Collating top spells is often more fun than compiling lists of best bowlers. While the latter almost always includes the usual suspects, the former is likely to throw up a surprise or two. Here are the top ten spells of the year…..

Read also: 2018 year-ender: The Top 10 Test debutants

10. Ajaz Patel, 5/59 vs Pakistan, Abu Dhabi

It takes a special effort for a debutant to break through to the list of top performances of the year. The odds were stacked up heavily against Ajaz on a pitch tailor-made for Pakistan.

Ajaz was not even the leading spinner of the side. Pakistan were chasing 176. Ajaz first caught Imam-ul-Haq on the crease but did little afterwards as Pakistan sauntered to 130/3, even 147/4.

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Then, after a runout, Ajaz had taken three quick wickets. Azhar Ali held the fort, scoring runs at one an over to retain the strike (the last pair added 7 in 7.4 overs). There was no option for Ajaz but to attack Azhar. So he bowled slow to impart extra spin, and the ball went past the bat to trap Azhar leg-before.

New Zealand won by 4 runs.

9. Vernon Philander, 6/42 vs India, Cape Town 

Philander would better this with 6/21 later in the year against a demoralised Australian side, but this was a superior spell.

South Africa were defending 208. Dale Steyn had hobbled out in the first innings. Indians were probably wearier of the pace of Kagiso Rabada or Morne Morkel, but were demolished by Philander, who bowled to a line and length and moved the ball off the seam, either way, finding the edge, beating the bat to hit them on the pads…

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He struck at every crucial juncture. He took out Murali Vijay (the openers added 30). Then Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma added 32, so he returned to remove both. Then Ravichandran Ashwin and Bhuvneshwar Kumar took India from 82/7 to 131/7, so he took three wickets in four balls to round things up.

8. Kemar Roach, 5/8 vs Bangladesh, North Sound 

Roach bowled with hostile pace, taking the first five Bangladesh wickets – including Mushfiqur Rahim, Shakib Al Hasan, and Mahmudullah in the space of four balls.

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He left the ground after that initial burst of 5-1-8-5 with a hamstring injury. He did not recover to bowl in the second innings. Bangladesh folded for 43 in 18.4 overs, the lowest score in Test cricket since 1974.

7. Shannon Gabriel, 5/59 and 8/62 vs Sri Lanka, Gros Islet

Of all fast bowlers in history, Shannon Gabriel possibly has the most innocuous-sounding name. The Sri Lankans, however, would vouch for the fact that his bowling was anything but that.

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Gabriel took 20 wickets in the series, at 14.95. At Gros Islet alone he took 13/121, the third-best match figures in West Indies history and their best since 1995. He bowled fast, moving the new ball in and the old ball away from the right-hander, lifting the ball enough to take the shoulder of the bat, and not losing sting despite bowling long spells.

The best was reserved for Dhananjaya de Silva in the first innings. The ball came too fast for him, smashed his elbow, and ricocheted on to the stumps.

6. Trent Boult, 6/30 vs Sri Lanka, Christchurch

Boult bowled two outstanding spells this year. In the first, at England at Auckland, Boult and Tim Southee bowled unchanged under lights to demolish England inside a session. However, the Christchurch spell came with an older ball and the match in balance; as for support from the other end, he simply did not care.

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New Zealand had scored 178. Sri Lanka, 88/4 overnight, reached 94/4. Then Boult bowled probably the most devastating spell since Stuart Broad in 2015. He took 6/3 in 15 balls, the last four leg-before. And in the second innings he took one more with his fifth to make it 7 in 20.

5. Jasprit Bumrah, 6/33 vs Australia, Melbourne

Bumrah bowled magnificently throughout the year, but reserved his best for the Boxing Day Test. On a pitch where only two wickets fell on the first day and five more on the second, Bumrah bowled fast and straight, pitching them up and hurrying batsmen with bouncers.

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He bowled in the corridor. When that didn’t work, he used a leg-trap. He got four wickets with yorkers, one of them slow enough to find a place in the last over of a limited-overs match. He breathed life into the Test, skittling out the Australians for 151. The second-innings 3/53 seemed almost a postscript.

4. Yasir Shah, 8/41 and 6/123 vs New Zealand, Dubai 

Yasir’s 14/184 in the Dubai Test are the second-best figures in Pakistan history. Pakistan had runs on the board (418/5), but there were not many demons in the pitch. The New Zealand openers added 50. They even reached 61/1.

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Then, in his ninth over, Tom Latham was undone by bounce, Ross Taylor by pace, and Henry Nicholls with one that spun almost at a right angle. With a spell of 7/10 in 27 balls, Yasir bowled out New Zealand for 90. He took six more wickets in the second innings…

3. Pat Cummins, 5/83 and 4/58 vs South Africa, Johannesburg

Performances in defeats are probably superior for the simple reason that a defeat denotes a superior quality of cricket from the opposition. Australia had everything stacked up against them when they took the field. Their captain and vice-captain (also their best two batsmen) had been banned. There was no Mitchell Starc. With series was still alive, the South African pace attack were ready to tear into them.

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Under these circumstances, Cummins produced one of the greatest spells of the year, on the ground where he had been named Player of the Match on debut in 2011-12. This time wickets were not easy to come by, but Cummins kept bothering the South Africans with steep bounce generated off a length.

He took nine wickets in the Test, seven of which were of top-order batsmen. He also scored a fifty. Not for the first time in the year did he play a lone hand in a defeat.

2. Mohammad Abbas, 5/33 and 5/62 vs Australia, Abu Dhabi

The pitch was made to assist Yasir. Nathan Lyon got 4 wickets in 6 balls on the first day. Marnus Labuschagne took 5 wickets in the Test with his leg-breaks. It was not supposed to assist a line-and-length seamer.

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Abbas took 10/95 in the Test. He simply bowled line and length, moving the oddball away, holding a ball back, pitching up the next, never relenting. He was the best bowler on a pitch not designed for seamers.

He did not blast the Australians out at Abu Dhabi. He choked them to submission, earning fans across the world.

1. Keshav Maharaj, 9/129 vs Sri Lanka, SSC

Do aspiring South African spinners dream of achieving the best figures in the history of their nation? Hugh Tayfield had been holding that for over six decades (in a spell that Wisden rated as the best in history, in 2000). Overall these years, Maharaj came the closest to emulating him.

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Maharaj achieved this

  • against batsmen who know how to play spin
  • on the first day of a Test
  • after the hosts had opted to bat
  • when the wicket was playing well
  • on a pitch where the fourth-innings score was 290
  • while playing as South Africa’s only spinner

He took 9 wickets in an innings when every single odd was against him. Few performances in history have been better than this.

Special mentions:
Akila Dananjaya, 3/20 and 5/24 vs Bangladesh, Mirpur
Duanne Olivier, 6/37 and 5/59 vs Pakistan, Centurion
Hardik Pandya, 5/28 vs England, Trent Bridge
Tim Murtagh, 4/45 and 2/55 vs Pakistan, Malahide

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