Sunil Narine, Xavier Doherty and the difference between float and flight

The first ODI between West Indies and Australia was a tale of two spinners. One is more experienced in domestic and international cricket, but the other is a player of huge promise. When Xavier Doherty came on to bowl during the 15th over of Australia’s innings, my mind was cast back to two test matches last Australian summer when Doherty wheeled away for hours on end fruitlessly as England piled up two huge totals.

Since then he hasn’t played another Test match, but he’s emerged as an important part of Australia’s limited overs plans. Today was an odd day for him, but one in which he hopefully learnt some important lessons about international bowling. The first of these is the difference between float and flight.

One of the most important things for a spin bowler, maybe second behind spin, is flight. It’s an often misunderstood concept; a lot of cricket fans think of flight as a bowler floating the ball up in the air slowly. They think of it as the sort of rubbish a club bowler sees get clobbered into the next county.

That perception is wrong though, bowlers with good flight are among the best spin bowlers, in all forms of cricket. Think of Dan Vettori, think of Graeme Swann and going back a few years, think of Shane Warne. None of them got wickets by bowling fast and flat, they got their wickets through flight and spin.

What Xavier Doherty did in his first over of bowling wasn’t flight, it was float. He bowled slow, he tossed it up without any real work on the ball, and it disappeared three times into the stands in that over. He worked it out though and started to rip the ball a bit more, flighted it, floated the odd one up rather than all of them and varied his pace better. He got wickets like that, one caught at slip off a sharply spinning delivery, one LBW off a straighter one, one stumped off a sharply spinning delivery, then a tail-ender caught down at long off. These dismissals proved something important for Doherty: flight doesn’t work unless you give the ball a bit of a rip.

Doherty’s innings figures of 8-2-49-4 encapsulate his performance. There were good overs and bad overs, wicket taking balls and some absolute rubbish. He was inconsistent overall, but once he stopped floating the ball and started spinning it he was always threatening.

Sunil Narine is the next ‘big thing’ in West Indies cricket, and unusually since the days of Ramadhin and Valentine, he’s a spinner. The pitches in the Caribbean have been undergoing a remarkable transformation in the last few years, they’ve got slower, lower, dustier and spinners have started to prosper. Evidence of this is in the fact that all five of the top wicket takers in the West Indies first class competition are all spinners. They’ve all taken their wickets at an average of under 20, and chief among them is Sunil Narine who has 31 at the scarcely believable average of 9.61.

The reasons for his success seem to be many and varied. He has been helped by the pitches, but he turns the ball, has control over line and length, and gives it a little bit of flight. While he doesn’t flight the ball much, he doesn’t fire it in quick and flat and hope to contain the batsmen. He contains the batsmen by attacking them, varying between his off break and some kind of doosra.

He took 1-24 off his ten overs, and just went for one boundary, that in his second over. His one wicket was a classic off-spinner’s wicket, pitching on the left-hander’s off stump from around the wicket, turning and catching the edge through to Dwayne Bravo at slip.

After a performance like this, his performances in the the domestic competition and the fact that the Test match pitches are likely to spin, he looks in contention for a place in the team for the first Test. Unfortunately, whether he will be available is another thing. The Indian Premier League kicks off on 4th April and clashes with both the Australia and England Test series for West Indies. Given that Narine was brought for $700,000 in the recent auction, it seems inevitable that he’ll be in India trying to prevent ‘DLF maximums’ rather than putting Australian batsmen in a spin in the greatest form of the game. More’s the pity.

Originally published 16-Mar-2012

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