Old-timers often grumble about the lack of quality in fast bowling in contemporary cricket, but nothing can be far from the truth. For bowlers, 2018 has been the best year in the history of Test cricket since the 1950s, with a wicket falling every 55 balls and 27.45 runs.
Unfortunately, the spinners have not done a competitive job. Asian spinners have done brilliantly in Asia, but no one has done anything spectacular outside. Ashwin, Jadeja, Dilruwan, Yasir, and the Bangladeshi trio of Shakib, Mehidy, and Taijul have all failed to impress outside their comfort zone. Lyon, too, has been ordinary till the Indian series.
The fast bowlers, on the other hand, have been outstanding. Our list consists of eight seamers including the top seven.
10. Jack Leach: 4 Tests, 20 wickets at 24.90, best 5/83
After debuting at Christchurch, Leach missed the home series against India with a fractured thumb, but returned with a vengeance in Sri Lanka, taking at least five wickets in every Test, helping England inflict a whitewash on Sri Lanka at their den.
He was supposed to be understudy to Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid on the tour; with 18 wickets at 21, he ended up outperforming both.
9. Suranga Lakmal: 12 Tests, 31 wickets at 27.70, best 5/54
At first glance, Lakmal’s 31 wickets in 12 Tests would not come across as impressive, but closer inspection would reveal how good he has been throughout the year. More importantly, he adapted to different conditions.
Lakmal bowled long spells outside the subcontinent whenever needed. In West Indies he took 12 wickets at 22. He jolted New Zealandi in the first innings at Christchurch. And on unresponsive Asian tracks, he bowled in short spells, having one burst each against South Africa and England as well as one at Mirpur.
8. Yasir Shah: 6 Tests, 38 wickets at 23.52, best 8/41
Yasir’s numbers look phenomenal, but 5 of his 6 Tests came against Australia and New Zealand in UAE, where conditions have perennially suited him. He bowled only 70 balls in his other Test, at Centurion. In other words, there has not been enough data to conclude whether he had failed.
Against New Zealand, he took 29 wickets from 3 Tests. This included 14/184 in the second Test, at Dubai – the second-best match figures in Pakistan history.
7. Tim Southee: 5 Tests, 29 wickets at 19.03, best 6/62
Teammate Trent Boult had two outstanding spells, against England and Sri Lanka, but Southee was the better overall performer, especially on flatter surfaces. He got 6/62 against England at Christchurch when batting wasn’t easy and 6/68 on a relatively easy Wellington pitch.
And his 3/42 at Abu Dhabi helped New Zealand win their first series against Pakistan in Asia after almost half a century.
6. Mohammed Shami: 12 Tests, 47 wickets at 26.97, best 6/33
Shami bowled mostly in short bursts, striking once or twice before being taken off. He ran through the opposition twice, at Centurion and Perth. A master of reverse-swing, Shami was as impactful with the old ball as anyone in the world and hit batsmen many a time.
He also lived up to the moniker of Second-Innings Shami (30 wickets at 20 apiece, compared to 17 at 40 in the first innings).
5. Ishant Sharma: 11 Tests, 41 wickets at 21.80, best 5/51
While Shami ran through oppositions, Ishant, the more consistent bowler, finished with better numbers. He finally lived up to his role as the senior man in the best pace attack in Indian history.
The fact that he went wicketless in only one of his 18 innings in 2018 bears testimony to his consistency. He averaged 26, 24, and 24 in the three major away series.
His finest performance came at Edgbaston, where he reduced England to 87/7 before India were thwarted by Sam Curran.
4. Pat Cummins: 8 Tests, 44 wickets at 19.97, best 6/27
Australia, still recovering from the Sandpapergate scandal, have far from impressed in the longest format this year. But nothing could prevent Cummins from delivering. He bowled some of the finest spells of the year – in the Ashes Test at Sydney (8/119) and against India at Melbourne (9/99), but his most outstanding spell came at Johannesburg (9/141) when Cricket Australia really needed something to look up to.
To be fair, he did not play a single Test in Asia, but that should not take anything away from Australia’s performer of the year.
3. Kagiso Rabada: 10 Tests, 52 wickets at 20.07, best 6/54
Rabada cannot do anything wrong these days. Had his batsmen not let him down, he would probably have made a difference even at Galle (he took 7/94), but the batsmen could not reach even 200 across innings.
And when conditions support him, he becomes unplayable. The 11/150 at Port Elizabeth against Australia was his finest, but he often produced wickets out of nowhere. He also bowls a lot of overs without losing pace, and absolutely refuses to give away runs.
Fittingly, he finished as the leading wicket-taker of 2018.
2. Jasprit Bumrah: 9 Tests, 48 wickets at 21.02, best 6/33
Contrary to popular belief, Bumrah had an outstanding record in First-Class cricket when he debuted. But even then, eyebrows were raised when he – for some reason marked as a limited-overs specialist – made his Test debut.
Bumrah bowls fast, makes even good-length balls jag back into batsmen at awkward angles, often rapping them on the glove or the forearm. He bowled bouncers that batsmen found impossible to move away from. He bowled yorkers, usually unplayable – even the slow ones, as Shaun Marsh figured out.
His feats are too many to list, but it should suffice to say that he averages 21 – and does that while giving away 2.65 an over. He also had a five-wicket haul in each of South Africa, England, and Australia.
1. Mohammad Abbas: 7 Tests, 38 wickets at 13.76, best 5/33
Cricket owes a thing or two to whoever had convinced Abbas that he was better at bowling seam than at welding.
Abbas does not run in like fast bowlers. He does not celebrate like them either. It is what he does between the two acts that make him one of the best in contemporary cricket. He bowls with metronomic precision (2.27 an over this year), deviating the ball just enough to beat the edge.
He plans well, using subtle variations of pace and movement, fooling the batsmen after luring them into a false sense of security.
Abbas took 8/64 at Lord’s, six of his wickets coming without the assistance of a fielder. But he reserved his best for Australia at Abu Dhabi. Where not a single other pacer from either side made an impression of any kind, Abbas took 10/95. The Australians, simply unable to handle him, collapsed to 145 and 164.
And when he did not get wickets, he did the next best thing. Against New Zealand he took 2/91 from 2 Tests, but he made them face 58 overs for those 91 runs.
There is a reason Dale Steyn has marked him out as a future World No. 1.