Akram the battering ram

Right from its inception in 1975, the World Cup has been witness to some inspired bowling performances. Raakesh Natraj takes stock.

This list of World Cup spells not so much leans as unabashedly flings itself towards the spectacular. The chosen have performed at disparate stages of the World Cup, from the final to dead rubbers and one of them did not even win his team the contest. Yet, apart from corresponding to points of inflection during the course of the matches, the spells are also celebrations, rare and welcome, of the mastery of ball over bat.

Wasim Akram, three for 49 vs. England, Melbourne, Final, 1992.

Wasim Akram did all that was pretty much asked of him as an all-rounder in the final at Melbourne. First he clubbed Botham and Co. for an 18-ball 33 that took Pakistan to 249 and he was not done contributing to the highlights reel. Off an ambling run from around the wicket, Akram whipped the ball around any which way. It was not so much a performance as a spell, and not so much a spell as three discrete, unplayable deliveries. On another day, on most days in fact, they would have just been too good, allowing the batsman, who in attempting to face the them looked an utter fool, the recompense of having at least preserved his wicket.

This night, Akram just removed the batsmen from the equation, suggesting that little they did could change the eventual outcome.

First to go was Botham, opening and out for a duck to a ball that jumped at him from a shortish length. Botham half-played, half-fended the rearing ball as it flicked his gloves on the way to the 'keeper.

England lost wickets regularly and the required rate climbed, but in Allan Lamb and Neil Fairbrother, the side found some resistance. The two put on 78 for the fifth wicket and England, at 141 for four, was finally fighting when Akram struck.

Lamb got one that angled in from wide of the stumps at an untouchable length, straightening sharply to beat his prod and crash into the stumps. In came Chris Lewis, which hardly mattered, as Akram served up another special — an in-cutter that moved prodigiously off the surface and past Lewis' incredulous stab and on to the stumps. England's resistance was breached.

Shane Warne, four for 29 vs. South Africa, Edgbaston, Semifinal, 1999.

It was a green top that was thrashed out for the semifinal and Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock took full toll. Michael Bevan and Steve Waugh of Australia's 911 unit intervened to take the side to 213, a total that left the team little alternative but to attack.

But it was South Africa that came out firing. Glenn McGrath, Damien Fleming and Paul Reiffel made hardly a dent in the chase as Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten moved along nicely, putting up 43 runs in 10 overs. Steve Waugh brought Shane Warne on, with the express mandate of drying up the runs and picking up a wicket even — something he had done in the last edition of the Cup at the same stage, reviving Australia from a similarly desperate situation against the West Indies at Mohali. The track had by then dried out and the leg spinner was virtually Waugh's last card.

In his first over, Warne sussed things. He tossed one up to Gibbs outside leg stump and the batsman was struck on his pads. He drifted one out wide to Kirsten which was met by stretched defence. The next was wide and full and Kirsten employed the sweep, picking a single.

His next over, Warne sent a similar drifter down the leg side and Gibbs attempted an on-side nudge only to see the ball grip and turn to take the top of off. The over after that, Kirsten got one that was wide again. This time he went for the full blooded slog to deep midwicket and the ball turned sharply back on to the wicket.

Hansie Cronje came and went in a matter of two balls and Warne's spell soon read 6-4-5-3. He came back to take out the well set Jacques Kallis, but what he had done was to acquainting them with the ‘c' word for years to come as the South African chase ran out of steam in this agonizingly close contest.

Eddo Brandes, four for 21 vs. England, Albury, Group Stage, 1992.

This makes it for pure chutzpah and the egg meets face experience. The match was a dead rubber with England having already made it to the semifinal and Zimbabwe yet to register a win in the tournament. The side chasing Test team status did its case no favours by getting bowled out for a laboured 134.

