Published on February 7th, 2018 | by Anindya Dutta0
CS Flashback: Anil Kumble bowls the best spell in the history of Test cricket
India v Pakistan – The most emotional rivalry in cricket
There was a time in the early days of Test cricket, when the biggest rivalry not only in cricket, but in sport, was the Ashes. As the game has grown in stature and spread its wings, two more bilateral contests have emerged to rival this. One is the India-Australia contest for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The other is somewhat more emotional in its staging, between two nations that were once one.
We start our Spell-binding Spell journey, perhaps appropriately, with one of the gladiatorial contests that define a meeting between India and Pakistan on a cricket field. To make it even more symbolic, the battleground is Delhi, the capital of both Undivided and Independent India.
The Winter of 1998-99 – Pakistan comes to India
It is the winter of 1998-99 and Pakistan visits India for the first time in 12-years for a three-Test series that would eventually turn into a two-Test contest, with the ICC deciding that the third Test would be a part of the inaugural Asian Test Championships.
In a thrilling first Test that lives up to the hype, Pakistan beats India by 12-runs at Chennai. It is one of the most evenly contested Test matches in history. Pakistan scores 238 in the first innings with Moin Khan top scoring with 60 and Anil Kumble takes 6 wickets. India responds with 254 with a top score of 54 from Sourav Ganguly, and Saqlain Mushtaq takes 5 wickets.
In the second innings, Pakistan responds with 286 on the back of a 141 runs innings from Shahid Afridi opening the innings in his first Test in India. Venkatesh Prasad takes 6 wickets. India responds with 258. At 254 for 6, and 17-runs to get for a famous win, Sachin Tendulkar, in significant pain due to a bad back, in his eagerness to finish the innings, attempts to go for a third successive four and gets out to Saqlain. Wasim Akram takes the catch and the Pakistani team goes berserk. The Indian batting then spectacularly unravels, and the last four wickets add only 4 runs before the innings folds up. Saqlain again takes 5 wickets. First blood in this gladiatorial contest goes to Wasim Akram’s Pakistan.
Delhi – The battleground of cricketing glory
So when the teams meet at the Ferozshah Kotla, there is everything to play for. A draw will mean that Pakistan will get their second successive series win, having won the last Test of the 1987 series at Bangalore after the first four were drawn. For India, it is a must-win situation, not only for pride but also because they know the first Test could have gone either way. They had let a win slip away at the end and lost their best chance till date to win a Test against Pakistan for the first time in 20-years.
Azharuddin wins the toss and decides to bat first. Sadagoppan Ramesh and VVS Laxman opening the innings take the score to 88 before Laxman on 35 is bowled by Wasim Akram. It is a beautiful in-swinging delivery that finds the gap between Laxman’s bat and pad. Ramesh scores 60 and Azharuddin contribute 67 before India is dismissed for 252. Saqlain again takes 5 wickets on a pitch where the ball is keeping low.
Pakistan’s innings starts disastrously. Saeed Anwar falls to a beautiful first ball out-swinger from Venkatesh Prasad that finds the edge of his bat and then Nayan Mongia’s gloves. Pakistan is 1 for 1. Afridi and Ijaz Ahmed take the score to 54 before both fall at that score. Saleem Malik scores 31 before Pakistan is all out for 172.
Kumble takes 4 wickets and Harbhajan Singh pitches in with 3. Kumble says later: “.The pitch was a bit two-paced and we knew that if we could keep them quiet we would be able to get them out.” India takes a crucial first innings lead of 80 runs.
India’s second innings does not start well, with Laxman bowled through his gate in a virtual action replay of the first innings by Wasim Akram. India’s score is 15. But first Rahul Dravid and then Tendulkar play a supporting role, while Ramesh in his second Test match, is playing the innings of his life at the other end. Ramesh finally gets out at 96, hitting a ball back to Mushtaq Ahmed with his score at 96. He will have to wait a bit longer for his maiden century.
Sourav Ganguly then steadies the innings with a score of 62 not out, and in the company of first Kumble and then Javagal Srinath, guides India to a score of 339. Srinath scores a gritty 49, and tells an interviewer, years later: “I held myself responsible when we lost the Chennai Test by 15 runs. So this time I wanted to bat for longer and managed to combine well with Ganguly that set up a good target.”
