During the infancy of cricket in the late 18th century, all bowlers were spinners of one kind or another. Bowling originally meant "bowling" in the tenpin sense of that word: rolling the ball along the ground to the batsman. A bowler's best hope during this time was to hit a foxhole or molehill, and so achieve deviation that flummoxed the batsman. It was around 1770 that bowlers began to give the ball air; but it was not until 1835 that MCC moderated Rule 10 to allow round-arm bowling, and only in 1864 did it finally relent and legalise overarm bowling.
If you try to bowl the full 22 yards underarm, you'll notice that you can't generate much pace. That is why, for much of cricket's first century, bowlers relied on spin rather than speed to take wickets. Partly as a result of this long lineage, the claims made by spinners through the ages of having invented this or that new delivery – called a "mystery ball" until someone works it out – should always be taken with a generous serving of salt. In the history of mystery, as in most areas of life, all patents are fraudulent.
Clarrie Grimmett, the wonderful Australian of the inter-war years who bowled with his cap on because he was so ashamed of his baldness, is generally credited with inventing the flipper. But Walter Mead of Essex, who played once for England in 1899, was bowling flippers decades earlier. Bernard Bosanquet is generally described as the inventor of the googly – except even he admitted that Nottinghamshire's William Attewell probably bowled it years before. Saqlain Mushtaq is said to have pioneered the doosra – except Australia's Jack Potter was bowling it in the Ashes of 1964.
The author Alan White alerted me to the fact that a new mystery spinner is stalking the game, and great claims for originality are being made on his behalf. Despite the ridiculous mohawk, 23-year-old Trinidadian Sunil Narine is dazzling the IPL with his performances for Kolkata Knight Riders. An off-spinner who took all 10 wickets in a trial game, he bowls at least two other deliveries, one a conventional leg-break, and the other christened by him as a "knuckle-ball".
This has earned him comparison with Ajantha Mendis, the former Sri Lankan soldier who exploded on to the Test scene with a "Carrom Ball" a few years ago, before fading. Narine's knuckle-ball turns like a leg-break, comes out of the front of the hand, and is achieved through a prodigious flick of both index and middle finger. I wrote a book about this stuff, and Narine's delivery looks to me one of the hardest of all alleged "mystery balls" to deliver. The strength of his digits must be exceptional.
Like so many other spinners, he learnt the unorthodox delivery with a tennis ball, before graduating to a cricket ball. Saqlain did the same with the doosra; Jack Iverson, the Australian whose every delivery was a knuckle-ball of sorts, learnt with a table-tennis ball while doing war service in Papua New Guinea.
It is a great shame that Narine has not been selected for the Test squad touring England – and that the selectors didn't have the courage to partner him with taller off-spinner Shane Shillingford. Mendis was nullified by video technology and straighter batting. Except in Muttiah Muralitharan's case, it tends to be masterfully orthodox spin bowlers – Shane Warne, for instance – who thrive. As Narine will soon discover, mystery is temporary but mastery is permanent.
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