Watching Ajantha Mendis bowl is a sublime pleasure. A smooth unfussy action, a grip as unique as anything we’ve seen in world cricket and a beguiling bag of tricks (especially the carrom ball) that makes batsmen wonder whether they would be better off signing up for the ICL. The sight of Mendis in action sent my mind back to all the bowlers I’ve seen in action in the last 25-some years, to the bowling actions that are still vivid in my mind purely for the fact that they were different from the rest of the pack. Here are ten picks, not in any particular order and not by any means comprehensive. And just to reduce the recency effect, the list does not include any current players.
It cannot be otherwise, a list of unforgettable bowling actions has to start with the man with the most evocative of nicknames, Whispering Death. While I’ve seen a YouTube video of that over to Geoffrey Boycott, my memory of watching live action of Michael Holding is mostly from the evening of his career, when he cut down his pace and was more a line-and-length second change bowler. I remember feeling sorry for the man because he once snared a batsman out caught and bowled. ‘Caught and bowled? Isn’t that a spinner’s mode of dismissal?’ thought my youthfully ignorant mind. But the grace of the man’s bowling action was no less even in those twilight days of an indisputably great career. Just for the perfection of his action, he deserved one more wicket in his test career – 249 is just not Holding.
The only thing I shared in common with this great was a lack of height relative to my cricket-playing school mates. But that was precisely what made me try to imitate his action: the energetic run up in short strides, the little leap before delivery, the chest on posture before delivery with the hand framing the face in a perfect right angle, all culminating in a vicious wicket-taking delivery more often than not. OK, I didn’t manage that last part too well but Malcolm Marshall certainly did, with 376 times in test matches.
He’s considered the most creative fast bowler to have inhabited this planet and few would disagree with that assessment. Years after Alan Davidson, the world had a left-arm fast bowler of genuine class when Wasim Akram was plucked out of nowhere by Imran Khan. The bustling run up, the pendulum-like action, the whippy action almost off the wrong foot, the follow through that was more of a run-through and the limitless variety made him one of the most watchable bowlers in world cricket. (I remember the phrase ‘bends the ball’ being used for the first time in connection with Akram.) And then there was the appealing and the subsequent celebration – sheer ecstasy. Remember his celebrations after dismissing Krishnamachari Srikkanth and Mohinder Amarnath (in successive balls) in the Bangalore test against India in the 1986-87 series?
It’s an action I rate as imposing as Michael Holding’s, probably more fearsome even. Augmented by the sun cream on the lip that made him look even more formidable, Allan Donald was truly a sight to behold. Marry that with some genuine pace and unrelenting aggression and you get a great career record. The brilliant smile after getting one more opposition wicket matched the ferocity of the wicket-taking act itself. I find the term White Lightning tautological and a touch pejorative, but there is absolutely nothing amiss in Donald’s action.
Back where I grew up in small town South India, jaggery used to be made in the street in the market area. Rows and rows of men used to stand barefoot on mounds and mounds of the raw material and pound at it with their feet. Never mind if you’ve never seen this act in your life, if you’ve seen Patrick Patterson at the top of his run-up, you’ve seen a very good imitation of it. Except that the batsmen didn’t find the end-product too sweet. A pity he didn’t play more than 28 test matches, but then a bowling average of 30.90 just wouldn’t do for the West Indies in those halcyon days.
English cricketers of the last two decades may not believe it but England actually had a medium pacer who played a significant role in an Ashes victory. Running in from between cover and mid-off, Richard Ellison focused on outswingers that almost mirrored his run-up (in helpful conditions) – ask Allan Border and his cohorts about that delirious (if you’re English, that is) fourth day of the fifth test of the 1985 Ashes as England took a 2-1 lead in the series. Ellison continued the good form into the sixth test as England wrapped up the series 3-1, but his record either side of these two test matches was rather moderate though he ended with a career average of just a dot under 30.
Choosing to be a spinner in the 1980s in the West Indies was as wise as writing capitalist slogans on red curtains. May be Clive Lloyd got fooled when Roger Harper started off from the top of his run-up – those clearly were a fast bowler’s strides. As Harper reached the crease, he slowed down to a complete halt. Then came the graceful high arm delivery, almost in slow motion. Soon Lloyd and his successors (and most of the opposition batsmen, one must admit) saw through Harper’s action, and he got to play only 25 tests, though he ended up with a perfectly respectable bowling average of 28.06. Of course, the one lasting image of Harper in your mind is almost certainly likely to be the run out (or stumped-and-bowled as one commentator gloriously described it) of Graham Gooch in the MCC Bicentenary match in 1987.
The two back-to-back limited overs tournaments in early 1985 constitute perhaps the most glorious phase for the Indian team. One image that stays in my mind from that time is that of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan twirling the ball from one hand to another before beginning his run-up – a friend referred to it rather uncharitably as an elegant version of milking a cow, but that instinctive mannerism of Siva was one of the more mesmerising images of that season. The stumpings of Javed Miandad at the MCG and Imran Khan in Sharjah were sheer magic. A pity the man came to pieces immediately afterwards.
Finding an Australian to fit into this list was the toughest act of them all (I’ve given up on the Kiwis and the Sri Lankans) – nothing wrong with their actions except that they were all so normal and orthodox. Sure there was a buzz when Shane Warne runs in, but it has nothing to do with the action, more with what he made the ball do. Greg Mathews I considered for his tendency to bowl with his hat on, but that was more an eccentricity than an action thing. Bruce Reid looked different only because he extremely lean and lanky. Then the current coach of Pakistan (is he still?) came to mind. Geoff Lawson seemed to have a double action – in the last shuffle before his delivery stride, he almost looked like he was going to deliver the ball. It was another action I attempted to imitate in my school days, but with little success.
Yes, I did mention early on that I have considered only current players for this list, but I sneak in Mushtaq Ahmed because I don’t think he will play any more international cricket, not even for the nation that is known to be the most indecipherable in its selection logic. Mushtaq’s action was impishness itself. You may argue that Abdul Qadir was the original – I agree there are similarities, but I would put Mushtaq’s action ahead of Qadir’s. There was a certain boyishnees about it, the run-up was more energetic and the dimple in the cheek (even the beard he currently sports cannot hide it) as he breaks into a wide grin after befuddling yet another Englishman was a sight for sore eyes. You’re tempted to imagine that if he had been handled better by the selectors, he would have done much better than finish with a rather modest 185 wickets at 32.87 in 52 tests.
What other names come to your mind?