Sunil Narine might not be the finest spinner of his generation. But he is, inarguably, the ultimate revivalist of his time. He has endured enough agony for most sportsmen to quit their sport, seek the embrace of oblivion and spend the rest of his lifetime nibbling the millions acquired playing franchise cricket world over.
But Narine, each time he was punched on the face and knocked down, had not only sprung himself back to his feet, but also counter-punched his adversary.
Few have been through hell and back as much as the Trinidadian has — numerous remodelling of his actions, snubs and snaps, scorn and suspicion, finger injuries and kidney stones.
Yet, here he is, as relevant and dangerous as he had been when he burst forth as a carrom-ball flicking Goblin, refining and redefining his craft, transforming into a different bowler altogether. He has demystified his own mystery. And that perhaps is the only remaining mystery about him.
There is nothing mysterious about his bowling these days. He mostly bowls loopy off-breaks, that barely kicks or kinks after pitching, or turns or fizzes. Rarely, out of urgency than instinct, he flicks a carrom-ball that breaks away, ever so fractionally, after landing. Sealed in archival memory are the sliders and flippers, the leg-break and the wrong ones, markers of an era when mystery was almost mainstream, the nuclear weapon of the late aughts, when every country was clandestinely nurturing mystery spinners in their domestic laboratory.
The boom busted before it bloomed. Mystery spinners disappeared as swiftly as they had appeared. Their stocks crashed worse than the dot-com bubble a decade ago.
A raft of them—Ajantha Mendis, most memorably—sought the solace of anonymity. Mendis played his last international game in 2015, quit first-class cricket in 2019 and is now full-time into coaching. He is 36, just three years younger than Narine.
It’s the curse of mystery spinners — their mystery swiftly unravels in this day and age of micro-video analysis and forensic dissection. And once shorn off their mystery, they are rendered mundane. It’s this narrative trope Narine has debunked. He found a cure to the curse—take mystery out of his bowling entirely. It was simple — theoretically that is — and embraced mastery. He devised methods to sustain without his mysterious ways.
He resorted to more orthodox ways — shuffle the angles, mix the pace, alter the degree of his loop, use the depth and breadth of the crease, toy with the batsman’s mind, rely on natural variations and confuse the batsman with his sparsely-employed carrom ball.
The virtues he embodies are old-fashioned, those of accuracy and discipline.
The action is more side-on and fluent, he hides the ball behind his body in the run-up, whereas once it was a more open-chested action, the ball fully exposed in his palms, as throwing the gauntlet at the batsmen: “Read me if you can.”
Little surprise then that most of his wickets this season have arrived in usual ways rather than mystery-aided. Batsmen playing down the wrong line, misjudging the loop, playing too late or early, sometimes playing for the non-existent turn or often a result of clever set-up and pressure accumulated through dot-ball carnage (every 2.5 balls has been a dot ball) and boundary-strangling. Among those bowlers with more than15 wickets, he has the best economy rate (6.44). It’s as if the batters are still riddled with doubts. Narine’s mindset has changed, but not those of the batters playing him. Some of them approach him like hackers trying to steal a secret code, when the code is no longer a secret.
Two dismissals separated by nine years are instructive of his altered methods. Both batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, were bowled by floaty off-breaks. Tendulkar was enticed to drive, before the ball dipped shorter than he expected, beat his bat and ricocheted off his back-pad to hit the stumps.
Kohli was beaten on the sweep, a wild one at that, the ball again not as full as the batsman had expected. The ball had not the mesmerising loop that beguiled Tendulkar long ago; the Kohli one was faster too, and hence didn’t turn as much as the Tendulkar one too.
You would notice the scrambled seam twisting and twirling in the air, but the releases were distinctly different. The Kohli one was more conventional, released with a tweak than flick of his finger. The grip was orthodox too—the ball resting in the middle joints of the index and middle fingers. Tendulkar’s was held between the ring and middle finger, the ball propelled by flicking the index finger and a bit of the thumb. Tendulkar was flummoxed; Kohli was deceived. The distinct ways capture the soul of his change—whereas he once flummoxed batsmen, he now deceives them. From a conjurer, he has morphed into a craftsman.
Who would have thought that Narine would be castling Indian stalwarts of different eras through entirely different ways? At the heart of his renaissance story is his mastery of loop, that gently deceptive art, and how he controls and alters it. At its best, it seems a trick of the eye. The ball is there to be driven one moment, yet when you are into the drive, it’s not there. The ball is there to be swept, but not there when you sweep.
To overhaul actions, Narine has changed his action no less than four times, is not as easy as flicking a switch. Usually, after action-corrections, bowlers struggle with their rhythms, lose a lot of fizz and morale. Saeed Ajmal had once said that he felt like his own ghost. Some, like Pragyan Ojha, have never been his old self. It’s like asking a rock virtuoso to rattle out rap.
It’s tribute to his perseverance that he’s still around, still relevant and prolific. Like his bowling, he developed other skills too, in case his bowing faltered. Again, he leaned on the see-ball-hit-ball fundamentals he acquired from wind-ball cricket, and for a while was in KKR solely as a pinch-hitter. A symbol of his quest to be the ultimate revivalist of his time.
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