IPL 2020: A twist of the wrist - Decoding T20 cricket's mystery spinners

Who is a mystery spinner? Spin bowlers and coaches decode the art that has become essential to T20 teams today, thanks to early starters such as Sunil Narine.

Kolkata Knight Riders’ Varun Chakravarthy took his maiden five-wicket haul in the IPL against Delhi Capitals on October 21.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

Twenty20 cricket has diminished the elegance of the gentleman’s game. Unconventional is the new cool. The batsmen are not all graceful, but they know how to score runs, and the scoop, reverse sweep and switch hit are must-have skills.

To counter such batsmen, a wrist-spinner is essential to a T20 team, in addition to two quality fast bowlers of course. And while wrist-spinners are not a new phenomenon, mystery spinners are. With variations such as the slider, top-spin, the flipper, the carrom ball and the googly, these bowlers are unpredictable. The ball may turn away or go in, or it may not turn at all – the wrist gives no indication to the batsman.

It is in the use of the wrists that this “mystery” lies.

High demand and wide variety

Bill O’Reilly, Subhash Gupte, Abdul Qadir, Anil Kumble, Shane Warne — every generation has its own iconic wrist-spinners, and their retirement usually leaves a void that isn’t filled for years. The rise of franchise-based cricket has only escalated the demand for — and supply of — such bowlers. And they come in different forms. Yuzvendra Chahal likes to loop the ball, inviting the batsman to have a go, while Rahul Chahar is quicker through the air. Afghanistan star Rashid Khan delivers his googly and stock leg-spin with no discernible change in action or grip. Sunil Narine is primarily an off-spinner who can turn the ball the other way, too. Varun Chakravarthy is a leg-spinner who can bring the ball back in when needed.

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Such mystery spinners command a premium at high-pressure, big-ticket tournaments such as the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League, and the Kolkata Knight Riders IPL franchise’s weakness for them is well-known.

Sunil Narine starred in KKR’s title wins in 2012 and 2014 under Gautam Gambhir.   -  K. R. Deepak

 

Before signing on Chakravarthy for this season and Narine back in 2012, KKR had flown in Sri Lankan Ajantha Mendis for the fag end of the 2008 IPL season as batsmen had found him hard to read. While Mendis proved effective initially, his action was soon “readable.”

Later, during the now-defunct Champions League T20 in 2011, KKR captain Gautam Gambhir was impressed with a young spinner from the Caribbean islands – Narine. Unable to figure him out during a practice game, Gambhir told the Knight Riders management he wanted the “mystery spinner” in his team for the next year’s IPL. They entered an intense bidding war with Mumbai Indians for Narine, who went on to star in KKR’s title wins in 2012 and 2014.

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“At that point of time, Gautam was one of the best players of spin, and during the practice match in Bengaluru in 2011, he found it difficult to read Narine. That’s when we got the idea of getting him on board,” recalls Joy Bhattacharjya, former team director at KKR.

How to maintain the mystery

Renowned spin-bowling coach Carl Crowe, who has worked closely with Narine on his action and accuracy, agrees that wrist-spinners are most effective in T20 cricket than orthodox spin bowlers. “With the mystery spinners, you can achieve greater levels of success, and I am more for defensive power. I feel they are more defensive than attacking, but have more scope to attack when the time is right in the game. What moment of the over or the game you can attack or defend at is the key,” he says. “These guys have the ability to drift between the two quickly. An orthodox spinner will have limited attack options in the shorter format.”

Crowe, who was KKR’s spin-bowling coach for the last couple of seasons, says he understands the limitations of a wrist-spinner and the consequences of being figured out — a case in point is Chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav, who fell out of favour after the batsmen started reading his wrists.

“All the mystery bowlers have the ability to think, observe and analyse differently,” says Pakistan spin great Saqlain Mushtaq.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Crowe’s advice is to not reveal all your bowling variations to one batsman. “The action may tend to have a few issues further down the chain before the delivery than after or during the delivery. Every bowler likes to have a flick of the wrist as late as possible because it is then harder to pick and it generates more spin,” he says.

“Batters are constantly trying to pick their deliveries with the level of analysis that goes on these days through video footage. The batters can take the clues these spinners gave before the ball was bowled by studying the clips. The best spinners have variations of one ball. He may allow you to pick one googly, and when you think you have got it, a harder googly will come in all of a sudden,” says the former Leicestershire off-spinner.

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Crowe advises the bowlers not to throw down the same delivery three of four times in a row to a new batsman; of seven balls bowled to one batsman in a game, there should be three variations at least.

A batsman’s perspective

Once a mystery spinner has been figured out, it takes a while to return to the same stage. Besides fine-tuning his action, the nature of the pitch is a major factor for the bowler. India international and IPL veteran Yusuf Pathan feels the mystery lies in the latter.

“Look, it’s very simple — the whole mystery in in the wicket. There were times when turning wickets helped the spinners immensely, and the batsmen found it difficult to execute their shots. But now, most of the wickets are flat and the result is out in the open — the spinners are finding it difficult to turn the ball,” says Pathan, who was Narine’s team-mate at the Knight Riders from 2012-2017. “So, I am not sure if there is anything such as mystery spin. If the wicket is conducive, then it is obvious that the tweakers will have some benefit, and that’s what the case was earlier.

“The batsmen these days have realised that there is no point in thinking too much about a particular bowler.

Afghanistan star Rashid Khan delivers his googly and stock leg-spin with no discernible change in action or grip.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

 

It is important to analyse the wicket better. And if the wicket is flat, then there is no way the spinners — mystery or no mystery — can get the desired results,” adds Pathan, who scored 3,204 runs from 174 matches in 12 seasons of the IPL.

Mystery, not myth

Pakistan spin great Saqlain Mushtaq, considered the inventor of the doosra, terms mystery spinners imaginative and feels their art is no myth as it involves deep thinking along with game awareness to bowl the best ball possible to get a batsman out.

“All the mystery bowlers have the ability to think, observe and analyse differently. Their imagination is different (from regular spinners), so is their self-belief. Their reading of the game, the conditions is different from others, and they can be quick in their thinking. That’s why there is so much mystery around their action and style of play,” says Mushtaq.

It is the bowler’s wrist that imparts this mystery to their deliveries, that keeps the batsman guessing. As Warne, a wrist-spinner credited with rejuvenating the dying art of leg-spin and who captained Rajasthan Royals to the inaugural IPL title in 2008 and now mentor to the franchise, once said, “Part of the art of bowling spin is to make the batsman think something special is happening when it isn’t.”