Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Mystery spinner? It's all in the mind, the batsman's that is..

It was always going to be an impossible task. After a handful of first-class matches and one season of IPL, how could we reasonably expect anything special on a Test debut? A debut made against one of the strongest batting line-ups and in conditions which could not be more different to those of Trinidad, the West Indies as a whole or even India. And yet it was impossible not to feel disappointed, maybe even a touch let down, as Kevin Pietersen laid into Sunil Narine's increasingly friendly offerings on Sunday afternoon.

Why should we take it personally? Maybe its because in this age of cynicism the opportunities to dream, to experience awe and wonder seem increasingly fleeting. Perhaps it's why the lure of a great magician remains, even if they must come up with ever greater illusions to grab and retain our attentions. Put simply, people still love a good mystery and in cricket that means spinners.

But a good mystery requires that the intrigue endures. And unless you are a fan of Columbo that means not finding out who did it in the opening scene. On Sunday, it seemed that Narine had been arrested, charged and was awaiting sentencing even before Nick Knight in the Sky box had time to begin his prosecution-by-video. Given that Narine's unveiler was Pietersen, a man who singularly and admittedly failed to solve the riddle of Saeed Ajmal, this was more the equivalent of being caught by PC Plod than Hercule Poirot.

The term "mystery spinner" may not have been coined by Gideon Haigh but it was best and most appropriately used as the title of his wonderful biography of Jack Iverson. Everything about Iverson was a mystery, sometimes even to himself. Deeply insecure about his own special talent, he continually fretted that he had been "found out". Whether this was objectively true of Iverson is another question but Narine's inauspicious debut brings to mind Ajantha Mendis, widely considered to have been "found out" after a promising beginning.

Both Narine and Mendis bowl a "carrom" ball, as nominally did Iverson (although Haigh's description suggests that his huge hands created altogether more vigorous spin) and both have enjoyed success in T20 cricket on the sub-continent. But under polar opposite circumstances, a Test match in England, they have looked anything but mysterious.

Whilst Mendis has currently faded from view, that is not necessarily the fate that awaits Narine. For one thing they are actually quite different bowlers despite their signature deliveries. Mendis' bowling relies on a number of subtle variations and great accuracy. Big turn was never his thing. Narine by contrast is less accurate but really spins it. In a spell littered with short deliveries he extracted more turn with his stock off-break than Graeme Swann had done earlier in the day. And whilst his carrom ball may not have turned at Edgbaston, it only takes a couple of clicks to find evidence of it doing so, and sharply at that. Accuracy can be worked on, the ability to spin the ball hard is talent.

But what about the mystery? Once lost can it ever be regained? If we are talking mechanics, then in the age of video analysis, prolonged mystery is tough to achieve (although Ajmal is giving it a good shot). But mystery is more than mechanics and so is spin bowling. Although never referred to as such, Shane Warne is the greatest mystery spinner the world has ever known. He understood that mystery or deception, which is what we are really talking about, isn't found merely in the act of delivery but can be created anywhere and at anytime. In fact most of Warne's mystery wasn't even created on the pitch but in television interviews and press conferences, sowing the seeds of doubt in batsmen' with claims of new deliveries. He then used his natural talent to compound and reinforce these doubts on the field.

Sunil Narine is no Warne but the lesson remains the same. If he can instill doubt in a batsman's mind and keep it there his mystery will never be solved.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Are central contracts up to the Test?

In the Times last Thursday Mike Atherton argued, that "the whole point of central contracts is to ensure that England's premier bowlers are fit and ready for every Test match." A clear prioritisation of Test cricket therefore and one for which he believes we should be  unapologetic.

Pretty logical I would have thought and entirely fitting with the basis on which the whole expensive idea was sold in the first place. Not only that but with the team ranked number one in the world and with a seventh consecutive home series victory assured, these central contracts have clearly worked.

But as Atherton was perhaps gently implying, does this prioritisation of Test cricket over other international cricket actually exist or more accurately does it still exist? The possibility of England's new ball attack being rested for the last West Indies Test leaves this open to question.

The two cases concerned tell different tales. The first, that of James Anderson, is the more nuanced and thus the more easily defendable from a selectorial viewpoint. Anderson apparently has a niggling thigh injury. According to national selector Geoff Miller, the rest would give Anderson the chance to "overcome several minor injuries" and was "in the best interest of the team and James himself". Now for all I know the selector's have received medical advice that, at the very least, suggests that bowling another 50 or 60 overs would risk aggravating the injury(ies) and risk Anderson's missing the first Test against South Africa on 19 July. If so then fair enough, it is good, professional player management. In last summer's blue riband series, India went into the series with a half fit opening bowler, he took three wickets in the first morning and then hobbled off never to return. We know what happened next. England do not want to make the same mistake.

Anderson, however, seems less than convinced. He claims to be suffering from neither fatigue nor injury. On the contrary he has declared himself fit to play.  Now no player wants to miss a Test match or indeed any international match and so player estimations of their own health must be taken with a pinch of salt. But Anderson is no fool. As has been suggested, somewhat ungenerously, he may have regarded the Third Test as an opportunity to pick up some cheap wickets ahead of bigger challenges, but in fact like all top sportsmen it is for the biggest challenges that he plays the game. The South African series will be only a fraction down on the itensity of an Ashes series and more than a fraction up in terms of quality. Is he likely to risk missing that? One thing's for sure, in terms of preparation he is no Zaheer Khan.

The second and more troubling case is of Stuart Broad, for whom no such injury concerns have been expressed. He is in the twelve man squad but remains an uncertain starter. It is not in debate that Broad (and indeed Anderson) has a busy period of cricket between now and the first South African Test - eight ODIs and one T20 to be precise - but how can that possible justify resting a fully fit bowler who has already been forced to miss one Test match this year through injury? If he is fit, surely he must play. 

But listening to England's Head Coach it seems increasingly likely that Broad will not play. In fact Andy Flower has put forward a strong defence of the policy of rest and rotation. One, however, that dispels any myth of the absolute primacy of Test cricket. "We came into this series with one goal and that was to win the series," Flower said. "We've achieved that goal so our priorities do shift. I'm not intending to demean the importance of this Test but, since we won the series already, our priority on the Test front does now shift to the South Africa series. There is also a slight shift to the West Indies one-day series because that series stands at 0-0. We haven't won that series, we've won this one. Part of our decision making is based around those reasons"

He may not intend to demean the importance of this Test but he does. No matter how superficially attractive some of his arguments may seem (there is merit in his desire to increase the "pool" of fast bowlers as well as in his observation that the selection of Finn and Onions would hardly weaken the team) they just don't stack up. In particular, rationalising the decision in the light of the South Africa series does not wash. If priority had truly shifted to that series then Ravi Bopara, who will surely take Jonny Bairstow's place then, should have played now. But instead Bairstow is rightly retained.

Referencing resting and rotational practices in other sports does not work either. For one thing, in no other national team sport in the UK is the management granted complete control over their players. With centrally contracted players playing virtually no county cricket these days, and with rest and rotation already being exercised in ODIs, do players' workloads still need further "managing"?

If the answer is yes it can mean only one of two things: that this summer's schedule is grossly overloaded or that central contracts are not working. I prefer to blame the schedule, not only because the one-day series with Australia is so palpably pointless but because, as much as I try, it is hard to argue with a number one ranking.


Kevin Pietersen's retirement from all one-day cricket has served only to fling further mud into these murky waters. But whatever Pietersen's motivation it should not be overlooked that one of the superstars of the modern game, and a "great" fan of T20, has made a decision designed to keep him playing Test cricket for for the forseeable future. In these uncertain times let us just be happy about that.