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The 139 years since the first Test match was played on 15th March 1877, have witnessed some truly devastating bowling spells that changed the course of matches, and indeed, in some instances, the fortunes of entire cricket-playing nations.
While there have been many stupendous bowling performances in a single innings or indeed a single match, the focus here is on single spells.
I’m here to look at some of the most memorable spells in history, and for once, we start with a spinner!
March 23, 1962. Barbados.
The mighty West Indies are playing India in the Third Test of the series.
India scores 258, and the West Indies reply with 475. India finish Day 4 at 104 for two, needing 217 to avoid an innings defeat, setting up the Kensington Oval for an absorbing fifth day’s play.
It’s Lunch on Day 5. And while riveting, the morning has been one of dogged resistance, with Vijay Manjrekar and Dilip Sardesai adding 47 runs in two hours with Frank Worrell unable to make a breakthrough.
It looks like much against the odds, the Indians will be able to bat through the day and snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat.
India resume after lunch at 158 for two, and Lance Gibbs, the off spinner, is called into the attack by skipper Worrell. Gibbs until then had bowled 38 overs and given away 32 runs without a wicket. Hardly the strike bowler, one would think.
And then something magical happens.
Gibbs gets Sardesai caught at leg slip by Sobers at his lunchtime score of 60. He then suddenly turns deadly using subtle flight and proceeds to spin the ball like a top.
Tiger Pataudi comes into bat in his first test as captain at the age of 21 and goes without scoring, followed in quick succession by Manjrekar, Polly Umrigar and Farokh Engineer. India are all out for 187.
Gibbs’ figures after lunch are a stunning 8 wickets for 6 runs in 15.3 overs.
Single-handedly, Lance Gibbs, bowling the spell of his life, hands an innings defeat to a team consisting of some of the best players of spin bowling of their time.
January 30, 1993. Perth.
Australia and the West Indies come into the final test tied 1-1 with a winner takes all situation.
Border wins the toss and elects to bat on a quick WACA wicket. Despite the loss of Langer and Steve Waugh, Australia after lunch are 85 for 2 with David Boon batting with a lot of confidence.
But not for long, as Curtley Ambrose returns to his bowling mark, all set to create fast bowling history, on a pitch that is tailor-made for his speed, height and accuracy.
Mark Waugh leaves a delivery that takes the outside edge to the keeper. David Boon, well set on 44, gets a ball that bounces up from good length and takes the shoulder of the bat.
Border goes on the back foot and the ball follows his bat to take an edge to keeper Junior Murray.
It would turn out to be the first half of the only pair Allan Border would make in his first class career. Ian Healy survives the hat trick, but goes without scoring to Lara at first slip.
The Australian innings folds up at 119. Curtley Ambrose has just bowled perhaps the most devastating spell of fast bowling ever to take seven wickets for one run off 32 deliveries!
West Indies score 322 in reply, and Australia are dismissed for a second time on the back of Ian Bishop’s six-wicket haul, to lose by an innings and 25 runs, with two full days still to go.
One hears that the hapless WACA groundsman is subsequently dismissed for preparing such a home-away-from-home for Ambrose and friends.
March 15, 1979. Melbourne.
Pakistan come to Australia and bat first on a typical MCG wicket, scoring 196 in their first innings with Hogg and Hurst bowling well. Australia fold up for 168 thanks to some hostile fast bowling from Imran Khan, aided by Sarfraz Nawaz. Pakistan in reply score a very respectable 353 for 9, on the back of a Majid Khan century, and declare with a day and some remaining to give themselves a chance to upset Australia.
With a steep but possibly achievable target of 382, Australia start the innings on the fourth day. Despite some early inroads by Sarfraz, Australia cruise to 305 for 3 on the back of an Allan Border century. With Border on 105 and Kim Hughes on 84, the 77 runs needed for victory, seem all but a formality.
The unlikely medium pacer, Sarfraz Nawaz, then puts on the first known display of reverse swing to change the course of the match and indeed of the future of fast bowling. Sarfraz puts in a spell that earns him seven scalps at the expense of one run – The very same figures that Ambrose would achieve at Perth 14 years later. He finishes the innings with nine wickets, being denied by perfect 10 by Aussie skipper Grahap Yallop, who chooses a run out over a Sarfraz dismissal!
The oversized scoreboard panel in the MCC Members reserve bearing Sarfraz’s figures is a fitting tribute indeed.
Feb 2, 2013. Johannesburg.
A Pakistan team with new faces but a lot of confidence in their sails, arrives in South Africa to face one of the best teams in the world on their home turf. The confidence stems from the win over the same opponents in the UAE a few months before. But clearly, the Proteas at home will be a different challenge.
South Africa score a modest 253 runs with Kallis scoring 50, and surprisingly, it’s young all-rounder Mohd Hafeez who takes 4 wickets to restrict the Proteas. The Pakistanis are hopeful that they can overrun this score with the likes of Younis Khan, Misbah, Hafeez himself and the extremely talented Nasir Jamshed in their line up. But they have not reckoned with the best fast bowler of the new millennium, Dale Steyn.
Steyn puts in a devastating spell of fast bowling to which Pakistan has no answer. When Pakistan is dismissed for 49 after 29.1 overs, Steyn is left with unbelievable figures of six wickets for eight runs.
By the time South Africa wrap up the game on the 4th day by 211 runs, Steyn has taken another five wickets to finish with 11 for the match.
The wonderful spell of 6-8 will remain one of the best spell (and match) figures in the annals of test cricket.
These are just a few striking instances, and the list is by no means complete or the final word. It’s meant to whet the appetite for much more!
Let the favourites roll!