What’s the most compelling sight in cricket? A helmet-less Viv Richards en route to the wicket, swinging his bat around his head? Jeff Thomson at the start of his run-up, preparing to unleash hell? Geoffrey Boycott’s eyes widening as someone points out that his last comment wasn’t entirely accurate?
And what about the moment when the mystery spinner makes his entrance? Watching batsmen face Ajantha Mendis for the first time was extraordinary. Professional willow operatives, men who’d released autobiographies; men who’d put their names to serious features in serious cricket magazines telling youngsters how to choose the right pair of batting gloves and how not to play the leg glance, were made to look like random Frenchmen who’d been handed bats and sent out to the middle without any explanation.
Perhaps that’s how it was when the first devious rotter began flinging it roundarm instead of underarm. Suddenly the world was a shadowy, scary place, full of unfriendly bounces and malicious angles.
But the nightmare didn’t last. Once you realise that the rabbit has been under the table the whole time, no one is impressed by that thing the magician does with his top hat. Mystery spinners are like Paris fashions, a dead salmon or a politician’s apologies; you have to enjoy them while they’re fresh.
Unless you count Adil Rashid, who is technically more of a missing spinner than a mystery spinner, Sri Lanka currently hold 66% of the world’s mystery spin bowling resources. The latest graduate from the Lankan Academy of the Unorthodox is Akila Dananjaya, a wristy teenage stick insect with more varieties of offspin to his name than there are syllables to his name (27 in total – Mahamarakkala Kurukulasooriya Patabendige Akila Dananjaya Perera).
Sri Lanka seem to produce mystery spinners with the same frequency that the average professional cricketer produces Twitter spelling mistakes, so once Dananjaya becomes as easy to read as Mendis, they can chuck another new guy or three in. But this leaves a dilemma for other nations wanting to go down the path of mystery. Is it worth nurturing one of your own when their average career expectancy is about 18 months?
The solution is to take a leap to next stage of cricket evolution. From a mystery spinner with a sort of a plan, to a mystery spinner with no plan at all. Welcome to the era of the random spinner. For the many thousands of amateur spinners across the cricket globe, this could be our moment. After all, what could be more mysterious than a mystery spinner whose deliveries are a mystery even to himself?
No amount of video analysis of my action would have yielded any clues. And I had variety: more variety than a 24-hour variety telethon. Double-bouncing long-hops, deceptively wide legbreaks, waist-high full bungers that shape as though they are going to swing but don’t, perfectly straight wobbly ones, yorkers that could just as easily have been beamers if I hadn’t sneezed in my delivery stride.
I wouldn’t want to play for SA myself: I’m allergic to sports drinks and I don’t look good in Green. But for a small fee, I would be prepared to serve my country as a consultant. I could certainly make that Paul Harris more mysterious. Just let go your conscious self, Paul, use the force, trot up to the crease, close your eyes, turn your arm over and see what happens. And if you get stuck, just do what Robbie P does.