In the early 90s, leg-spinners were a dying breed. No one wanted to take up the art simply because it was too risky – not accurate enough for ODIs and being picked apart by batsmen in Tests. A certain gentleman who answered to the name of Abdul Qadir did everything to keep it alive and virtually single-handedly inspired a new generation.
But when he retired in 1990, the cupboard was bare. Then Anil Kumble came along, Shane Warne followed, Mushtaq Ahmed’s hard-to-pick google added to the variety and suddenly everyone wanted to be a leg-spinner.
Paul Strang also made his name. Stuart MacGill was around as well. There were good times for leg-spinners.
Now the very same thing seems to be happening with mystery bowlers. It started with Saqlain Mushtaq and his doosra. The batsmen didn’t know what was coming at them and his success prompted many youngsters to find a ‘mystery’ ball of their own. Most found another doosra – which the ICC didn’t look too kindly on.
But Ajantha Mendis found his own genre – a mystery spinner. Cricket websites and TV producers simply list him as right-arm offbreak, legbreak. Teams took to playing him as a medium-pace bowler. But his success prompted more such bowlers to come up through the ranks.
Saeed Ajmal seems like a regular off-spinner – but there is enough mystery with his doosra and teesra to also put him in the ‘mystery’ category. He is currently the best bowler in the world according to the ICC rankings and most cricket observers.
Sunil Narine is another one who is rising up the charts at a rapid rate. He is listed as an off-break bowler but he seems to be able to do so much more. After 36 T20 matches at the first-class level, he has 53 wickets at 13.58 and an economy rate of 5.28. International cricket has been slightly tougher but he is still average 18.28 after just 5 T20Is.
“Being called a mystery bowler puts a bit of pressure on you,” said the West Indian before his first game of the tournament against Australia. “The thing it that even if the batsmen have figured you out they still have to hit you.”
And that’s the difficult part. All of these mystery bowlers are deadly accurate and it means that unless the batsmen are really sure – not many are – of what is headed their way, they won’t quite know whether to go for the big shot or not. And in T20, that moment when you are second-guessing can be the difference between a six and a wicket.
“It’s a batsman’s game and I know that. You bowl a no-ball and batsman has a free-hit, he is always coming at you. But on the flipside, this gives you the chance to pick wickets,” Narine added.
Narine’s training for success is severe. He realises that if he gets his line wrong, his variations will count for little. So all of yesterday, he was practising at the R Premadasa – with a white elastic strip stretching from the batting stumps to the stumps at the bowling side – trying to make sure his accuracy was spot on. He knows that adding new deliveries to his repertoire is important but the basics can’t be allowed to decay.
“The thing is that you have to keep improving on the variations that you have,” said Narine. “It did give me a lot of confidence that you go to India and do well. I also had a good series against New Zealand before coming here and that has provided the right amount of practice before the crucial tournament. But confidence is alright. Everytime you step on the field to play a game you have to start afresh and that’s the most important thing.”
Australian coach Mickey Arthur has passed down a simple message to his team – if you set when Narine comes into bowl, attack him.
“It’s really tough for the new batter to start against that but if you're in there is the possibility to put him under some pressure. We made some progress against him in the West Indies. He’s always going to be a factor, like Ajmal and Ajantha Mendis for Sri Lanka,” Arthur told News.com.au.
“If we can put him under just a little bit of pressure and that’s something we haven’t been able to do with the spinners, we’ve always been a couple of wickets down. You’re always able to tell the ilk of a bowler when he is under pressure,” he added.
Opposition is talking up its plans about facing Narine and trying to put mental pressure on him. However, the West Indian can’t be bothered by that. He’s ice cool in the middle and off the pitch as well.
“You have to live with the name that the public gives you have to go out there and enjoy the moment,” said Narine.
And for the moment, he isn’t thinking about forming a mystery bowlers club. He’s got wickets on his mind and the rest of it will just fall in place.