Mohammad Siraj walked into the record books with an amazing spell of bowling in the final of the Asia Cup held at Colombo last Sunday. His spell of seven overs wherein he picked up six wickets for 21 runs blew Sri Lanka away and culminated in them getting dismissed for a measly total of 50. India’s victory was a foregone conclusion after this and the visitors humiliated the hosts by racing to the target in a mere 37 balls, making it one of the shortest One-Day Internationals (ODIs) in the history of the game. Not surprisingly, Siraj was named player of the match. He proceeded to win the hearts of cricket lovers the world over by contributing the amount to the groundsmen who prepared the wicket and made play possible after a sharp shower had delayed the start of the match.
The standout feature of Siraj’s spell was the second over he bowled during which he picked up four wickets, narrowly missing a hat-trick. This spell sent the statisticians scurrying to identify the previous occasions when bowlers had claimed four wickets in an over in international cricket. It was found that this feat was achieved on three occasions earlier in ODI’s - by Chaminda Vaas of Sri Lanka, Mohamed Sami of Pakistan and Adil Rashid of England. Lasith Malinga had taken four wickets off four consecutive balls, against the West Indies in the 2007 World Cup, but they did not fall in the same over. In Test matches, six bowlers have dismissed four batsmen in an over, interestingly five of them- Maurice Allom (vs New Zealand in 1929), Ken Cranston ( vs South Africa 1947), Fred Titmus (vs New Zealand 1965), Chris Old (vs Pakistan 1978),) and Andrew Caddick (vs West Indies 2000) - hail from England.The only bowler outside England to perform this feat is Pakistan great Wasim Akram and he did this against the mighty West Indies at Lahore in 1991. Incidentally this is the only instance when the stellar show of the bowlers did not result in a victory for the side.
While going through this list, one was struck by the fact that though these overs had contributed substantially towards influencing the results of the respective games, none of them can be considered to be part of all time great bowling spells. The best ever bowling performances in Test cricket - by Jim Laker at Old Trafford, Manchester in 1956 where he took 19 wickets for 90 runs did not have one over where he picked so many wickets. The same is the case with the 10-wicket hauls of Anil Kumble and Ajaz Patel. Nor do any of the spells in ODIs where bowlers have taken seven wickets or more have within them an over where more than three wickets were taken. In fact except for Siraj, none of the other four wickets in an over performances even touched six wickets in the entire spell.
The moral of the story is that one over constitutes only a small portion of the entire match and while loss of four wickets in a span of six balls can lead to a setback for the side, it will not automatically place the spell in the category for being called exceptional. In addition to picking up wickets, bowlers are required to bowl with sustained intensity and attacking venom to create destructive spells. Extraordinary accomplishments during an over would draw eyeballs and attention in any form of the game, whatever be the level at which it is played, but they do not, by themselves, guarantee a victory. Even in the case of Siraj, it needs to be appreciated that the wickets of Dasun Shanaka and Kusal Mendis that followed the four-wicket burst were instrumental in ensuring that Sri Lanka could not recover from the setbacks suffered during the fourth over of the match.
This brings one as to which are the great bowling performances in Test cricket? Opinions might vary on this subject but to the mind of this columnist two spells come to mind readily. The first was the one bowled by Curtly Ambrose at Perth in 1993, which demolished Australia. Bowling with sustained hostility, Ambrose extracted bounce and movement to bag 7/25 to dismiss the home side for a paltry 119. Australia were placed at 85/2 when Ambrose began his second spell and they were reduced to 104/9 in next to no time as Ambrose bowled of the greatest spells in the history of the game. Not only did he bag all the seven wickets that fell during this period, he conceded just a single as the Aussie batsmen had no answer to the thunderbolts served to them. Another spell that comes close is the one bowled by Stuart Broad at Nottingham in 2015, where also Aussies were at the receiving end. Bowling unchanged from one end, Broad ripped through the batting line-up to dismiss eight batsmen conceding only 15 runs, to have the visitors dismissed for a total of 60.
Which was the most destructive spell bowled against the Indian batsmen? Here also there can be many arguments but the one that comes to mind in test matches is the one bowled by Imran Khan at Karachi in 1982. Batting after the hosts had piled up a huge lead in the first innings, Indian total had reached 102/1, with Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar batting comfortably when Imran started a new spell. Getting the old ball to reverse swing in a big way, Imran ran through a star-studded batting order that included Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Gundappa Viswanath, Sandeep Patil and Mohinder Amarnath. An interesting sidelight was that all the batsmen invariably had their stumps rattled or were trapped plumb in front of the wicket by Imran, who returned figures of 8/60 as India collapsed to 197 runs and lost by an innings and 86 runs.
When it comes to OD’s too there are many superlative accomplishments with the ball. Given the number of matches played and the different conditions under which they take place it would neither be fair nor proper to pick up couple of performances and rate them above the rest. However, when it comes to performances against India, one instance that comes to mind is the one bowled by Ajantha Mendis in the final of the Asia Cup at Karachi in 2008. This was the first exposure that Indian batsmen had to the magic spin of Mendis and they ended up getting completely bamboozled. Coming to bowl when India were cruising along at 76 /1, he wove a web around the Indians and his figures of 8 overs 13 runs and six wickets tell the story of his impact on the game. However, Mendis could not maintain his run of success for long as he was sorted out by batsmen soon enough and faded away from international cricket.
Which are the most destructive spells bowled by Indian bowlers? Starting from Kumble’s 10/74 runs against Pakistan in 1999, there are many occasions when Indian bowlers have run though opposing batting line-ups. Despite the magnitude of Kumble’s achievement, I prefer to place Jasu Patel’s 9/69 against Australia at Kanpur in 1959 as the most remarkable spell of bowling by an Indian in Test cricket. This is not only on account of the fact that Richie Benaud-led Australian side was one of the strongest in the world but also due to the prevailing situation in Indian cricket during the second half of 1950s when victories were extremely rare and hard to come by.
In the ODIs, my vote will go to the spell bowled by Ashish Nehra against England in the 2003 ICC World Cup when he took 6/23. Here too a larger significance was the win helped to restore the side’s confidence after a poor start in the tournament. Siraj’s achievement will rank amongst the top shows bowled by Indians, along with that of Kumble (6/12 in the 1993 Hero Cup final) and Jasprit Bumrah (6/19) against England last year.
In the final analysis, Siraj’s performance in the Asia Cup final attained the status of a great spell not solely on account of the four wickets taken in the second over, but because he sustained his hostility and incisiveness to scalp more important wickets in the overs that followed. It is this ability to maintain pressure on batsmen by keeping them guessing and producing the occasional unplayable ball that sets apart great bowlers from good and average trundlers. Siraj has emerged as a top quality bowler in recent times and his gesture of contributing the prize money to the groundsmen shows that he is capable of generating tremendous goodwill as well. This unique ability to stay grounded even as he climbs the rungs to reach the highest echelons in international cricket makes Siraj an excellent brand ambassador for the sport and an invaluable asset for the whole nation as well. Well done Siraj, you made whole India proud.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)