Over 400 T20s into his career, Sunil Narine has been hailed by many as the greatest spin bowler in the format. He has redefined the art of T20 bowling with his variations and ability to reinvent his role in teams. A T20 World Cup winner with West Indies, and two-time IPL champion with Kolkata Knight Riders, his career in recent years has been blighted by questions over his action and threats of suspensions. In this interview, during his T20 Blast stint with Surrey, the famously private Narine opens up about his career so far, from almost quitting the game as a teenager to bowling Sachin Tendulkar at the Wankhede Stadium.
At what point in your life did offspin become your specialism?
To be honest, batting was, and still is, my favourite aspect of the game. In zonal and regional cricket locally I had a coach who encouraged me to bowl pace and spin. Nobody really took me seriously bowling seam, so I decided to just bowl spin and see what happens. At youth level, I made the Trinidad and Tobago Under-19 side as a batsman who could also bowl. Then the first game I played, I picked up 14 wickets in a four-day game. In Trinidad people knew I could bat, but this was when I became Narine the bowler. That’s where I became a so-called ”mystery” bowler.
Does any footage exist of a young Narine bowling pace?
(Laughs) I’m not sure. You know, in those days they didn’t really video much or keep footage. At youth level I wasn’t a marquee player, so any footage or pictures might be hard to find.
West Indies weren’t known for producing world-class spinners in the ’90s and early 2000s. Was there anyone locally you were trying to emulate?
In the Caribbean it was tough. The more I bowled spin, the more I looked to Muthiah Muralidaran – he had the ball going both ways. But in the beginning it was tough. West Indies didn’t have spinners who were playing consistently at the time; they would always play one-off games, where fast bowlers would dominate.
How did you develop your action without any local influence?
My dad used to take me to play softball cricket as a child, that’s where it all started. I got my knuckleball and offspin grip from it, because I don’t hold the ball like a genuine offspinner. The uniqueness came from that.
You’re known as a white-ball legend, but you made your professional debut in the first-class format for Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, after taking all ten wickets in a trial match before that.
Yeah, in Trinidad it was tough to make it as a spinner. You had Amit Jaggernauth, Sherwin Ganga and Dave Mohammed as quality spinners. I couldn’t see a way of making the XI, but then one of my most enjoyable cricketing days happened, I took ten wickets and it gave me one foot into the T&T side.
After taking just a single wicket in his first two first-class seasons, Narine returned in 2011-12 to pick up 31 wickets in three games
© West Indies Cricket Board
In that first-class game you went wicketless and you weren’t called up for much regional cricket until 2011. What were you doing during this period?
It was tough, I was travelling with the regional team, I played one game in my first year, and then the same the next year . I travelled with the four-day team, just observing and continuing to play plenty of cricket for my local club, Queens Park Cricket Club. It was mentally challenging because there was a year where I didn’t even qualify for Trinidad and Tobago trials. I thought maybe I should just call it a day, but my dad advised me not to throw away all the effort I had put into the game as a youngster. He said my chance would come.
In 2011 you took part in the Caribbean Twenty20 tournament. What were your thoughts on T20 cricket at the time?
I saw it as a way of getting into the first-class side. That was the time when I was just getting used to bowling my knuckleball, having started bowling it around 18 months before.
But as a young guy just being able to play for T&T, in any format, and representing my country meant I saw it more as a way to enjoy my game rather than looking at having a proper position in T20 cricket. It was early days, nobody really understood the format yet, everyone was going with the flow and coming up with new ideas.
Did you naturally feel your game suited the format more?
I wouldn’t say that – at the end of the day, it’s cricket. When batters have to come and play [in T20] it gives you an opportunity for wickets. In four-day games, when batters sit and try to wait, you really have to keep pegging away. Everyone has a different line or way of going about it and everyone has a different game. It just so happened that I dominated T20 more than any other format. I’ve played more in this format, so I think it was just my road to go down.
That led to you playing in the 2011 T20 Champions League, followed by the regional Super 50, and by the end of that year you were called up for the West Indies ODI side for the tour against India. Was it a surprise?
I had done well in the T20 format and was expecting to be part of the four-day set-up in Trinidad, but I wasn’t selected, so when the Champions League came up, I went there and that’s where I started to be recognised as a permanent fixture in the team. [I was] very surprised to get called up for West Indies so soon after that. Some people have to play so much cricket before getting a call-up. Maybe they saw something in me.
“There are times in cricket when you can do no wrong and the 2012 IPL was one of those.” Narine took 24 wickets at an economy rate of 5.47 in that tournament
On that tour, who were the players giving you advice?
Kieron Pollard has always been the go-to guy when it comes to cricket – him and DJ Bravo are my good friends, to be honest, on that team. [With fellow Trinidadians] Denesh Ramdin, Adrian Barath and Darren Bravo also there, there were about six or seven familiar faces in the team. Being around those guys, them showing me how to go about international cricket, I think that helped in my first series against India, not knowing the conditions.
