By Tony Cozier
West Indies have again been jolted by the suspension and withdrawal of one of their major spinners, this time their most prominent.
As much to the point, Sunil Narine’s censuring by the umpires for a suspect action in successive matches for Kolkata Knight Riders in the Champions League T20 that ended in Bangalore is further evidence that the ICC has finally grasped the game’s most agonising nettle, one that it had attempted for too long, albeit with good intentions, to handle with kid gloves.
It has changed its softly-softly approach to the burgeoning number of bowlers with flawed actions – in plain language, throwers, chuckers, pelters, stoners, call them what you will – and now encourages umpires to report those they deem to be transgressing.
Narine and Saeed Ajmal of Pakistan are the contemporary game’s most celebrated spinners. Ajmal is tenth among the ICC’s Test bowlers, tops in ODIs, fourth in T20s; Narine is second in both ODIs and T20s. They are superstars, in lucrative demand in the several T20 tournaments across the globe.
They have both been cited, Ajmal in a Test against Sri Lanka in June, Narine at a lower level, in the Champions League. Since June, seven others of lesser standing have been reported for the same reason.
The unambiguous message is that the ICC will now rely more on the umpires’ judgement in the matter of the incalculable geometry of 15-degree elbow flex, a system it first introduced into the equation in 2004, initially as a concession to the greatest of all the offspin/doosra bowlers, the Sri Lankan wizard Muttiah Muralitharan.
The Pakistan Cricket Board has quickly read its meaning correctly. It identified 28 bent-elbow bowlers – yes, 28 – in its recent domestic T20 tournament, of whom 17 are offspinners. Eight were immediately suspended so that they could have their actions straightened out before it is too late.
The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and its various affiliates need to follow suit with equal swiftness, at all levels, from first-class to youth and club cricket.
It has before it a few prime examples of bowlers whose actions were suspect from an early age and whose careers were either disrupted or ended, as no meaningful attempt was made to correct them.
Narine himself, offspinner Shane Shillingford, and fast bowler Jermaine Lawson all entered first-class cricket with doubts over how they bowled; Shillingford, twice, and Lawson later faced suspension from the international game. Now Narine is in danger of the same penalty.
Shillingford was no-balled three times for throwing in his debut first-class match, aged 17, by the umpire Steve Bucknor; Narine needed remedial work after his first season. Lawson’s suspension halted what was a promising career after 13 Tests.
At least now, Curtly Ambrose, West Indies’ bowling consultant, is working to tweak the actions of Ronsford Beaton, 22, and Ray Jordan, 20, presently the two most promising young fast bowlers in regional cricket.
Ajmal has enjoyed longer success than most at all levels. The revelation that his elbow extension during recent trials covering eight overs at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane was, on average, an absurd 40 degrees brings up the question as to how come he managed to pass an earlier examination and was free to play 35 Tests.
Another pertinent question is what logic determines that a bowler under suspicion can play on for one more match? As an example, in 2005 in the Caribbean, Shabbir Ahmed, the tall Pakistan fast bowler who threw with real pace and menace, helped win a decisive Test with match figures of 8 for 119 before starting his suspension. It is a pattern often repeated.
Paul Grayson, Essex’s head coach, made a similar point about Ajmal’s influence with Worcestershire in the county season just ended. Ajmal’s 63 wickets were taken at 16.47 runs each; it was, Grayson contended, the difference in Worcestershire topping his side for promotion to Division One.
John Davison, now a spin coach with Cricket Australia, but more familiar as the Canadian who blazed what was then the fastest World Cup century, against West Indies in 2003 in South Africa, noted another negative aspect of the influence of bowlers testing the 15 degrees limit. During a recent coaching stint in Sri Lanka, he estimated that 90% of emerging bowlers, mostly offspinners, have grown up copying their heroes and “are going to struggle to bowl with a legal action”.
This is not to say that Narine, or Ajmal for that matter, will similarly struggle on return; it is just that they are likely to be less effective without the method that has made them so successful.
Since the Champions League is a domestic tournament, Narine’s sanction did not extend to West Indies’ series of five ODIs against India that starts in Kochi on Wednesday. It was a difficult choice for Clive Lloyd and his selection panel to withdraw him from the entire tour; it is clearly based on the possible effect further scrutiny might have on his confidence, as it will on all those now in the same predicament.
Knight Riders’ coach, the Australian Trevor Bayliss, describes Narine as a strong character with an upbeat attitude, and that he is “happy to work on anything that needs to be worked on”. It is best that he works on whatever is now needed, for if not properly and quickly dealt with, the Champions League affair could well determine his future, for West Indies but even more so in the IPL, where he has been by far the most influential bowler since being signed on by Knight Riders after catching their attention while playing for Trinidad and Tobago in the Champions League in 2011.
If he simply played on with the shadow of eagle-eyed umpires at an ICC series hanging over him, would he be as attractive a buy at future auctions? Judging by Narine’s calm on-field reaction to the pressure as the top bowler in the IPL, Bayliss’ assessment is well taken.
The ICC has made its belated move. Its affiliated boards, Narine, Ajmal, and all affected players need to now respond accordingly.