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Four overs to glory: The best T20 International bowling spells

6th October, 2016
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A cricket ball. (Ed g2s, Wikimedia Commons)
Roar Guru
6th October, 2016
16

From the first official T20 game played in England on 13 June 2003 between English counties, to the Indian Premier League, the T20 Big Bash in Australia, The T20 Blast in England, the Caribbean Premier League and the increasingly frequent World T20 and other International T20 matches, this form of the game has taken the world by storm.

Interestingly, while it seemed logical at the start to expect this would be a batsman’s game, with restricted field settings, and strict rules on bowling bouncers and wides, it has quite quixotically brought forth some absolutely magnificent spells of bowling that have not only changed the complexion of matches, but also made bowling an extremely crucial part of the winning formula.

Bowlers get only four overs to weave their magic. And sometimes, this is more than batsmen can handle.

Here are some of the best bowling spells in T20 Internationals to date.

Because of the short nature of the T20 game, I have taken the entire four overs to be a single spell for the purposes of this piece.

Sep 18, 2012. Hambantota – Sri Lanka versus Zimbabwe
For the first two years after his Test debut in 2008, Ajantha Mendis was the most unreadable spin bowler on earth, earning comparisons with Muttiah Muralitharan. But then batsmen started reading him, and by 2012, he had stopped being a real threat to most countries, and his career in Tests and ODI had long stopped resembling Murali’s.

The T20 however, seemed like it was made for Ajantha Mendis.

In 2011 he had already woven a spell around the formidable Australian batting line-up, becoming the first bowler to ever take six wickets in a 4-over T20 spell for just 16 runs. A magnificent Shane Watson 57 was not enough to save Australia the blushes, and Mendis’ incredible spell of carom balls and googlies which at one stage had got him six wickets for six runs in 17 balls, helped the six for 16 become the best bowling spell in T20 history.

The best from Mendis, however, was yet to come.

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Sri Lanka come into the World T20 opening match against Zimbabwe, determined to win this home game at the picturesque beach town of Hambantota.

Mendis gets picked for his first game in eight months. Naturally he is nervous.

Sri Lanka score 182 for four in their allotted 20 overs on the back of some steady batting of the entire top order, including a 44 in 48 balls from Kumar Sangakkara and a 43 off 41 balls from all-rounder Jeevan Mendis.

Zimbabwe start well with a 37 run opening stand in five overs. In a T20 game, that is a handsome start indeed. And then Ajantha Mendis comes into the attack.

Ajantha takes the wickets of Zimbabwe’s Top three batsmen Hamilton Masakadza, Sibanda and Brendan Taylor, a good player of spin, in rapid succession. And the longer he bowls, the more unplayable he seems. At the other end his spin partner Jeevan Mendis in running amock as well, taking three wickets to snuff out the whiff of resistance shown by the Zimbabwe batsmen.

Then Ajantha comes back to pick up another three wickets, before Lasith Malinga tangles up the No.11 with his trademark Yorker.

Ajantha Mendis has picked up six wickets for eight runs in a remarkable spell of leg spin bowling. So now the T20 record books have Ajantha Mendis at the top two spots for bowling spells in T20 internationals. While he might cede the second place to someone in the coming years, the spell of six for eight should keep him at the top of the heap for some time yet.

March 31, 2014. Chittagong – Sri Lanka versus New Zealand
It is the final game of the Super 10 phase at the T20 World Cup, and both New Zealand and Sri Lanka have two wins from three matches each. The stakes are high, for the winner goes to the semi-finals.

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Sri Lanka bats first. Trent Boult, James Neesham and Mitchell McClenaghan run through the Sri Lankan batting, picking up eight of the ten wickets to fall. Mahela Jayawardene and Thirimanne put up some fight going above the 20 runs mark each, but that resistance is quickly snuffed out. Sri Lanka fold up for 119 in 19.2 overs, and with a formidable Kiwi batting line up with the likes of Guptill, Williamson and Brendon McCullum waiting to have a go, it seems like the end of Sri Lankan hopes for a semi-final berth.

But then, the Kiwis have not reckoned with one man’s utter disdain for their day dreams.

It’s the third over of the Kiwi innings, and Rangana Herath comes in to bowl.

