We consider the finite-amplitude instability of incompressible spherical Couette flow between two concentric spheres of radii $R_1$ and $R_2$ $({>}R_1)$ in the narrow-gap limit, $\varepsilon\,{\equiv}\,(R_2-R_1)/R_1\,{\ll}\,1$, caused by rotating them both about a common axis with distinct angular velocities $\Omega_1$ and $\Omega_2$ respectively. In this limit it is well-known that the onset of (global) linear instability is manifested by Taylor vortices of roughly square cross-section close to the equator. According to linear theory this occurs at a critical Taylor number $T_{\rm crit}$ which, remarkably, exceeds the local value $T_c$ obtained by approximating the spheres as cylinders in the vicinity of the equator even as $\varepsilon\,{\downarrow}\,0$. Previous theoretical work on this problem has concentrated on the case of almost co-rotation with $\delta\,{\approx}\,(\Omega_1\,{-}\,\Omega_2)/\Omega_1\,{=}\,\OR(\varepsilon^{1/2})$ for which $T_{\rm crit}\,{=}\,T_c\,{+}\,\OR(\delta^2)\,{+}\,\OR(\varepsilon)$. In this limit the amplitude equation that governs the spatio-temporal modulation of the vortices on the latitudinal extent $\OR(\varepsilon^{1/2}R_1)$ gives rise to an interesting bifurcation sequence. In particular, the appearance of global bifurcations heralds the onset of complicated subcritical time-dependent finite-amplitude solutions.

Here we switch attention to the case when $\varepsilon^{1/2}\,{\ll}\,\delta\,{\le}\, 1$. We show that for Taylor numbers $T\,{=}\,T_c+\OR((\delta\varepsilon)^{2/3})$ there exists a locally unstable region of width $\OR((\delta\varepsilon)^{1/3}R_1)$ within which the amplitude equation admits solutions in the form of pulse-trains. Each pulse oscillates at a frequency proportional to its distance from the equatorial plane and consists of a wave propagating towards the equator under an envelope. The pulse drifts at a slow speed (relative to the wave velocity) proportional to its distance (and away) from the equator. Both the wavelength and the envelope width possess the same relatively short length scale $\OR((\varepsilon^{2}/\delta)^{1/3}R_1)$. The appropriate theory of spatially periodic pulse-trains is developed and numerical solutions found. Significantly, these solutions are strongly subcritical and have the property that $T\to T_c$ as $\varepsilon\,{\downarrow}\,0$.

Two particular limits of our theory are examined. In the first, $\varepsilon^{1/2}\,{\ll}\,\delta\,{\ll}\,1$, the spheres almost co-rotate and the pulse drift velocity is negligible. A comparison is made of the pulse-train predictions with previously obtained numerical results pertaining to large (but finite) values of $\delta/\varepsilon^{1/2}$. The agreement is excellent, despite the complicated long-time behaviour caused by inhomogeneity across the relatively wide unstable region.

Our second special case $\delta\,{=}\,1$ relates to the situation when the outer sphere is at rest. Now the poleward drift of the pulses leads to a slow but exponential increase of their separation with time. This systematic pulse movement, over and above the spatial inhomogeneity just mentioned, necessarily leads to complicated and presumably chaotic spatio-temporal behaviour across the wide unstable region of width $\OR(\varepsilon^{1/3}R_1)$ on its associated time scale, which is $\OR(\varepsilon^{-1/3})$ longer than the wave period. In view of the several length and time scales involved only qualitative comparison with experimental results is feasible. Nevertheless, the pulse-train structure is robust and likely to provide the building block of the ensuing complex dynamics.