The Final Innings – Pakistan takes on the challenge
With 2 days to go in the Test, Pakistan is left to score 420 to win the Test. It is a challenging task, but something that has been done before. The Test, and the series, is set for an exciting finish.
Pakistan starts confidently, and none of the Indian bowlers are able to make an impression. With the wicket expected to turn more, Azharuddin takes off Venkatesh Prasad from the Football Stand End and brings on Anil Kumble. But in the 6 overs that he bowls before lunch, Kumble fails to trouble the batsmen.
At lunch, with Pakistan at 101 for no loss, the Indians are despairing that they might actually lose the Test. Coach Anshuman Gaekwad decides a pep talk to the team is in order. He then takes Azhar aside. “I had a chat with Azhar. I told him the only person at that juncture who would go through Pakistan on the Kotla pitch was Anil. So we had to take chances with him by making sure he did not get tired. Azhar handled Anil tremendously well and needs to be given credit”, recounts Gaekwad.
A Lunchtime decision makes cricketing history
After lunch, with the Pakistan score still at 101, in what would turn out to be an inspired decision, Azhar switches Kumble to the Pavilion End.
Afridi tries to drive a ball outside the off stump that holds its line, takes a faint edge and carries to Mongia. Afridi holds his ground but is finally forced to walk off. Kumble says later: “Who walks? Nobody walks. It was a big nick. That wicket started everything and I knew it wouldn’t be easy for the rest of the batsmen.” Kumble has the breakthrough.
Ijaz Ahmed, facing Kumble, gets a ball that thuds into his boots on the full toss at yorker speed. Inzamam avoids becoming a hat-trick victim, but two balls and a beautiful cover drive later, play with the same “lazy elegance” that had marked his four on the previous ball, but in this instance, only manages to play a Kumble ball that does not spin at all, on to the stumps. Two balls later, Yousuf Youhana gets trapped in front of the middle stump. Pakistan is 115 for 4. But it is Saeed Anwar that India wants to see the back of, a man who has often tormented them, and would continue to do so in the future.
While Anwar continues to defend doggedly at one end, Kumble gets a leg break to turn and bounce, and Moin Khan can only guide it into the slip area where Ganguly takes a lovely tumbling catch inches off the ground. And then Kumble bowls another similar delivery, but this time to the dangerous Saeed Anwar, who helplessly watches the ball spoon up off his bat to Laxman at forward short leg. Pakistan has slumped to 128 for 6 and Kumble has 6 for 15 in 44 balls. “That was the moment when I thought all ten could be mine,” he says later.
Kumble is dog tired by this time, having bowled continuously between lunch and tea. The tea reinvigorates him, and he comes out all charged up to go at the last dangerous pair – Saleem Malik, who is carrying an injury, and Wasim Akram. The pair has already put on 58 runs, when Kumble decides to bowl one of his faster balls at Malik. He pitches it short, Malik expects it to bounce, but the ball just skids through fast and takes out his middle stump.
Mushtaq Ahmed cannot handle the bounce and turn a few balls later and Dravid at gulley takes the catch off his gloves. Saqlain gets a Kumble special thudding into his pads in front of middle and departs next ball.
Kumble has taken 9 wickets and Srinath is bowling from the other end. Urban legend has a conversation taking place between the captain and the bowler, but Srinath says later: “Nobody had to come and tell me to not take that remaining wicket. Anil had been bowling well and he was on the verge of a record and it was just a unanimous decision. I had to bowl about two to three overs from the other end before Anil got Wasim.”
Akram is aware that Kumble wants to give him a single and get Waqar Younis on strike, and refuses to take a single. It is a cat and mouse game which cannot last forever, and eventually, Akram falls to a simple leg break and Laxman completes the honours at short leg, giving Kumble his 10th wicket of the innings. In an unbroken spell after lunch, Kumble has taken a stunning 10 wickets for 47 runs in 20.3 overs.
Kumble is carried back to the pavilion on the shoulders of his teammates. “My first reaction is that we have won. No one dreams of taking ten wickets in an innings, because you can’t. The pitch was of variable bounce, and cutting and pulling was not easy. All I had to do was pitch in the right area, mix up my pace and spin, and trap the batsmen. The first wicket was the hardest to get – the openers were cruising.”, he reminiscences later.
This spell is extracted from the Amazon bestseller ‘Spell-binding Spells’ by Anindya Dutta, published by Notion Press 2017.