Mystery spinners are considered to be the most intriguing of characters seen on a cricket field. We have seen many players in the past who could do things with the cricket ball that others could only imagine. When these players are young, raw and new to competitive cricket, their career kicks off with great excitement, drama and chatter. Most batsmen facing such spinners generally find it very difficult to cope with their trade initially.
However, being a mystery spinner has its pros and cons. The initial days are laced with the surprise element that can get you plenty of wickets. Yet, as time progresses, the enigma can be unraveled and counter-measures may be discovered and shared across the batting fraternity. The sparkling edge can soon become blunted and the once phenomenal match-winner can look pedestrian and ordinary. Among the mystery spinners of the past, there have been many players whose entry into the international stage was marked with a lot of fanfare but somewhere down the line they just faded into oblivion.
One such bowler was Ajantha Mendis who is credited for introducing the “carom” ball. He was really impressive in his first test series against India, picking up 26 wickets in three matches. He was the man of the match in the Asia Cup final back in 2008 when his splendid performance helped Sri Lanka beat India by a big margin. Yet, the excitement was short-lived. When the batsmen got used to his variations, they took him to the cleaners in all the formats of the game. He failed to pick up wickets and his average looked like that of an ordinary bowler which eventually cost him his place in the national squad.
Before Mendis, Sri Lanka had one of the best spinners in the world at their disposal in the form of Muttiah Muralitharan. The Lankan legend picked up 800 test wickets in his entire career, the highest by any bowler in test matches. His unusual action came under a lot of speculation sometimes, but he was eventually cleared by the ICC. His performance in the limited overs cricket took a decline towards the end of his career where he went for plenty of runs.
But the first ever mystery spinner that the world had seen was Jack Iverson. He gripped the ball between the thumb and the middle finger, the subtle movements of his middle finger making it dart about in different directions. His release was like squirting the ball from his hand as one would do with a marble. Iverson spun the googly massively, and the other balls considerably less. With time, batsmen finally figured out a way to play him as an off-break bowler who gave the impression of bowling leg-breaks. In the second test match of 1950-51 ashes in Sydney, he took six English wickets for 27. Australia won the series 4-1 and Iverson ended with 21 wickets at 15.23. Unfortunately, he was injured in the last test match that ended his career. Could he have been more successful had he continued to play? Much like his bowling, it remains a mystery.
Only two spinners in the modern era have retained their X factor after years in international cricket. Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine are considered to be the best spinners in the world, especially in limited overs cricket. The variations and the control which they have make them all the more dangerous. Despite of all the technology available to the teams these days, most batsmen still haven’t figured out a way to play them well. Both of them didn’t feature in the World Cup 2015 down under as they were reported for suspect bowling actions, but now they have been given green signal by the ICC. Narine, with a changed bowling action, is slowly getting into his rhythm in the ongoing IPL whereas Ajmal is going to play in the upcoming series against Bangladesh.
Mystery spinners have always drawn too much attention. With their unusual actions or clever variations they try to get the better out of the batsmen. Especially in limited overs cricket, where the rules are very harsh for the bowlers, they often become a captain’s trump card due to their unpredictable nature. They may go for runs but manage to pick up crucial wickets.
An ardent cricket lover is always mesmerized by the seductive appeal of a mystery bowler dwelling in the shadows of anonymity. However, for longevity and a prolonged career, the spinners have to be more versatile. Regardless of their talent, it is only a matter of time before their action is shredded into bits and analyzed, courtesy video analysis and eagle eyed batsmen. Unless they come up with yet another trick to outfox the batsmen and the cycle continues!
Edited by Shivang Aggarwal