September 18, 2013

When Imran walked on water

Botham's 1981 Ashes has been enshrined in legend, but was it the greatest all-round performance in a single series?

Imran Khan: runs, wickets, catches, run-outs, captaincy © PA Photos

As an Australian, I found the on-field results in this year's Ashes depressing, and I'm relieved that the pain is over, at least for the moment. However, the greatest joy is that I now won't have to continually see replay after replay of Ian Botham's 1981 Ashes performances. I have bad enough memories of that series without having to be reminded of it incessantly by the English broadcasters.

The constant barrage of old footage of "Botham's Ashes" has prompted me to consider great, sustained all-round performances. Some allrounders are able to dominate a match, but rarely is that level of performance maintained across an entire Test series. While Botham's efforts were admittedly incredible, I immediately thought of Jack Gregory's efforts in the 1920-21 Ashes, in which he scored 442 runs at 73.66, took 23 wickets at 24.17 and set a record for non-wicketkeepers (15 catches) that still stands today. However, after due consideration, I will instead plump for the achievements of one of Botham's contemporaries just a year or so after the 1981 Ashes as the best performance by an allrounder across an entire series.

The early 1980s were an interesting time for cricket. The threats associated with Kerry Packer were now behind the establishment but the rebel tours of South Africa were beginning to rear their head. The changes that World Series Cricket had introduced were starting to penetrate across the world. Limited-overs cricket started to flourish and raised questions about the long-term viability of Test cricket. West Indies were the undisputed champions in both Tests and ODIs, and they were being challenged not by the traditional powerhouses (Australia and England) but by vastly improved sides emerging from India and Pakistan. Players such as Sunil Gavaskar, Javed Miandad, Kapil Dev and Imran Khan had shown that they well and truly belonged on the world stage, with some of their team-mates not too far behind.

Matches between India and Pakistan were intense and driven by their shared history. A combination of wars and other factors meant India and Pakistan had not played each other officially between 1962 and 1978, and the 1982-83 series was only the sixth between the two in the 30 years since the inaugural match in 1952. This six-Test series, held in Pakistan, amid a maelstrom of social, political and sporting pressure, saw Imran produce what is possibly the greatest all-round performance in a series.

The first Test, at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, was affected by rain, and the Indian captain, Gavaskar, decided to risk asking Pakistan to bat first. This move backfired quite substantially, with Pakistan making 485 on the back of Zaheer Abbas' 215. India's batsmen replied with a reasonable 379, but it was a flat track, and a combination of rain and an unresponsive pitch meant the game petered out to a tame draw. Imran began the series positively but fairly quietly, scoring a useful 45 with the bat and taking 3 for 68 in his only opportunity with the ball.

The National Stadium in Karachi hosted the second Test, which commenced on December 23. Imran's decision to bowl was vindicated when India were knocked over for just 169. Bowling with a combination of serious pace and swing, Imran quickly dismissed two of India's key batsmen, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohinder Amarnath, and finished with 3 for 19 off 12.1 overs. Pakistan's response was prolific: they established a lead of nearly 300 in making 452. Zaheer continued his fine form with 186, while Imran swung his bat for a 34-ball 33 after coming in with the lead already approaching 200. India were then bowled out for 197 and Pakistan won by an innings and 86 runs. Imran was the undoubted star with the ball, taking 8 for 60 in a ferocious display. His fellow quickies - Jalal-ud-din and Sarfraz Nawaz - failed to take a wicket between them.

India batted first in the third Test, in Faisalabad, and made a solid 372 on an unresponsive pitch. Imran was clearly the best bowler on display, taking 6 for 98, while Sarfraz and Sikander Bakht took 1 for 161 between them. Pakistan's batsmen then took full advantage of the conditions, making 652. Zaheer scored "only" 168 and Imran was required to make his first real contribution with the bat. Coming in with the scores approximately level, he smashed 117 off 121 balls, hitting nine fours and five sixes. India lost by ten wickets as Imran again dominated with 5 for 82. His efforts in this game represented only the third time that a player had scored a century and taken five wickets in each innings of a single Test match.

It is perhaps worth reflecting at this point that this was not a "weak" Indian batting line-up. It featured the great Gavaskar, as well as three exceptionally good middle-order players - Vengsarkar, Gundappa Viswanath and Amarnath. They were supported by Sandeep Patil - whose credentials against pace bowling included a high-class 174 against a strong Australian bowling attack of Dennis Lillee, Rod Hogg and Len Pascoe - Kris Srikkanth, and the very handy batting skills of Kapil at No. 7.

