Column | Unplayable balls by Indians

Shikha Pandey special
Alyssa Healy has no answer to a Shikha Pandey special. File photo: Twitter/ICC

Shikha Pandey, the Indian opening bowler, suddenly found herself in the limelight when she delivered a ball which was hailed as the “ball of the century in women’s cricket”.

Opening the bowling for the Indian women in the second T20 International against Australia at Carrara Oval, the second ball of Pandey’s first over shocked and stunned not only Alissa Healy, the Aussie opening batter, but also all those who witnessed it. Delivered from close to the wicket, the ball moved first away from the batter, but changed directions after pitching and swung in suddenly towards the stumps. A bewildered Healy managed to bring her bat down in time to get a faint underage, which could not disrupt the path of the ball and it ended up uprooting the middle stump.

This brilliant delivery immediately caught the eyes of observers as a very rare one. Former Indian opener Wassim Jaffer was first off the block, hailing it as the “ball of the century; women’s cricket edition”, in a tweet. The great Sachin Tendulkar followed congratulating Shikha through a tweet which said “pure magic: a sensational delivery this”. Though India lost a hard-fought match, Shikha’s astonishing delivery deservedly made headlines.

This amazing ball took one’s thoughts to the concept bowling of unplayable balls, which is the dream of every cricketer who turns his arm over. Not too long ago, a popular cricket magazine had published a list of top 20 balls of the century in Test matches. They had done an exhaustive and elaborate analysis of the manner in which the balls behaved, the quality of the batsman, the match situation and the pitch and other factors, while shortlisting these 20 deliveries. Incidentally, only three balls bowled by Indian bowlers figured in this list- the one from Irfan Pathan which clean bowled Mohamad Yousuf in the first innings of the third Test at Karachi in 2006 (placed at No. 9), Jasprit Bumrah’s slower ball to Shaun Marsh during the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne in 2018, which trapped the batsman plumb in from of the wicket (No. 12) and the snorter bowled by S Sreesanth in the Durban Test of 2010, which forced Jacques Kallis to contort into an ungainly posture even as the ball struck the bat and popped up of an easy catch to the fielder at gully (No. 16).

Each of these balls has greatness taped to it. Pathan’s delivery, bowled left arm from over the wicket drifted away from the right-hander, only to swing in after pitching and bisect the gap between the bat and pad of Yousuf, then in top form, to strike the stumps. This was in the first over of the third Test and part of the famous hat-trick that Pathan took in this game.

Irfan Pathan hat-trick
Irfan Pathan celebrates with teammates after dismissing Mohammad Yousuf to complete a hat-trick in the 2006 Karachi Test. File photo: AFP

Bumrah had tested the batsmen through his extreme pace and boot crushing yorkers and hence the clever change of pace through a well disguised slower ball fooled Marsh, who was batting in a very circumspect manner.

Kallis was at the peak of his prowess as a batsman in 2010 and stood between India and a win at Durban when South Africa was chasing a target that was within the realm of the possible. But this delivery from Sreesanth, which lifted sharply despite pitching at least a year ahead of the length for bouncer, gave him no chance whatsoever. His attempts to move out of the line of the ball saw him bend backwards like a ‘reverse C’, but the ball struck the bat and the resultant catch was held by Virender Sehwag.

Jacques Kallis
A dejected Jacques Kallis walks back after falling to S Sreesanth in the 2010 Durban Test. File photo: AFP

Prior to this list published by the cricket magazine, the ball delivered by Shane Warne that dismissed Mike Gatting in the first Test at Old Trafford, Manchester, in 1993 was widely perceived as the ‘greatest ball of the 20th century’. This was Warne’s first appearance in England and his first Ashes Test as well.

After Australia were dismissed for 289 in the first innings, England had reached 80 runs, losing one wicket, when skipper Allan Border threw the ball towards Warne. After his customary run up, Warne bowled his first ball, a tossed up leg break, which drifted down the leg side and pitched at a spot about 7-8 inches outside the leg stumps. Seeing the ball taking a trajectory to a destination outside the leg stump, Gatting thrust out his left leg out in the anticipation that the ball would strike the pad. As a matter of abundant precaution, he also brought his bat behind the pad so as too tackle any additional turn. However, this leg break turned like a top after pitching, and went past the pad and bat of Gatting, to dislodge the off bail! Gatting could not comprehend what had happened and stood stunned for a moment before starting the walk back to the pavilion.

The impact of this ball on the Ashes series of 1993 was considerable. English batsmen appeared shell-shocked at the prospect of facing Warne, who soon grew into a larger than life character. It also spoke much about Warne’s confidence in his art that he chose his first ball in England to “let it rip”! This ball also laid the foundation for the revival of classic leg spin bowling, which was on the verge of becoming extinct, as more youngsters started emulating Warne.

While on this topic, this writer has very different pick for the “ball of the 20 century” bowled by an Indian bowler. For this honour I will choose the beauty bowled by Balwinder Singh Sandhu that clean bowled Gordon Greenidge in the 1983 World Cup final. Though it is a fact that catch taken by Kapil Dev to dismiss a rampaging Viv Richards off the bowling of Madan Lal was the turning point of the game, the dismissal of Greenidge was no less significant. In the pool match of 1979 World Cup, India were dismissed for a total of 190 runs and Greenidge had single-handedly guided the West Indies to a nine-wicket win with an unbeaten 106. As an opening batsman he was second only to Sunil Gavaskar in contemporary cricket. He was as to demonstrate this effectively in the Lord’s Test of 1984, when he struck a magnificent 214 not out as the West Indies chased down a target of 344 on the final day.

At Lord’s on June 25, 1983, Greenidge displayed an attitude of cockiness, which was quite unlike him, right from the moment he stepped out of the pavilion to start the West Indies innings. Perhaps, this body language was prompted by the small target of 184 or his poor opinion about the Indian bowlers or a combination of both these factors. But Sandhu, sharing the new ball with Kapil Dev, had other ideas. In his second over, Sandhu bowled one from close the stumps that drifted away from the off stump, prompting the batsman to shoulder arms in an elaborate manner. But the ball swung in the opposite direction after pitching and went past the batsman who was standing with his bat pointed towards heaven and knocked back the off stump. Greenidge stood poleaxed; humiliation was writ large on his face as he trudged his way back to the pavilion. Sandhu had tricked him into believing that the ball would move away but instead delivered an in-swinger while bowling from close to the wicket.

It goes without saying that if Greenidge had stayed at the wicket and given his side a good start, West Indies might have, in all probability, overcome the Indian total comfortably. But Sandhu’s dream ball gave India a rousing start, which they consolidated further after the dismissal of Richards. This ball possessed all the features that mark it worthy for being considered as a great delivery- it was bowled in a World Cup final, the biggest of all stages in cricket; it dismissed one of the top batsmen and it helped India win a low- scoring final and it was unplayable! Since the victory in 1983 World Cup led to a surge of the game in the country and its spread to even the smallest village, the significance of this ‘Sandhu delivery’ in the history of Indian cricket is very profound.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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