August 29, 2003

Kapali joins an eclectic club

It has been several months since Alok Kapali last hit the headlines for his bowling. These days, it is his combative middle-order batting that occasionally catches the eye, but back in July 2002, when he made his Test debut as an 18-year-old, his legspin was perceived to be his strongest suit. Sure enough he picked up two (albeit expensive) wickets in his first outing against Sri Lanka.

But, in keeping with Bangladesh's struggles, Kapali's next scalp did not arrive for about a year - when Australia's Justin Langer played all round a straight one at Darwin last month. Now, however, Kapali has doubled his tally and halved his average (from a Mike Athertonesque 209.33 to an Ian Salisburyish 104.67), all in the space of three deliveries.

Kapali, who turns 20 on New Year's Day, is the 31st cricketer to take a Test hat-trick, and, hardly surprisingly, the first from Bangladesh. His efforts may yet contribute to an historic maiden Test victory, but judging by their late collapse on the third day at Peshawar, he will have to impress with the bat as well. Still, he completed a memorable day by reaching the close unbeaten on 4, to give Bangladesh a vital 118-run lead with six wickets remaining.

Bangladesh may not be too hot when it comes to team performances, but every once in a while they chalk up an unlikely individual achievement. Against India at Dhaka in November 2000, Aminul Islam became only the third batsman (after Australia's Charles Bannerman and Zimbabwe's Dave Houghton) to score a century in his country's inaugural Test. And a year later, in Colombo, Mohammad Ashraful became the youngest player to score a century on his Test debut, at 17 years and 63 days old.

In becoming his country's first hat-trick bowler, Kapali has been propelled into an eclectic nine-man club, occupied by three alltime greats, two extremely-goods, and a handful of extras. The club's inaugural member was Australia's demon fast bowler, Fred Spofforth, who ripped through England's batting at Melbourne in January 1879 with match figures of 13 for 110.

Four years later, England replied through Willie Bates, a maverick Yorkshire allrounder who played all 15 of his Tests in Australia. On his day he was irresistible, and at Melbourne in January 1883, his slow roundarm spin collected 14 wickets in the match, including 7 for 28 in 26.2 overs in the first innings.

England and Australia shared all 12 of the first hat-tricks in Test history, and it wasn't until March 1959 that any other nation got a look-in. Appropriately, it was one of the greats who broke the stranglehold. Wes Hall had already marked his arrival as a Test cricketer with 41 wickets on his maiden tour for West Indies, an arduous trek across India and Pakistan in 1958-59. And in the eighth and final Test of that trip, he took his tally to 46 with a hat-trick against Pakistan at Lahore.

South Africa were the next team to accomplish the feat, and against England at Lord's to boot. But it was a bitter-sweet occasion for the bowler, Geoff Griffin. An accident at school had left him with a permanently kinked elbow, and he was no-balled no fewer than 11 times for throwing. It was his second and last Test, and he retired a fortnight after his 21st birthday.

Only three men to date have achieved the feat on their Test debuts. The first was England's Maurice Allom, in January 1930. The second was New Zealand's offspinner Peter Petherick, who dismissed the Pakistan trio of Javed Miandad, Wasim Raja and Intikhab Alam at Lahore in October 1976. It merely delayed the inevitable, however, as Pakistan eventually won the match by six wickets. The third was Australia's Damien Fleming, at Rawalpindi in 1994-95, whose victims included Salim Malik for a modest 237.

Next to join the club were Pakistan. Wasim Akram had already picked up two one-day hat-tricks in quick succession in 1989-90. Now, nine years later, he repeated the feat in Test cricket as well. His first batch came against Sri Lanka, once again at Lahore, in the third match of the Asian Test Championship. One Test later, and in the final no less, he repeated the dose to send Sri Lanka crashing to an innings defeat.

In the recent World Cup, Chaminda Vaas took a spectacular hat-trick from his first three balls against Bangladesh. But he was merely following the example of his team-mate Nuwan Zoysa, whose opening over in the Test against Zimbabwe at Harare in 1999-2000 was equally astonishing. Trevor Gripper was not the most illustrious of first victims, but his next two, Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson, are among the best to have played for Zimbabwe. At 0 for 3, it was a long way back for Zimbabwe, and unsurprisingly, they fell to a seven-wicket defeat.

The last, but most certainly not least of the countries to get off the mark was India - in the guise of Harbhajan Singh, in arguably the most astonishing victory in the history of Test cricket. India had been walloped by Australia in the opening Test of their 2000-01 home series, and when they were forced to follow on at Kolkata, the series looked dead in the water. But Harbhajan's first-innings hat-trick, including the prime wickets of Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, provided the first inkling that this was a miracle in the making. Sure enough, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid put together their thrilling 376-run partnership, and Harbhajan sealed the victory with match figures of 13 for 196.

As India proved then, miracles do happen. Alok Kapali will be praying for something similar tomorrow.