Geoff Boycott's appraisal (“This is the problem with you amateur sides, you don't know how to just rotate the strike and take singles. You watch the professionals come out of the lunch. They'll just knock the ball into the gaps and run their ones and twos and win this game easily.”) and Dave Houghton's half- time talk (“There are about 8000 people out here who still need some entertainment and the only way we can entertain is to make this game go as long as possible”) set the tone for England's disastrous chase.

Brandes ran through the top order, getting rid of Graham Gooch (0), Allan Lamb (17), Robin Smith (2) and Graeme Hick (0) in an unchanged spell of 10 overs for four wickets, giving away 21 runs. England never really recovered from losing half its side for 43 and was bowled out nine runs short. Incredibly, for a match which saw both sides produce just 259 runs, a total of 95.2 overs were bowled, and the game did go ‘as long as possible.'

If the barbed words egged Brandes into the effort, its effects did not wear off immediately. ‘Chicken George' did not once end on the losing side in matches against England, finishing with a bowling average in the single digits. He also picked up an ODI hat-trick against England in 1997, and at almost 34, is the oldest to do so.

Lasith Malinga, four for 54 vs.South Africa, Super Six encounter, Guyana, 2007.

Lasith Malinga's bowling is a lot about the furious pace his sling arm action generates and the disconcerting angle from which it marks its searing descent upon the batsman. The yorker, understandably for Malinga, is the stock weapon and he used it, or rather the threat it represented, to great effect in this most remarkable spell.

South Africa needed four runs off 32 balls with five wickets in hand and was never going to lose here, but Malinga ran it mighty, mighty close.

Pollock moved out to the leg side, just a small shuffle, expecting the full and the fast. The length was full, but Malinga had eased it up just a touch and Pollock, beaten by the slow one, had his leg stump pegged back. The next ball was full and slow again. Andrew Hall pushed his hands at the ball way before it arrived and spooned a catch to cover.

The show was put on hold as the umpire called over, but Chaminda Vaas gave just a single away from the other end. Jacques Kallis, who had held the innings together thus far, faced up to Malinga, who was on a hat-trick. He got the fast ball, which could have been left alone, but Malinga's reputation for reversing the ball late probably turned Kallis' mind and he aimed a shot, a steered drive, at it. The ball just skidded on through to the 'keeper after kissing the edge of the bat. Three in three, and Malinga had not yet gotten the yorker in.

Makhaya Ntini, got the toe-crusher that had played on the batsmen's mind all spell and was predictably out bowled next ball. With one wicket remaining and two runs to be scored Malinga went past the edge a few more times and Sri Lanka almost snatched an incredible win, but the one ball that did find the edge flew wide of the slip and to the boundary.

There may have been fiercer spells or finer displays of the art of swing and seam bowling, but, if only statistically, this will take some hauling down.

Steve Waugh, World Cup 1987

The Iceman did the star turn with the bat now and then in the '87 edition, but it was his stifling, nerveless bowling at the death and the intelligent use of variation that he will be remembered for.

In the first round-robin match against India, the 22-year old Waugh was given the ball with India needing six runs off the final over and Australia, a wicket. Waugh gave Maninder Singh a couple of scrambled twos before hitting his off-stump. Australia turned to Waugh if they needed a lid on things, if they needed wickets, if they needed something to happen.

In the next match, Waugh sent down six overs for seven runs, smothering Zimbabwe's chase of 235. In a rain-curtailed match against the Kiwis, Australia looked to be heading for a defeat, with Martin Crowe at the crease, needing seven off the last over with four wickets in hand. Waigh had Crowe caught in the deep, sneaked one past the defences of Ian Smith the next ball and effected a run out to take Australia home by three runs.

And again in the final, Australia's score of 253 was proving insufficient as Bill Athey, Mike Gatting and Lamb dug in. After Gatting's infamous reverse sweep, Waugh ran Athey out from the deep and picked up the wickets of Lamb, out bowled, in the 47th over and a free-swinging DeFreitas in the 49th to keep England out by seven runs, winning Australia the first of its Cups.