TONY COZIER: Fate of the spinner
IT IS NOT difficult to imagine Rangy Nanan going to his grave with a wry smile on his lips.
The most successful bowler in West Indies cricket in a first-class career between 1973 and 1991, the heavy-set Trinidad and Tobago off-spinner was restricted to a solitary Test by the numerical strength of Clive Lloyd’s battering-ram attack that was the foundation of the team’s record 15 years without the loss of a series.
Before his death on Wednesday, aged 62, after a lengthy battle against ill health, Nanan had witnessed the sharp decline in fast bowling stocks and the continuing, as yet, futile fixation with replenishing them to the disadvantage of spin.
A few days earlier, Richard Pybus, the West Indies Cricket Board’s (WICB) director of cricket, spoke of a series of camps and off-season training programmes for fast bowlers as “part of a plan to rekindle an area of the game that has been struggling in recent years”.
‘This is going to be central to us getting that (fast bowling) back at the heart of West Indies cricket again,” Pybus said.
Alzarri Joseph and Chemar Holder were at the heart of the Under-19s’ World Cup triumph in Bangladesh last January. They are ones Pybus’ plan is likely to bring on. Others are not immediately evident.
Last July, the WICB charged its cricket committee with coming up with ways “to prioritise the development of fast bowlers in the region and for the West Indies team, recognising that the majority of the overs in regional tournaments are bowled by spinners and is impacting negatively on the production of fast bowlers for the West Indies team”.
Nothing was heard from the committee until Pybus, the Englishman with previous coaching stints in Pakistan and Bangladesh, revealed the WICB’s proposals. They sounded very much as if there is to be no place for Nanan’s successors.
His one Test was against Pakistan in 1980 when there was the inevitable presence of five fast bowlers – Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Sylvester Clarke, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding. An injury to his right shoulder diving for a return catch in the first of three ODIs eliminated Holding for the remaining matches.
Nanan broke the sequence in the second Test in Faisalabad. Ironically, it was the only Test of four that produced an outright result in a low-scoring series, the West Indies prevailing by 156 runs; his contributions were two wickets in each innings. He was never picked again. Imtiaz Ali, a leg-spinner who was Nanan’s contemporary, had the same treatment after his only Test against India in Port of Spain in 1976.
Nikita Miller, the consistent Jamaican left-arm spinner who passed 400 first-class wickets in the 2015-2016 Professional Cricket League (PCL), is Nanan’s modern equivalent. He was dropped after one Test in 2009 and never recalled. Others with impressive records at domestic level have taken back seats even during the present dearth of fast bowlers.
At least Nanan could take satisfaction from the secure place of spin bowling in Twenty20, the game’s newest and shortest format, typified by its role in the current ICC World T20 tournament in India.
Each team in the tournament includes at least two spin bowlers. In the enforced absence of Sunil Narine through a suspect action, Sulieman Benn, the skyscraper left-arm spinner, has joined the crafty leg-spinner Samuel Badree as the spin pair. Benn’s economy rate in the three successive West Indies victories to date is 5.09; Badree’s 6.18. Benn’s 25 Tests have been scattered over seven years; Badree, pigeon-holed as “a T20 specialist” has played none.
Like Badree, Nanan is from the hotbed of cricket in south Trinidad; his club Preysal, the place of his birth, has produced two other Test players. Inshan Ali, the left-arm back-of-the-hand specialist had 12 Tests in the 1970s and Ravi Rampaul, the 31-year-old seamer of more recent vintage.
Nanan was realistic enough to appreciate his fate and that of others of his ilk. He kept plugging away in the Shell Shield. When he called it quits after 94 first-class matches, he had 366 wickets at 23 runs apiece; there was also a batting average of 20.85 for he was a decent player whose one hundred, 125, was against Leewards Islands bowling led by Andy Roberts and Eldine Baptiste in 1983.
A policeman, he also immediately became involved in administration, serving as liaison officer to West Indies teams and in the 2007 World Cup as well as enthusiastically mentoring promising young players and testing their ability in the nets.
Spin continues to dominate in the regional PCL. Nine of the ten top bowlers were spinners this season and last. The No.1 T20 International rankings of countrymen Narine and Badree were cause for special pleasure.
Such performances in the limited-overs, white-ball format do not relate to the needs of the traditional Tests. It explains the enduring the obsession with pace.
In the meantime, those who follow Nanan a generation later will simply persevere, claiming more wickets than anyone else while the concentration is on rekindling “an area of the game that has been struggling in recent years”.
Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.