Sunil Narine: a loss to Test cricket

Sunil Narine is a limited overs bowler. That he will remain, for the rest of his career. He hasn’t played a First Class game for five years and he won’t play one ever again.

Instead, he bowls four overs a game in the IPL, the CPL, the PSL, the BPL, the BBL; all over the world, driving the ball into the surface short of a length, forcing the batsmen to try to pick his carrom ball. As he does that he shows the most tantalizing glimpses of a Test matchwinner within.

Watch this clip. Or this one. Or this one. Or here where he bamboozles the Australians not just with mystery balls, but with big spinning offies. Or his best hour in Tests against New Zealand, extracting turn where there should be none. Sunil Narine may be a T20 bowler by trade, but he can rip it big.

Think about all the times he’s had problems with his action, been called for chucking, renovated it, rinse and repeat for about the last eight years. Now think how many times that would have happened if he’d concentrated on just his off-break.

Even watching him in this year’s IPL, with a many times renovated action, there’s enough turn to see a different world for him.

It was a world he briefly inhabited. He made his debut with – as it’s now easy to forget – great anticipation from the whole cricket world. He wasn’t yet pigeonholed as a white ball bowler, there was every chance he could step up to Test cricket.

A damp Edgbaston in early June 2012 was not the best place to do that. Three of the five days were rained out, and the one on which he did get to bowl was overshadowed by Tino Best gallivanting to the verge of a hundred from number eleven.

Fifteen overs brought 0-70, with the closest to a wicket being Ian Bell dropped at short leg. Other than that, he looked underdone and inexperienced in English conditions.

New Zealand at home a couple of weeks later promised more for Narine, and duly delivered; 8 for 223 across two innings, showing turn and bounce on a flat pitch, and a Man of the Match award, as he slogged for 85 overs through an adhesive batting lineup. The second Test brought another four wickets, and Narine looked set in the Test game.

The next series, in supposedly favourable conditions in Bangladesh, brought just three tailender wickets in the first Test and none at all in the second.

At the time, after the first Test in the Bangladesh series, Gareth Wattley wrote, “There would have been too many four balls for his liking on a pitch that did not offer him much turn. His adjustment to the challenges of the longer game continues.”

Except, it… didn’t. The next series that the West Indies played, against Zimbabwe at home, he was left out of the squad. Shane Shillingford, another off-spinner with a problematic action, returned after a year out of the team, to take 19 wickets at 10.52.

Shillingford followed that with a decent series in India, then two Tests into the tour of New Zealand he was called for chucking, giving Narine another chance, in the final Test of that series that turned out to be a final Test for him.

That brings us back to this clip, Sunil Narine with turn and bounce off a benign Seddon Park pitch, 6 for 91 keeping West Indies in a match their batsmen would eventually lose them, calypso collapso style.

A few months later came the conflict that might define Narine’s career. Kolkata Knight Riders, the team he has now bowled over twice the number of T20 balls for than his international team; versus the West Indies, for the right to have Narine for an IPL final, or a Test series against New Zealand, back in the West Indies.

The matches didn’t even clash. Narine could have been back five days before the Test match began, missing some of the pre-series camp, but arriving in plenty of time to play the actual game. But, because of a lack of flexibility, or because the board didn’t want to set a precedent, Narine was forced into a straight choice. Test or IPL?

He picked the IPL. Even an intervention from the Trinidad and Tobago sports minister changed nothing. His final ended up with 1 for 46 from four overs, but KKR won anyway.

So why won’t Narine come back to Test cricket? It won’t happen because Cricket West Indies are a poor board, without the money to entice star players into international cricket at all at times, let alone Test cricket.

It won’t happen because Narine is a great T20 bowler, and who would throw away that certainty for the chance to be a Test bowler? No guarantees there.

It won’t happen because Cricket West Indies, even with recent changes, will make Narine play domestic First-class cricket, in which he has nothing to prove, before maybe giving him a chance. No guarantees there either.

It won’t happen, perhaps because Narine has no burning desire to play Test cricket. That’s OK, he has no obligation to pay lip service to Test cricket. Many do when it’s clear their attentions are elsewhere.

Narine is now 30 and has spent much of the last three years remodelling his action after being called for throwing several times. He’s back to near his best in limited overs cricket, but as long as he keeps bowling his carrom ball, another suspension is always possible.

Maybe there’s another way. If you look at the career of Ravichandran Ashwin though, you can see the template for a Test career, if Narine ever wanted it – or if it made economic sense to him.

He could concentrate on his off-break, make his action unimpeachable, use the formidable finger, wrist, and shoulder strength that he clearly has to rip the ball hard and accurately.

Or he could play in the IPL, the CPL, the PSL, the BPL, the BBL; forever toiling in four over bursts, never seen on a Test match field again.

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