once phenomenal match-winner can look increasingly pedestrian. Among the mystery spinners of the past, there have been tales dipped in ephemera as well as of magic frittering away with time.
We will be looking at four spinners before Narine who were marked by methods that have not entered any coaching manual – whose unique styles have tended to fade away with their careers.
Of course, there have been others who have ushered in their own mysteries with innovations – which have later been formalised in the standard spinning curriculum.
Bernard Bosanquet’s original mystery ball still leaves the best of them flummoxed. But the ‘googly’, once viewed by many as unacceptable sorcery, has long since become part of the game and the repertoire of the classical leg-spinner.
Ellis Achong of Trinidad and West Indies adapted wrist spin and googly for the left-handed spinner – with his ethnicity quaintly lending the name ‘chinaman’. There have been a few exponents of this form as well. Garry Sobers and Johnny Wardle, who sometimes chose left arm spin among the many other weapons in their arsenal, and, much later, Paul Adams and Brad Hogg who specialised solely in the art.
From time to time, there have been spinners who have puzzled many, less through curious techniques and more due of the extraordinary quirks of their own physiology. Bhagwath Chandrasekhar’s polio affected arm added layers of intrigue to orthodox leg-spin, while Muttiah Muralitharan’s freakishly flexible carpal joints made him perhaps the only wrist spinning off-spinner. While the doosra – the off-break that goes the other way – had been heralded by Saqlain Mushtaq and perfected by quite a few off-spinners including Harbhajan Singh, Saeed Ajmal and Ravichandran Ashwin – no one spun it like a vicious leg-break as did the Sri Lankan wizard.
However, in the sections that follow, we touch upon genuine bowlers of mystery, whose grips and techniques can never be coached. Eccentric exponents who managed to contort their fingers and thumbs to find exotic ways of gripping and releasing the cricket ball, who made the world blink and try to figure out the method behind the madness that took place off the pitch.
Bosanquet created the googly – the craft of releasing the ball from the back of the hand to produce balls that turned from the off even when delivered with the action of leg-spin.
However, Victorian spinner Jack Iverson discovered other ways of dealing in the same deception. He had started out as a rather awkward, somewhat uncoordinated fast bowler while in school. By the time the Second World War intervened, he had made little impression on the cricketing world.
During the years of turmoil, to bide his time in his prison cell, Iverson kept spinning a ping-pong ball with various grips – mostly to find out how it deflected off the wall. And suddenly odd things started to happen when he gripped it between the thumb and middle finger, the subtle movements of his middle finger making it dart about in different directions. His release was like squirting the ball from his hand as one would do with a marble.
Once the war was over, Iverson unfurled his style in the Sheffield Shield, collecting 46 wickets for Victoria at 16.12 apiece in his first season. Soon, he was playing in the Ashes when Freddie Brown’s Englishmen visited Australia in 1950-51.
Iverson spun the googly massively, and the other balls considerably less. With time, batsmen finally figured out a way to play him as an off-break bowler who gave the impression of bowling leg-breaks. But, by then he had already done a star turn. In the second innings at Sydney he had taken six English wickets for 27. Australia won the series 4-1 and Iverson ended with 21 wickets at 15.23.
In the fourth Test, however, he trod on the ball, and the resulting ankle injury virtually ended his career. He never played Test cricket again after this solitary series, and only two First-class matches over the next two seasons. Would he have been successful if he had continued to play? Much like his bowling, it remains a mystery.
Ramadhin bowled with his sleeves buttoned up, cap fixed on his head, everything about his demeanour trying to conceal some tell-tale sign. And with an unconventional wrist turn followed by a flick of the fingers, he turned the ball in either direction.
Ramadhin bowled his off-break with his middle finger down the seam. This was in contrast to the methods of the traditional off-spinner who would have his finger across it. With no discernible change of action, one would suddenly spin from leg to off. It tied the Englishmen into knots on the popping crease during that famous summer of 1950, and the magic continued against them at home in 1953-54. With Alf Valentine at the other end, the legend of ‘those two pals of mine’ was born.
But, the Australians decided to attack him by charging down the wicket, and his figures took a battering. Finally, in 1957, he roared off to another magical start to the English summer in the first innings of the first Test at Edgbaston. However, in the second Test, Peter May and Colin Cowdrey blunted his penetration, stretching their pads out and putting on 411.
However, Ramadhin remains the most durable of the mystery spinners and ended with an excellent record in Test cricket.
At the beginning of his cricketing days Gleeson was a wicket-keeper batsman at club level in Tamworth, New South Wales. It was the photograph of Iverson’s bizarre grip that spurred him to imitate the peculiar style and try his hand at bowling. It was in his late twenties that he made his Sheffield Shield debut as a bowler who ‘bowled Iversons’, and caught the important eyes of Don Bradman and Richie Benaud.
For a while, his mystery did bear fruit and he remained a successful bowler in First-class cricket. However, the batsmen at Test level soon found out that he could be read. He played 29 Tests for Australia between 1967 and 1972, but his record remained mediocre. The Englishmen and South Africans feasted on his bowling.
However, Gleeson did play a role in differentiating between the genres of genuine mystery and sensational fantasy. When Shane Warne carried out his psychological ploy of announcing discoveries of new deliveries before every Ashes tour, he remained unimpressed. Gleeson’s sceptical voice was heard remarking, “The ball can only break from off, leg or go straight. That is all there is to it.”
We all remember Rahul Dravid leaving a delivery wide outside the off-stump and standing rooted in disbelief as he watched it break back to hit his stumps.
Mendis was the first mystery man of modern times, bowling off an innocuous run up and mixing balls of endless variations – ancient and avant-garde. The leg-breaks and off-breaks were regular fare, with top-spinners slipped in for good measure, spiced up with an abundance of googlies and doosras, and the now famous carrom ball. He propelled the ball with his fingers, generating most of his deceptions with his fingers. Additionally, he was accurate, subtle and had the ability to bowl long spells.
Yet, the excitement of a new mystery spinner was short-lived. After 33 wickets in his first four Tests, in the next four against Pakistan he managed just five more. By the time he played India again at Kanpur, the first three men in the line-up, including Dravid, scored hundreds.
His figures now look ordinary, the average has been hauled up from 18.36 to 34.20, and his number of scalps has not doubled in the 13 Tests he has played after his initial four. At the same time, like Narine, his figures in the overs limit varieties have remained impressive.
There are increasing signs that the Mendis mystery has been unravelled for good and lie as an open reference book, accessible to batsmen around the world. It remains to be seen whether the Sri Lankan bowler can regain his aura of mystique and bowl himself back into reckoning.
Honourable mention: Jack Potter
Here is an unusual name that never featured on a Test match scorecard. Although Potter did travel to England for the Ashes tour of 1964, his made it because of his batting and did not manage to play a Test.
Yet, he can perhaps rightfully claim to have bowled the first doosra. He sent the ball the other way without changing his action of an off-spinner, leading batsmen and ’keepers to wonder whether he had hit a crack on the pitch. It confused the hell out of batsmen of the English county sides on the 1964 tour. Quite often the Australian wicketkeeper Wally Grout was also puzzled. Potter was seldom given the ball and tried his stock ball more as an amusing diversion, but it did lead Richie Benaud to exclaim, “If I had a ball like that, I’d be practising at Lord’s before breakfast.”
Potter did not bowl regularly enough even in domestic First-class games. However, he did make a lasting contribution to the spinning world by introducing Shane Warne to the flipper during his days at the AIS Cricket Academy.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)