In early 2012, you took 31 wickets in three regional four-day games for T&T. What brought that sudden success? You had struggled in the format before.
Confidence from playing international ODI cricket. It was a short transition, playing against India with tough players and then coming back to regional cricket where the pitches in the Caribbean offered more spin and bounce.
And that led to a Test debut against England at Edgbaston in June 2012…
The possibility of a call-up was in the back of my mind. They were looking for a spinner, but just coming from IPL I wasn’t expecting it so soon. Went up there and it was freezing cold, can’t feel your fingers… tough conditions. It was something I hadn’t really experienced, especially coming straight from the IPL, where it was hot. I didn’t do that great, we didn’t get to play a full match due to the rain, but it was always a childhood dream to play Test cricket.
Do you regret not playing more Test cricket in your career?
I genuinely wish I’d played more Test cricket, because I enjoyed it. It’s more relaxing, the intensity is slightly lower, you don’t have to constantly worry about guys hitting boundaries, you have to try and prise guys out rather than studying how not to make them score. I did enjoy playing the format – the last Test I played [vs New Zealand in Hamilton in 2013] I took six wickets in an innings, but I haven’t played again due to certain issues. Test cricket is about outthinking a batsman – once you learn this at Test level, it filters down to your game in the shorter formats.
Let’s talk about the IPL. Did you feel pressure at the size of your fee, US$700,000, in 2012 with Kolkata Knight Riders?
Funny story – when the auction happened, DJ Bravo told me I had been signed, but I know he likes to play games, so I didn’t believe him. Then Pollard messaged me and I said to him, “This can’t be real. When they buy you for this amount, do they actually pay you that?” As a young cricketer from a humble background, I thank my Dad, he always kept me grounded, no matter the situation. With that price, the expectation is always high. I didn’t play the first game, so I realised I wasn’t an automatic pick despite the high price. It was an early wake-up call – I had to play good cricket.
“A few years ago I couldn’t see the end of the tunnel, but Pollard said, ‘You are someone who doesn’t give up, so don’t give up now'”
It was an unbelievable debut season for you, winning the title, named player of the tournament, bowling Sachin Tendulkar. What are your memories?
It was a dream come true. There are times in cricket you can do nothing wrong, and that tournament was one of those times. The second game I played I got five wickets, getting Adam Gilchrist out first. Then playing against Mumbai and getting that wicket of Sachin [Tendulkar] – he is India’s greatest batsman, and knowing as a young cricketer you could get a wicket like that was an achievement.
Indian conditions suited me as a spinner, but I also had that pressure, the price tag plus the fact it’s the biggest T20 tournament you can play in, besides the World Cup. Knowing how many players are there, how many people talk about it, you know to do well you have to come with your A-game. At first it was a lot of nerves.
Then you won the World Cup later that year. Let’s talk about your partnership with Samuel Badree in that tournament
For a spinner to bowl in the powerplay is tough – Badree bowled three overs in that period for so much of his career, he deserved his No. 1 ranking at the time. Normally you look for fast bowlers to set the tone in a match, but Badree set the tone for the matches with his first over, where opposition would only get around two to four runs, which also takes the pressure off the next bowler coming in. Even if there was a bad over from a bowler, you knew Badree could come in and pull it back with his economy. He was very good at his job. For a spinner to dominate the powerplay in the way he has, I think his bowling says a lot.
In that famous World Cup final, West Indies scored 137 for 6, going into Sri Lanka’s chase. What was your mindset?
We were very confident, we played good cricket defending and chasing, we played off each other’s energy. It was a team trying to win the World Cup, individual accolades were never in my mind. It was important because West Indies hadn’t won a World Cup in years. Ravi Rampaul and Badree set the tone. The slight rain helped as well – Sri Lankan batsmen started thinking about the rain rather than how many runs they needed to win, so all those things contributed to the win.
It’s one of my greatest achievements, playing for a title-winning West Indies side. Being able to bring back that joy to Caribbean people, I think that’s more than you can ask for. Doing well in other tournaments is more about individual goals, but doing it for the West Indies is a collective goal. That’s where you build your support – playing for West Indies means whatever other cricket you play, no matter how good you are playing or not, you still have that fanbase behind you.
Narine picked up 3 for 9 in the 2012 World Cup final against Sri Lanka
© Getty Images
What was more challenging for you, the T20 World Cup or the IPL?
International cricket is harder; in the IPL if you don’t make one team, another team can buy you. To be in the West Indies T20 team at a World Cup – there is no second team, you have to continuously do well to keep making the team. The more you play international cricket, the more franchise teams will look at you, because of the consistency needed at international level.
It was in the 2016-17 Big Bash League that you first transitioned into a T20 opening batter.
