A revolutionary when it comes to mystery spin, issues around his action bust the aura around Sunil Narine. But he is still the best spinner in the Caribbean, writes Rohit Sankar.
Sunil Narine might no longer be the mystery spinner that terrorised teams around the world in the early 2010s, but if you need one solid piece of evidence to show he is still one of the best T20 spinners in the world, watch the maiden over he bowled in the recently concluded Caribbean Premier League season to the most fearsome striker in T20 cricket today, Andre Russell.
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I could just conclude the article here, and it would be a very reasonable argument for Narine to be in West Indies’ T20 side. I mean, Russell’s helplessness speaks for itself. But it’s pertinent we understand why Narine was excluded and why it dents West Indies’ chances at the ICC event next month. The batsman who made the fastest fifty in CPL history a week before had no answers to Narine’s variations in back-to-back matches. A game before the shocking maiden over that Russell played out when the required run-rate was hovering around 13, the big-hitter denied a single to his partner when Narine was bowling just to avoid facing the off-spinner.
What about Narine is so threatening?
We know he is a brilliant spinner, but what about him makes the world’s best hitter shy away from facing him?
To put it in one line: T20 power hitting is all about lining up the bowler to hit, and Narine does not allow you to do that.
It’s what made this lanky spinner from Trinidad and Tobago a world phenomenon and spurred international teams to dig deep into their available players for a bowler like him and made mystery spinners central to franchise auction strategies.
Narine’s ability to turn the ball both ways at pace made him a world-beating spinner in the mid-2010s. He played a major role in West Indies winning one T20 World Cup at least and propelled Kolkata Knight Riders to two IPL titles. In 2012 and 2014 when KKR won their IPL titles, Narine was their best bowler with 24 and 21 wickets respectively, finishing both times as the second-highest wicket-taker in the season.
Aside from the fast off-break that made him a nightmare for left-handers, Narine had a carrom ball, a seam-up delivery, a knuckle ball and a few further variations. His decline started when his faster delivery came under the ICC scanner in 2014. Things unravelled quickly as he was called again in 2015 in the IPL for his off-break.
The clamping down on two of his major stock balls meant that Narine no longer posed the same threat to big hitters in this format. His off-break wasn’t going to turn much with his renewed action and without extra pace, there wasn’t too much of a threat in his ability to turn the ball both ways.
But quite a few years and several other clamp downs later, Narine still remains a very effective spinner, mainly because he hasn’t shied away from innovating. The latest in his repertoire is hiding the ball behind his back until the very last moment. You could see him do it the over against Russell, and despite a noticeable difference in his action when turning the ball either way, this prevented Russell from lining up to him.
Aside from this new, very old-fashioned, yet effective trick, Narine has started bowling seam-ups at pace making it difficult to again line up against him. In the Russell over, Narine persistently hits a back of a length and turns the ball into Russell from around the wicket or takes it away with the seam as a quicker variation.
To summarise, despite being rapped on the knuckles persistently by officials, Narine has constantly evolved to keep himself away from being fodder for big hitters.
Why was Narine excluded from the West Indies squad?
There’s no simple answer to this although West Indies selector Roger Harper gave one: “Narine is a great miss for a team like this, in a tournament like this. (However) Sunil does not meet our fitness criteria.”
Narine failed the yo-yo test which kept him out, but West Indies do have a player exempted from this in their own squad in Chris Gayle. While the yo-yo test is a good parameter to judge fitness, Narine just went through 10 CPL games with no issues. He had a bowling economy rate of 4.37 in the tournament and offers something West Indies do not have in their current T20 World Cup squad: a good T20 spinner.
Disregarding what Harper said regarding his fitness, and moving on to a more plausible explanation, Narine was perhaps hampered by the rise of Roston Chase in the current CPL. The middle-order batsman, capable of bowling useful off-spin, had a revolutionary tournament, finishing as the Player of the Series for his batting capabilities primarily, but with his bowling contributing to his rise. Narine does offer more than enough with the bat to be considered a bowling all-rounder, but West Indies do not need his batting skills much considering the power-hitting powerhouse they are.
What might have tipped the scales Chase’s way is that he splits up the four big left-handers in West Indies’ top five – Chris Gayle, Evin Lewis, Shimron Hetmyer and Nicholas Pooran – as he is a right-hander. He can also switch gears and play spin remarkably well as he showed in the CPL. But what Chase does not bolster much is West Indies’ spin department that is already pretty slim. Fabian Allen is still an evolving spin bowler although his power hitting skills are top notch for a lower-order batsman. Hayden Walsh Jr is a handy leg-spinner, but no where near top-tier in his kind. Akeal Hosein, for some reason, has been shunned to the reserve list.
Moving over to bowling phases, West Indies are packed with death bowlers in Obed McCoy, Dwayne Bravo and Andre Russell, but have left the powerplay specialists out. Ravi Rampaul and Oshane Thomas are two bowlers who could bowl in that phase, but both would find it tough to make the XI. Hosein and Jason Holder (both of whom could potentially bowl in the powerplay) are two others who made it to the reserves, but not the main squad.
Narine, on the other hand, is an excellent powerplay bowler. Since 2019, he has an economy rate of 6.56 in this phase across all tournaments with a sample size of more than 80 overs.
West Indies might sorely miss a spinner and powerplay bowler in their T20 World Cup squad and neglected to pick one of the best in the world in either department. His decline, whatever the extent of it, might be real, but Narine is still the best spinner in the Caribbean by a fair distance as the over against Russell, aside from numbers in recent CPL editions, prove.