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T20 Legends: Sunil Narine

In Part One of CricViz’s T20 Legends series we examine why and how Sunil Narine is one of T20’s greatest players. 

RUN-PREVENTION KING

At the very core of Sunil Narine’s greatness is his run-prevention ability. Put simply he is the greatest defensive bowler in T20 history. Narine’s economy rate of 6.02 runs per over is the equal best in the world, exactly level with his mentor and countryman Samuel Badree. 

However, economy rate can be a misleading measure. Different periods of the innings produce fluctuating run environments with the middle overs typically being the slowest scoring phase of the innings. As a result spinners often dominate lists of best economy rates because overall they operate far more regularly through that middle phase. 

Narine, however, is different. Among the format’s major spin bowlers he is one of only three who have bowled the majority of their overs outside the middle overs, operating instead in the tougher periods: the Powerplay and the death.

Not only does Narine not operate through the middle but he is the only spinner in the world to bowl more than a quarter of his overs in the Powerplay and more than a quarter of his overs at the death.It is not uncommon for spinners to bowl a fair chunk of their overs in one of these two phases but Narine does both.

Contextualising a spinner’s overs often makes their raw economy look slightly less impressive because the large majority of them bowl in the middle overs. However, in Narine’s case the fact that he operates as much as he does outside the middle overs makes his economy rate more impressive. 

True Economy Rate is a measure that contextualises economy rate and allows cross-phase analysis of bowlers by comparing a bowler’s performance in a given over to the aggregate scoring rate for that over in that year. 

By this measure Narine moves well clear as the best defensive bowler in T20 returning a True Economy Rate of -1.75 runs per over which means he concedes 1.75 runs fewer per over than we would expect based on the overs he has bowled in. 

FLATTER, FASTER & SHORTER 

Narine’s astonishing run-saving ability comes from a very specific method. Traditionally, in longer formats of cricket spinners have looked to beat batsmen in the air by bowling a loopy trajectory, at slow speeds and on full lengths. T20, and the greater emphasis on the defensive role of bowlers, has given rise to a new breed of spinner who have bowled flatter, faster and shorter. This combination of traits cramps batsmen for room and time, making it difficult for them to attack. Badree was the pioneer of this method but Narine has since popularised it. 

Among T20’s major spin bowlers only six have bowled faster than Narine, who has delivered 78% of his balls in T20 faster than 88 kph. 

Among that same group of bowlers none have bowled a shorter length than Narine, whose deliveries have, on average, pitched 5.67 metres from the batsman’s stumps. 

The difference in average length between Narine and another great off spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan, is enormous – more than 1.50 metres.

The key to Narine’s length wasn’t so much that he bowled short but rather he very rarely bowled full – allowing batsmen to prop onto the front foot and swing through the line of the ball – a so-called ‘step and hit’. No major bowler in T20 history has bowled a lower proportion of full balls than Narine.

It was this simple method and Narine’s relentless accuracy with it that was fundamental to his success as a run-preventer.  

MYSTERY SPINNER

Narine used to be more than just phenomenally accurate though. Up until October 2014 Narine combined his exceptional run-saving abilities with elite wicket-taking as well. 

The simple reason for this was that in the first three years of his career Narine was a mystery spinner who could bowl carrom balls regularly and very effectively. Although Narine became arguably the delivery’s most successful exponent he learnt it from the Sri Lankan Ajantha Mendis. 

Until October 2014 more than half of Narine’s wickets in T20 came from carrom balls, returning an exceptional average of just 12.20 runs per wicket – no delivery in the history of T20 cricket until that point had been more effective. The combination of Narine’s relentless accuracy and mystery spin proved to be an overwhelming combination. 

Bowling carrom balls with a legal bowling action—within the permitted 15 degrees of flex—is difficult. In October 2014 everything changed for Narine when he was suspended for a suspect bowling action by the ICC. After an attempted return in 2015 was ended by second suspension Narine remodelled his bowling action and returned a very different bowler, focussing less on spin and more on accuracy.

The change in Narine’s bowling is clear to see: after being suspended for the first time he radically reduced the percentage of his deliveries that were carrom balls from around half to around one in four. 

This was likely to have been in-part a response to the fact that the carrom ball pushed the limit of the laws but it was also a consequence of those deliveries now proving far less effective with his remodelled action. 

The primary difference after his remodelling was the average speed of his carrom ball: falling from 96 kph before October 2014 to 93 kph after that point. As a result they had slightly less bite and fizz and spun around 20% less. 

Before his suspension Narine’s carrom ball was the most effective ball in T20 cricket; but after his return it was not even the most effective delivery in his own armoury. 

A CAREER OF TWO HALVES 

Narine’s suspension and remodelling of his bowling action was a pivot-point for his career. After his initial suspension his bowling changed and his returns changed accordingly: having previously combined a low economy rate with a low strike rate Narine had to settle for being less of a wicket-taking bowler with his strike rate rising significantly higher from 2015 onwards. 

Although his economy rate also rose it did so less dramatically and remained elite: since 2015 only Rashid Khan has a better True Economy Rate than Narine. 

Narine has managed to remain exceptionally effective at run-saving by maintaining the foundation of his method: high speeds and short lengths. 