The first wicket to go is technically not even Herath’s. He runs out Martin Guptill off his own bowling for a start. But it’s the next 11 balls that show the mark of the Herath magic. Brendon McCullum comes in, is kept scoreless for four balls, then falls to a tossed up slow ball from Herath, giving him a wicket maiden.

Ross Taylor survives a confident LBW shout on Herath’s first ball of the new over, and then actually gets out LBW to a straighter next ball. Neesham plays all around a straight one. Herath’s third over claims the wicket of Luke Ronchi, also LBW to a straight ball.

By the end of his three over spell, Herath has taken four wickets for three runs, New Zealand is 30 for five and the back has been broken of their vaunted batting line up.

The Kiwi middle order never recovers from this set back at the top with Corey Anderson not batting because of an injury suffered earlier. When Herath comes back for the 15th over, the Kiwis are reeling at 60 for seven and he doesn’t prolong their misery. Williamson sets out for a desperate run and promptly gets run out for 42, the only double-figure score on the Kiwi card that day.

Trent Boult dances down the wicket, Herath bowls it short, and captain Mahela Jayawardene takes a catch at slip.

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Rangana Herath has taken five wickets for three runs in one of the most remarkable spin bowling displays in any form of cricket to take his country into the semi-finals of the World T20 in the most unlikely circumstances.

Definitely a spell to reflect on and savour for years to come.

March 3, 2013. Centurion – Pakistan versus South Africa
It is the second of a two-match T20 series. With the first match rained out, both Pakistan and South Africa are keen to clinch this match and the series. Clearly, there are a lot of bragging rights at stake.

Pakistan go in with a strong batting line up and its immediately apparent that without Dale Steyn in the ranks, South Africa is a less formidable bowling attack than usual. After losing Nasir Jamshed in the fourth over, Ahmed Shahzad and Mohd Hafeez take the total to 112 before Shehzad gets out. And on the back of Hafeez’s magnificent 86 off 65 balls, Pakistan reach a formidable score of 195 in their allotted 20 overs.

But it’s too early to celebrate a possible victory when you face a South African team with AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis in their batting line-up, as teams have found out to their chagrin more than once.

Not this time though, as it turns out.

South Africa loses the first wicket of Davids in the second over and with AB de Villiers starting to open up, captain Hafeez throws the ball to Umar Gul at the other end. And then one of the most magical spells of fast bowling in this format is unleashed.

Gul gets the dangerous Faf du Plessis caught behind by Akmal with his second ball. In the space of six balls, he dismisses four South African batsmen and breaks the back of the Proteas vaunted batting line up.

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In all of two overs, he has single-handedly taken the game away from South Africa.

Mohd Hafeez contributes with the ball as well and picks up three wickets. Gul then comes back for a third over and removes Kyle Abbott to wrap up the Proteas innings in 13 overs for 100. Pakistan win the match and the series.

Umar Gul has just put in an incredible performance taking five wickets for six runs in 2.2 overs.

And what is remarkable is that he has done this for the second time in his T20 career.

On 13th June 2009, against New Zealand at the Oval in the ICC World Twenty20, he had done exactly the same in three overs!

With a formidable T20 batting line-up at their disposal, consisting of Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill, Scott Styris and Jacob Oram, New Zealand fully expected to put up a good score. But the Pakistani bowling line up had other ideas. Umar Gul once again ran through the middle order taking five wickets for six runs in three overs, becoming the first man to take five wickets in an international T20 match.

Pakistan easily overhauled the total in 13 overs, and Gul’s bowling was added to the annals of great spells.

Umar Gul has ensured that neither the Kiwis nor the Proteas are ever likely to forget what such magical spells can do even in a batsman dominated T20 game.

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February 14, 2016. Vizag – India versus Sri Lanka
India and Sri Lanka meet for the series-deciding third T20 at Vizag, with plenty of pride, but also India’s No.1 world ranking at stake.

With the pitch looking good to bat on and no visible cracks and due expected later in the evening, MS Dhoni winning the toss and putting Sri Lanka in to bat seemed the reasonable decision, as India would chase in favourable conditions for batting.

In one of the inspired captaincy decisions that MS Dhoni has become known for, in the shorter format of the game, he asks Ravichandran Ashwin to open the bowling with his off spin, on a track that doesn’t look like a spinner’s paradise. Not for the first time, but the results will be spectacular.