In the early days of IPL and in the West Indies, it was known that I could bat a bit, but with the passing of my dad – he had always wanted me to show the world I could bat, so I gave myself 18 months to work on my batting, practising more. Aaron Finch was captain at Melbourne Renegades. We were playing Melbourne Stars, and we knew they would use Michael Beer as a left-arm orthodox spinner in the powerplay. My goal was to target him. I had been batting well in the nets and I was asked to open. It so happened in the end all the boundaries I hit in that game came off fast bowling (laughs) and not off the spinners, so I didn’t really do the job expected of me, but that’s where it all started as an opener.
So who recommended the idea at KKR?
Gautam Gambhir asked me to open. He wanted me to get the team off to a fast start, it didn’t matter if I lost my wicket early. Nobody could plan too much for me as I was still new to the role, opposition didn’t take me that seriously, and I went from strength to strength. The more I performed well, the more confidence KKR had in me and gave me that encouragement.
At KKR and Surrey this year we have seen you move up and down the order as a floating option. Do you prefer this to the more settled role of opening?
It’s a trend I’ve set for myself: every team I play for now, I bat in a different role. It’s good and bad – I can try different roles as a batter but I don’t have that secure position in the order. One tournament I might be doing well in the middle of the order but then in the next one I may have to open the batting. As a cricketer it’s tough, but if I wasn’t capable I wouldn’t be picked for these roles. When I join a team I like to know what the plan is for me, if I am opening or [in the] middle or playing down the order, so that I can have a clear game plan and prepare for it in the nets.
We’ve seen in recent years that batters try to play your overs out rather than attack. Does this frustrate you or is it a welcome challenge?
As an individual you want to get wickets. Knowing that batsmen aren’t coming at you, sometimes you might play 14 games and only take ten wickets and not be that wicket-taking person. Sometimes bowling four overs for 20 or 18 [runs] helps because you then find your team chasing 160 instead of 180. So when I’m not getting wickets, I try my best not to give away too many runs. Focusing on defending runs and then wickets is what I think about more or less. Yes, I’m supposed to take wickets, but if guys are not attacking or consistently trying to attack, it’s tough to get wickets. Playing tournaments now, I’m not thinking about getting the most wickets. I just play every game thinking I need to go under 24 or 22 runs for my four overs if I’m not taking a wicket. If I pick a wicket, then it could vary, but no wickets means I have to minimise the runs conceded.
“It took six years for my action to feel comfortable, to have that mindset that I can impact games no matter the situation”
© Getty Images for Surrey CCC
In 2012 your economy rate was below six at KKR. Ten years later you’re still keeping it under six, as you did in the most recent IPL. What is the secret to your longevity?
Just being a little different. My mindset is how to not concede runs rather than thinking about wickets. I mean, I bowl to try and get wickets, but I set fields so batters get one or two runs instead of a boundary – those are the things I think about. How do you get certain players off strike, how do you ensure you face someone you feel you give more trouble to, all those things I try to take into consideration. What’s my gameplan? Which batsmen do I prefer bowling at? How do I keep him on strike, those sort of things.
One recent variation to your game is hiding the ball as you run up to deliver. How long did it take to get to a comfortable point with that?
Probably about six years. I’d been practising it over and over but never using it in a game. Then the issues with my action happened and I decided to try bowling from behind my back. That’s why I say everything happens for a reason. If that didn’t happen [issues with bowling action] I would probably be bowling the same way, not having much success. But with coach Carl Crowe, he has been doing a fantastic job and that helped my economy rate go even lower – batsmen see the ball as late as possible and have to react, rather than see what is going to happen. They have to wait and try to hit the ball. That split-second delay works in my favour, that second I have over them is helping me.
Your action getting reported repeatedly must have taken a mental toll on you.
It was mentally tiring and frustrating. Having to come back from it was a physical challenge. In tournaments, you usually have a day off after a game, but I had to keep going at it [to remodel the action], so as much as I am a good player, I had to work extremely hard to ensure everything was going in line, everything looks good, everything is okay. For five or six years it was mentally draining; only in the last 18 months has it eased up. It took six years for my action to feel comfortable, have that mindset that I have the confidence to impact games no matter the situation and enjoy cricket. Honestly, probably three years ago I wasn’t enjoying cricket, it was tough, I was unsure of what to do. I maybe could have said it’s time to call it quits and not damage my legacy, but talking to close friends, especially Pollard, he said, “You are someone who doesn’t give up, so don’t give up now.” I wasn’t seeing the end of the tunnel, then one day working in IPL with Carl Crowe, something clicked and from that day forward everything got better.
I can never be like before [getting reported] but I’m as close as I can be to those days. I can focus on cricket now and not behind the scenes. I can focus on what to do as a bowler rather than an action.
Will we ever see you back in the maroon of West Indies?
There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on, which I don’t really want to get into, but I mean, everybody would love to represent their country. It’s a hard thing watching them knowing that you want to be part of it and you’re not part of it. Things happen for a reason and hopefully in the future I’ll be wearing maroon again, but until then, I’d still love to play for Windies. We shall see when that opportunity comes, but there will never be a no for West Indies.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.