Since remodelling his action his speed has been slightly down on before (due in part to an outlier 2016 when legality, at the cost of speed, was the focus of Narine’s bowling) but the core tenets of his approach, namely speed and length, remained unchanged.  

LONGEVITY

Just as run-saving is at the heart of Narine’s greatness, so too is longevity. Before Narine remodelled his action in 2015 he was, without a doubt, the world’s leading spin bowler. Since 2015 he has been usurped by Rashid but Narine’s career has lasted twice as long. 

All sportsmen face setbacks and challenges through their careers but few can have been as fundamental or as serious as Narine’s: forced, mid-career, to alter the way he bowled. Yet Narine has not only emerged, but endured. 

Admittedly, he is not the force he once was but even then he remains one of the very best bowlers in the world. 

True legendary status is cemented by sustained excellence. Just as Sachin Tendulkar was forced to reinvent his game across an epic career so too has Narine, evolving from wizard to scrooge. After nearly a decade, 8000 balls and more than 350 wickets he is the most prolific spin bowler in the format’s history. 

PINCH-HITTER 

Narine’s greatness does not only lie in his bowling. Not long after he had to remodel his action and settle for being a lesser bowler his career was given a huge fillip by a dramatic and seismic boost to his batting. 

On New Years Day in 2017 Narine was promoted to the top of the order by the Melbourne Renegades who wanted a player to counter Micheal Beer’s left-arm spin bowling in the Powerplay and had been impressed with Narine’s hitting in the nets. The tactic worked: Narine scored 21 off 13 balls and got the Renegades’ innings off to a flying start. 

Narine’s brief foray as an opener for the Renegades was enough to persuade Kolkata Knight Riders to deploy him there in the 2017 IPL where he eventually formed an iconic partnership with Chris Lynn. Teams around the world quickly followed suit: Dhaka Dynamites, Lahore Qalandars and Trinbago Knight Riders have since adopted the tactic. Having never opened the batting in a T20 before 2017 and having played 81% of his innings at number eight or lower, Narine has opened the batting in 71% of his 122 innings matches since then.

Pinch-hitting, the tactic of promoting a lower order batsman up the order to bat aggressively, has been in the game for a number of years now. However, Narine is comfortably the most successful exponent of the tactic in cricket history. 

The Renegades’ hunch that Narine would be well-suited to opening the batting has proved to be a masterstroke. Narine has emerged as one of the most powerful and aggressive batsmen ever to play T20. His positive intent is of course largely a consequence of his status as a pinch-hitter: bowling is his primary skill so he is liberated to bat with more freedom than a frontline batsman. However to disregard his wicket to such a degree requires a clear understanding and acceptance of the role and a psychological freedom that few players exhibit. 

CricViz’s Power and Attack Ratings illustrate the extent to which Narine is an extreme outlier: the players closest to him on the scatter are Andre Russell, Thisara Perera and Shahid Afridi. 

These raw materials make Narine perfectly suited to the role of pinch-hitter: he is exceptionally aggressive so doesn’t waste balls, and his power enables him to clear the in-field and find the boundary. Narine’s scoring zones – unusually straight – also make him particularly difficult to set fields to in the Powerplay with captains typically placing their two boundary-riders square of the wicket. 

Among T20 players to have scored more than 1000 runs in the Powerplay only Luke Ronchi has scored faster than Narine in the phase and no one has been dismissed at a faster rate. Narine is here for a good time, not a long time.   

Narine is more than just a regulation Powerplay hitter though. More specifically he is particularly adept at scoring rapidly against spin which has elevated his value in the Powerplay even further. As T20 has matured the percentage of overs bowled by spinners in the first six overs has steadily increased because the batsmen who typically bat there are often far stronger against pace. Narine’s aptitude against spin and his deployment as a pinch-hitter has made him a fielding captain’s nightmare, particularly when he’s paired with a reliable destroyer of pace bowling such as Lynn at KKR. 

As teams have become more accustomed to Narine the pinch-hitter they have become better at exploiting him, most obviously with high pace and short lengths. However, the beauty of Narine in the role is that his worst innings very rarely consume many balls. 

The rise of Narine the pinch-hitter, coinciding with the slight dip in his bowling when he remodelled his action has been central to Narine maintaining his status as one of T20’s most valuable players.  

PROFOUND LEGACY 

Ultimately, when Narine’s T20 career does come to an end, whenever that may be – his legacy, although etched in what will certainly be remarkable records – will be greater than numbers and more profound. Off the pitch his prioritisation of T20, alongside Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard and Dwayne Bravo, has blazed a trail for a generation of freelance players. Narine and Pollard, unlike Gayle and Bravo, made their names entirely on the T20 circuit. 

On the pitch, both with ball and bat, Narine’s method as much as his output will endure. Narine inherited his style of bowling from Badree but it was the younger prodigy who popularised it: flatter, faster and shorter was the name of the game. Spin bowling will never look the same again. 

With the bat Narine’s successful promotion as a pinch-hitter and particularly his success with Lynn at KKR demonstrated an understanding of the reduced value of wickets in T20 and the importance of match-ups that makes it one of the great tactical moves in the format’s history. More will surely follow.

Narine’s astonishing T20 career is not yet done but his status as a pioneer and a legend is beyond doubt.

Freddie Wilde is a senior analyst at CricViz. Follow him on Twitter @fwildecricket


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