When the Indian Premier League was in its infancy, a phalanx of gnarled veterans declared spin bowling to be on suicide watch. Perhaps the most outspoken was the late Terry Jenner, an Australian maverick who did more than most to turn Shane Warne into the greatest bowler that ever lived.
"The format [Twenty20] plays no role in developing spinners," Jenner said in 2008. "Spin bowling is all about giving the ball air to deceive the batsmen. But in T20 turning the ball is not priority… I consider it popcorn cricket… it's nice to see cricketers earning huge money, but the format is never going to work for the development of spinners." Most of us shared Jenner's concern. But it is salutary to note that this was a spectacular misjudgement.
Given the centuries-long assault on spinners from all sides – shorter boundaries, limited overs, bigger bats, video technology, cautious umpires in the pre-Hawkeye era, pitifully ignorant captains – it would be wonderful even if spin bowling just happened to survive in an era when Muralitharan, Warne and Kumble were gone from the top level. In fact, because of T20 and the IPL specifically, we are embarked on a new era of greatness in spin. This era has countless personifications, but there are five twirlymen in particular, I think, who embody a renaissance in this most beautiful of sporting pastimes.
They are Akila Dananjaya (right), Sachithra Senanayake (both Sri Lankan), Karan Sharma and Amit Mishra (both Indian), and Trinidadian Sunil Narine. Let's take them in reverse order.
Narine has been just about the most successful bowler in the IPL for back-to-back seasons. He bowls two main deliveries: a conventional off-break and a carrom ball, flicked out by the middle finger, which spins away from the right-hander while skidding through. Both of these come from the front of the hand, and by scrambling the seam for his off-break, Narine deceives countless batsmen.
Mishra is short, fat and orthodox. In method and deportment, he is a modern Tich Freeman. As a small man with a bustling action, he generates tremendous loop, bowling flightier leg-breaks than most, with plenty of over-spin and bounce. His quick arm makes a fine googly hard to detect, and he bowls a mean, seam-up quicker ball that can move either way.
Sharma, at 25 still developing, is of a similar ilk. His hurried, over-busy action allows him to conceal a zooter – also known as the slider or nothing ball – that looks like a leg-break but skids through at pace.
Senanayake, who like Narine plays for the Kolkata Knight Riders, may be the most talked- about bowler this season. He learned the carrom ball from Ajantha Mendis, another Sri Lankan whose Test career was meteoric in the strict sense of that term: it blazed in brief glory before fading from view. Senanayake – who is tall, has a very discomfortingly bent arm and bowls the off-break and arm ball – also has a real mystery ball that has bamboozled commentators and batsman alike. This is a flipper-like delivery, squeezed out from under the wrist with a snap of the thumb, which stays low and can go either way.
The bowler who most excites me is Dananjaya, a 19 year-old with an impish smile, bounding, kangaroo-like approach to the wicket, and more deliveries than an episode of One Born Every Minute. Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardena fast-tracked Dananjaya to the national squad after facing his off-break, leg-break, googly, carrom ball and doosra in the nets. His exquisite control and sharp spin at the T20 World Cup had even Muralitharan salivating at the prospect of a long-term successor.
These men are part of a new army, waging war against declinism and the impulse to turn mystery into history. Not since the early 19th century has spin bowling been such a force within the game. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.