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T20 World Cup 2021

Can the West Indies really not make an exception for Sunil Narine?

Narine T20 World Cup
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read

Sunil Narine, one of the biggest T20 stars ever, failed to make it to the T20 World Cup due to fitness standards. Looking at his rampaging form, Aadya Sharma wonders if West Indies should have bent their principles to find him a spot.

On Monday night, in Sharjah’s sweltering heat, Sunil Narine stood in front of the stadium pavilion, posing for a customary post-match click. Five different trophies lay in front of him, all bagged in three hours of hard work. Among other amusingly branded awards, he was named ‘gamechanger’, ‘power player’, and the ‘most valuable asset’ of the match.

Kolkata Knight Riders’ ‘most valuable asset’, though, hasn’t made it to West Indies’ T20 World Cup squad. The decision isn’t easy to fathom.

At 33, and long since the days he terrorised batters with his mystery deliveries, Narine continues to be a stellar T20 performer, shining bright in the multitude of T20 leagues he features in. Against RCB in Sharjah, Narine was in vintage flow, first tearing through RCB’s middle order in typical fashion with figures of 4-21, before returning to give the KKR chase a gush of momentum with a 15-ball 26, hitting three sixes on a day when none from the opposition managed even one. This season, no overseas bowler has taken more wickets (14) than Narine at a better economy rate (6.41).

Before IPL, Narine was similarly clinical in the CPL, snaring 12 wickets at 14.58, his economy rate standing at 4.32 (including a maiden over to Andre Russell). The figures aren’t really a surprise from a bowler who has captured 423 T20 wickets at a stunning economy of 6.01.

Narine’s absence from international cricket isn’t just about numbers though. The off-break bowler (if he can be called just that) last featured in the maroon kit in 2019, in a series that itself came after a near-two-year gap. His bowling action has landed him in trouble time and again, and he’s made multiple readjustments since, often coming back with a remodelled style that forced him to drop some of his guileful variations.

And while Narine, the T20 cricketer, has evolved through it all, his international career has somewhere tailed off, with fitness problems complicating the situation further. Since August 2019, when he last played an international, only Rashid Khan has taken more T20 wickets at a better economy rate than Narine. And this is including a sub-par 2020, when Narine took only 11 wickets at 35.7. Form-wise, there hasn’t been much to complain about.

In the months leading up to the T20 World Cup, Narine’s availability has remained as mysterious as his spin bowling. In February, Cricket West Indies announced that Narine had “indicated” he was not ready to return to international cricket as he was “fine-tuning” his game. Four months later, skipper Kieron Pollard revealed that the suspended IPL had put a wrench in his comeback plans, and he was short of the “necessary preparation and confidence” he needed to get back in.

And, when the squad for the World Cup was announced, Narine’s absence was attributed to fitness concerns, with Cricket West Indies chief selector Roger Harper reportedly saying that Narine’s Yo-Yo Test scores did not match “fitness standards”.

Now, the defending champions aren’t short-staffed on superstars, with a host of trusted T20 guns making the cut, but their spin department is probably their weakest link in a tournament that is likely to be governed by slow bowling. Roston Chase’s rise as a T20 cricketer (though yet untested in internationals) had helped him gain the off-spinner’s spot, but his selection has more to do with his overall efficacy as a batting all-rounder, and the balance it lends. Based on form, reputation and conditions, Narine should ideally be plugging that hole. He is dominating competitions Chase isn’t close to being picked up in.

Where would that leave West Indies cricket though? Should Sunil Narine be allowed to circumvent the fitness rule, just because he is…well…Sunil Narine?

The board has stressed heavily on the fitness criteria in the past, not shying away from benching players like Shimron Hetmyer and Evin Lewis for falling short on the benchmark score. In January 2019, when the benchmark scores were updated, CWI CEO Johnny Grave had insisted that “irrespective of a player’s cricketing ability, a minimum fitness level is the bedrock for success for any contemporary sports professional,” adding that “the West Indies used to set the benchmark for fitness in cricket and it was one of the hallmarks of the great Windies teams of the 1980s and 1990s.”

As West Indies set out to defend their T20 crown, they won’t want to deviate from such principles; in the last two decades, players and the board have had differences aplenty, and the foundations of a strong association can only be laid by clamping down on any exceptions and privileges. The temptation to blur these boundaries would be immense too: since their last T20 World Cup crown five years ago, West Indies have won just 24 of their 67 T20Is, and are currently ninth on the ICC T20I rankings.

A player of Narine’s calibre, an out-and-out matchwinner still, would be the perfect icing on a team already teeming with the format’s superstars.  Pollard’s words on the team’s T20 veterans says so much about what they mean to the side. “If these guys are assets to us, why not use the little bit of cricket they have left in them?” he had said in June. “Some of these guys play around the world and then when we see them around the world, we ask why they are not playing for us, and now they are.”

Narine isn’t though, and all things considered, it’s a shame that one of T20 cricket’s biggest superstars won’t be present when the side goes out to defend its crown. In terms of ideals, it’s probably the right call to make, but the game is also about fielding your best players, and there’s no doubt Narine passes that criteria.

He’ll probably resurface a month later, playing one of the many leagues around the world, showing how good he is and being paid handsomely for the privelege. And you’ll be tempted to think: who’s loss is it actually – Narine’s, West Indies’, or just cricket’s?

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