Column | A comparison of dream deliveries by Warne & Shah

Yasir Shah
Yasir Shah, third left, celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of Kusal Mendis. Photo: AFP//Ishara S Kodikara

Every sporting arena is a venue where action takes place. Crowds flock to the grounds to watch two equally talented sides take on each other giving their full and yielding little. Hence it is only natural that such arenas are places that generate plenty of thrill and excitement. Yet, such is the charm of sports and games that even in the middle of intense action, there are moments of sheer beauty that brings incredible joy to connoisseurs. The curl in the free-kick taken by Cristiano Ronaldo as it goes past the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper before finding the net, the effortless grace with which Roger Federer sends a backhand return that catches the opponent on the wrong foot, the feline grace with which Micheal Jordan leaps across to deposit the ball in the basket are some of the examples of such beauty displayed on the field of play.

Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi had once defined cricket as a hard game played hard using a hard ball. But this game is also capable of generating moments of sublime beauty which brings immense delight to its followers. In a sport where the battle is between the bat and the ball, both willow-wielders as well as trundlers turning their arms over are capable of creating elegant moments that remain etched in memory. Among batsmen, though the ultimate aim is to score more runs, some like David Gower and G R Viswanath, were fortunate in being able to add a touch of grace to everything they do with the willow in hand. When it comes to bowling, even though fast bowlers perform the difficult task of running in hard and hurling the red cherry at the maximum speed possible, their work is not generally associated with grace and poise. It is invariably the spinners who are vested with the good fortune of being able to generate beautiful moments on a cricket field.

The ability of a spinner to produce a delivery that will remain etched in the minds of all those witnessed it was proved in ample measure by Yasir Shah of Pakistan during the first Test of the ongoing series against Sri Lanka at Galle. In the Sri Lankan second innings, with the score reading 178/4, Shah sent down an absolute beauty that castled Kusal Mendis, batting on 76. This delivery, the first one of the 56th over, floated towards the leg stump and turned sharply after pitching to dislodge the off bail! Mendis was flabbergasted by the manner in which the ball turned after pitching and could only watch helplessly as it spun across his bat and body en route to the top of his stumps. It was a tribute to the quality of the ball that it could catch Mendis, who looked good to score a century and had already faced 167 balls, in two minds. A critical mind would observe that Mendis made the elementary mistake of staying rooted inside the crease instead of boldly playing forward to smother the spin. But that will not take away the beauty of this delivery which floated towards the leg stump and turned and curved in the opposite direction after pitching.

It was natural that this delivery found comparison with the “ball of the century” bowled by the late Shane Warne at Manchester in 1993. That delivery also floated towards the leg stump and then spun sharply after pitching to take the off stump. However, there are some differences between these two deliveries. In the case of the one sent down by Warne, the batsman involved was Mike Gatting, who was not only a veteran but also one of the best players of spin bowing in the England line-up. Unlike Mendis, Gatting had stretched his leg down the pitch to tackle the spin but the ball landed further away from his leg, turned square to hit the stumps. Thus one can say Warne's delivery turned much more than the one sent down by Shah.

Shane Warne
Shane Warne is congratulated by his teammates on picking up his 700th Test wicket in the 2006-07 Ashes. File photo: AFP/William West

But the more important aspect was the psychological imprint left behind by the respective deliveries. The delivery sent down by Warne, which bamboozled Gatting, was the first ever bowled by that great man in a Test match in England. The fact that he could achieve such turn as to deceive their best player of spin bowling with his very first delivery shocked the Englishmen so badly that they could not recover from it. Warne went on to claim three more wickets in that innings and finished with match figures of 8 for 137 as Australia won the game by 179 runs. This also set the tone for the six-Test Ashes series which the visitors went on to win comfortably by a margin of 4-1. By the time this series ended, Warne had established himself as the best leg-spinner of his generation with a tally of 34 wickets. Looking back, it was this delivery and the impact it created that catapulted Warne into the top league of bowlers.

The delivery by Shah did not cause any such impact on the Sri Lankans. He picked up only one more wicket after dismissing Mendis and returned figures of 3/122. The Sri Lankan batsmen were not shell shocked after watching the fall of Mendis and the continued to tackle Shah comfortably. Thus, though this was undoubtedly a superb delivery, it lags way behind the one sent down by Warne.

One more aspect that merits mention here is that right hand bowlers who turn the ball from the leg stump towards the off are able to extract more turn than those who spin the bowl the other way. This is because leg-spinners invariably use their wrist to impart turn to the ball, while off spinners give spin to the deliveries using their fingers. It is for this reason that deliveries sent down by quality leggies turn by a mile on any surface. The more difficult challenge for leg-spinners is to ensure that the ball lands exactly on the spot where they intend to, as any lapse with regard to line and length will invite strong punishment from the batsmen.

It should also be remembered that top quality spin bowlers are able to get wickets not only by the turn but also by varying the pace of the deliveries, their line and length, the amount of flight given and even by controlling the extent of spin imparted. In this regard, Erapalli Prasanna, Indian spin bowling great during the 1960s and 1970s, was an acknowledged master. He was an off-spinner who believed in flighting the ball and leading the batsmen to their doom. But he was also capable of occasionally sending down a floater which went through straight without turning even the slightest bit! One such delivery bowled by him which remains embedded in the memory was the one that dismissed Viv Richards in the fourth Test of the 1974-75 series, played at Chennai. Chasing a target of 255, West Indies were in trouble at 62/3 when Richards reached the crease. Richards had top scored for his side in the first innings and a big score from his bat would have turned the game in favour of his side. He played cautiously forward to a delivery from Prasanna, expecting it to turn, but the ball went through straight and took the outer edge of his bat. Farokh Engineer, the wicketkeeper, completed a fine diving catch behind the stumps and Richards could only shake his head in admiration as he left for the pavilion.

Instances, like the ones described earlier, happen only occasionally, but they remain frozen in the minds of fans of the sport as “magical moments” which will relived endlessly. Wizards of spin bowling such as Warne and Prasanna will live in the minds of followers of cricket forever on account of their exceptional brilliance which helped them to conjure such great deliveries. Shah cannot be placed in the same high pedestal occupied by Warne and Prasanna, though the delivery that dismissed Mendis shows that he does not lack in talent and potential to climb greater heights.

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

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