Sri Lanka’s openers walk in with a pre-agreed game plan to hit Ashwin out of the attack.

But what Ashwin does in response, is the stuff dreams are made of.

Tillakaratne Dilshan takes a single off the second ball, and immediately signals to his partner Niroshan Dickwella that the ball is spinning already. Dickwella ignores the message and leaves his crease to hit Ashwin, misses the offbreak that Ashwin drops short, and Dhoni gleefully completes the stumping.

In the same over, Ashwin comes round the wicket and spins the ball just enough to trap Dilshan LBW. Captain Dinesh Chandimal comes in determined to stick to his pre-game plan and starts attacking the bowlers straight away hitting Nehra for two fours. He tries to do the same to Ashwin in his second over and skies a catch. Ashwin continues to inflict damage in his third over getting the debutant Gunaratne caught at leg slip.

At 20 for four in the fifth over, Sri Lanka are already on the ropes and Ashwin has for all practical purposes won the game for India.

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Jadeja and Raina then turn on the screws on a pitch, which to everyone’s surprise, is now turning square. Sri Lanka are dismissed for 82, their lowest ever total in T20 internationals. India need just 13 overs to win the game, losing the wicket of Rohit Sharma in the process.

Ravi Ashwin has just turned in the best figures in T20 internationals in a single four-over spell, taking four wickets for eight runs.

December 16, 2007. Port Elizabeth – South Africa versus West Indies

I finish with a magnificent bowling spell, but there is a twist in the story, which will emerge.

West Indies are touring Zimbabwe and South Africa and meet South Africa for the first T20 at St George’s Park. Early rain plays spoilsport, but when play in the reduced 13-overs a side match finally begins, it’s expected to be a Gladiatorial contest between the batsmen. With Hershelle Gibbs, JP Duminy, AB de Villiers turning out for the Proteas, and Dwayne Smith, Chanderpaul, Marlon Samuels and Dwane Bravo padding up for the Windies, one cannot argue with that logic.

But this match, it turns out, won’t be about the batting at all. Far from it. It will be about the bowlers and it will be about who handles the pressure better. Remember though, that it is still early days when T20 has not yet become the mainstream game it is today, and players have less exposure to it.

South Africa walk out to bat, and any illusions anyone had prior to the game about this being a gladiatorial contest of the bats, immediately gets shattered.

Jerome Taylor runs through the Proteas top order taking three wickets for six runs from his three overs, including the prized scalps of JP Duminy and AB de Villiers. South Africa never recover from this blow, and with the run outs of Pollock and Morkel, its only a fighting 28 not out from Johan Botha that they manage a score of 58 from the allotted 13 overs.

By no means is it a defendable total, but the morale in the South African dressing room is high because they know they have the better bowling outfit, and genuinely believe they can defend the total.

West Indies come out blazing, but Pollock gets the first breakthrough in the last ball of the first over and West Indies are ten for one. They recover from the jolt an are quickly up to 32 for one. Then Dale Steyn gets into the act.

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Steyn puts in a hostile spell of fast bowling. Devon Smith loses his off stump to a blinder. Runako Morton gets bowled off his pads and Marlon Samuels backs off to the leg for Steyn to get a full look at his stumps. But nothing compares to Dwayne Bravo’s spectacular dismissal when two stumps are shattered by a 90 mph Yorker.

At 41 for five, it looks like South Africa are in with a chance, but in the end the score turns out to be too low to defend and the Windies scamper home without losing any more wickets.

Dale Steyn has put in a superb spell of fast bowling to take four wickets for nine runs, with all his victims getting bowled. An incredible performance, but sadly, due to the low score and shortened game, this is one superlative spell that won’t bring victory to his team.

Very clearly, it’s still early days for this shortened and currently most popular form of the game. But it’s a format that has already seen some wonderful performances.

The skills that it takes for bowlers to be successful in this format are different from all other formats. The yorker, the slower ball, the flatter spin trajectory, the shorter length for the pace bowler. These are evolving as successful strategies. And this evolution will keep happening.

Eventually the six-wicket barrier in the four overs will be broken, and we shall see even better performances in the years to come.

And the quality of spells will only improve. Cricket will be the richer for it.