However, Imran's bowling was simply outstanding. One delivery in particular highlighted his skill in this series: in the second innings of the Karachi Test, Viswanath, still to get off the mark, shouldered arms to a ball he felt offered no threat, only to be stunned when it swerved back dramatically and smashed into his off stump. It is telling that Imran was swinging both the new and old ball considerably in both directions. He had a number of right-handers caught in the slips and also bowled left-hand batsmen with deliveries that curved significantly back.

The fourth Test was another massive victory for the home team. It was played on a flat deck in Hyderabad, and Pakistan sailed to an innings-and-119-run win. Imran was not even required to bat in Pakistan's first innings of 581 for 3 declared but his bowling stood out again and his 6 for 35 knocked down India for 189. India then limped to 273. Imran (2 for 45) was marginally outbowled for the first time in the series by Sarfraz (4 for 85).

The fifth Test saw a return to Gaddafi Stadium. India had moved to 235 for 3 in response to Pakistan's first innings of 323 when rain ensured the game was called off. The sixth Test, in Karachi, was also a draw, but the main external influence this time was not rain. Imran's 3 for 65 helped restrict India to 393, and Pakistan were controlling the game at 420 for 6 on the fourth day, but rioting broke out after the lunch interval and play was ultimately abandoned for the day.

Imran, 32 not out at the time, was forced to declare overnight in the hope of forcing an unlikely victory, but India managed to bat out the fifth day. Unsurprisingly, the only successful bowler was Imran himself, finishing with 2 for 41.

Statistics are not the sole reason for my selection of Imran's performances over those of Botham. Imran's skills were not limited to batting and bowling; he also fielded exceptionally well

It is interesting to compared Imran's performance in the series with Botham's in the '81 Ashes. Imran's batting summary for the series was 247 runs at 61.75. Botham scored more runs across his series (399) but at a much lower average of 36.27, and he batted 12 times to Imran's five. It is only fair to point out that Imran's batting average of 61.75 was exceeded by Miandad, Mudassar Nazar and Zaheer, but it was still better than those of quality batsmen such as Mohsin Khan and Saleem Malik. Similarly, Botham's batting average was exceeded by four of his team-mates, but was better than those of luminaries such as Geoff Boycott, Mike Gatting, Graham Gooch and David Gower.

Imran took 40 wickets at 13.95, while Botham managed 34 at 20.58. Imran bowled a total of 1339 balls in the series, while Botham bowled 1635, which represents nearly 50 overs more for six wickets fewer. If Imran had bowled as many deliveries as Botham did, and managed to sustain his strike rate, he would have equalled SF Barnes' record of 49 wickets in a series*.

While Botham took the most wickets for England in the 1981 Ashes, his strike rate was bettered by Graham Dilley. In the Pakistan team, the next best strike rate was by Sarfraz, at nearly 80 balls per wicket compared to Imran's 33. Sarfraz's average was also the next best, at 33 runs per wicket, which was about 2.5 times greater than Imran's 13.95. The great Kapil Dev took 24 wickets at nearly 35 on the same pitches as Imran, while no other Pakistan bowler came anywhere near his series total. In contrast, in 1981, the Australians Terry Alderman and Lillee both passed Botham's series tally with 42 and 39 wickets respectively.

However, statistics are not the sole reason for my selection of Imran's performances over those of Botham. Imran's skills were not limited to batting and bowling; he also fielded exceptionally well. One highlight was his run-out of Gavaskar in the first innings of the second Test. Gavaskar played a ball towards mid-on and started down the pitch, looking to pinch a single; Imran changed direction in his follow-through, sprinted across to intercept the ball and threw the stumps down at the batsman's end with Gavaskar desperately trying but failing to regain his ground. It was this type of effort that underpinned one of the biggest factors that ultimately swung my vote: Imran was an inspirational captain and led from the front throughout.

Botham started off the 1981 series as captain, and ignominiously resigned after the second Test, just before he would have been sacked. In contrast, Imran revelled in the pressure of leadership, and successfully melded a team of very strong personalities such as Javed and Zaheer, who had their own captaincy aspirations. The pressure on the national captain of Pakistan not to lose to India must be, at the very least, equivalent to that facing an England captain in an Ashes series. Imran rose to that challenge and performed at an astonishingly consistent level throughout the series. Botham, in contrast, had a relatively poor start to his series before really hitting his straps in the third, fourth and fifth Tests.

Both players are clearly legends, and among the greatest allrounders of all time. However, to my mind, Imran pips Botham in the greatest individual performance across a series. Having said that, I am now thinking that perhaps the efforts of Jack Gregory deserve a closer look.

* Syd Barnes took 49 wickets against South Africa in the 1913-14 series. This was a five-Test series and Barnes didn't even play in the final match, establishing his now very long-standing record in just the first four games.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow