October 22, 2012

You gave us such a start

Players who defined a series by the way they began it

Saeed Ajmal
Top-ranked England were arguably favourites going into the series against Pakistan in the UAE earlier this year... but Ajmal soon changed that. In the first innings of the first Test in Dubai he took 7 for 55, mesmerising the batsmen with a crafty mixture of offbreaks and doosras. He took three more in the second innings, and finished the series with 24 wickets at 14.70, as Pakistan completed a devastating 3-0 clean sweep.

Ian Botham
It was memorably claimed in the build-up to the 1986-87 Ashes series that there were only three things the England tourists couldn't do: bat, bowl or field (and this was from an English journalist!). But that forecast proved to be rather wide of the mark, as England made 456 in the first innings of the series in Brisbane, the highlight a rollicking 138 from Botham, who slammed 13 fours and four sixes, and took 22 off one over from the young Merv Hughes. England never looked back, and secured the Ashes with an innings victory in Melbourne.

Richard Hadlee
New Zealand had never won a Test in Australia before their 1985-86 tour - but a one-man demolition job set up a crushing victory in the first match in Brisbane. Hadlee took 9 for 52, and caught the other one. New Zealand replied with 553, Martin Crowe scoring 188, and went on to win by an innings. Hadlee was in irresistible form in the series, which New Zealand eventually won 2-1, taking 33 wickets: only George Lohmann, with 35 on the mats in South Africa in 1895-96, had taken more in a three-Test rubber.

Don Bradman
The great Bradman was undecided about returning to Test cricket after the Second World War: he was 38 by the time of the 1946-47 Ashes, and hadn't been in the greatest of health. He decided to play... and made 187 in the first Test in Brisbane. Australia won that one, went on to take the series 3-0, and the Don was encouraged to take charge of what is remembered as the "Invincibles" tour of England in 1948. History might have been very different, though, had Bradman been given out early on, after making his way unconvincingly to 28: all the England players were convinced he'd given a catch to slip, but Bradman (and, crucially, the umpire) thought it was a bump ball. "A fine bloody way to start a Test series," observed England's captain Wally Hammond to Bradman shortly after the incident.

Viv Richards
The England captain Tony Greig's ill-advised threat to make the West Indies "grovel" was shoved down his throat at the earliest opportunity in 1976, when Richards stroked a superb 232 in the first Test at Trent Bridge. England's bowlers did a fair bit of grovelling over the rest of that five-match series, which West Indies romped 3-0: Richards, who also made 291 at The Oval, piled up 829 runs, even though he missed one match through illness.

Abdul Qadir
England started the 1987-88 series in Pakistan in upbeat mode: they'd just reached the World Cup final, losing out to Australia in a tight finish. But they were soon on the back foot in Lahore, where Qadir took 9 for 56 in the first innings. He took four more as England were shot out again for 130: Pakistan won by an innings, and sat on their lead for the rest of a series bedevilled by umpiring controversies. The famous spat between Mike Gatting and Shakoor Rana happened in the second Test, but many felt that Qadir - who finished the three-match series with 30 wickets - had been helped by some compliant officiating too.

Greg Chappell
Chappell faced a tough task in taking over the Australian captaincy from his brother Ian (who remained in the side) for the home series against West Indies in 1975-76. But he made a superb 123 in the first innings in Brisbane, and an unbeaten 109, to take his side to victory in the second. "It was as well as I ever batted in my career," he said. West Indies were on the verge of becoming the world's leading side - but Chappell led Australia to a 5-1 victory in that series.

Virender Sehwag
Series between India and Pakistan always have a special edge. India started the 2003-04 rubber in Pakistan never having won a Test there, in 49 years of trying: but Sehwag changed all that, with a rocket-powered innings of 309, India's first triple-century. He hit six sixes in all, including the strokes that took him past 100 and 300. His assault - and his stand of 336 with Sachin Tendulkar - set up an innings victory to kick off a series India eventually won 2-1. Sehwag's second triple-century, 319 against South Africa in 2007-08, also came in the first Test of a series.

Chris Gayle
After being ditched as captain for West Indies' tour of Sri Lanka late in 2010, Gayle could have taken it easy - especially as he'd recently said he "wouldn't be so sad" if Test cricket died and T20 cricket (which he's also quite handy at) took over. But you wouldn't have guessed from Gayle in Galle: he put his head down for nearly 11 hours for 333 (breaking out occasionally to smack nine sixes), his second Test triple-century. That series was drawn 0-0, a triumph of sorts for West Indies against the home side's phalanx of spinners. However, thanks to a bitter dispute with his board, Gayle played no more Tests for 19 months, but he returned recently to show he was still reasonably keen on the five-day game by battering New Zealand for 150 (and 64 not out) in Antigua.

Graeme Smith
Going in to the 2003 series in England, South Africa's young captain Smith - he was only 22 back then - was being perceived as a weak link, with some predicting that his batting style wouldn't work in English conditions. People had said that about Don Bradman too: and like the Don in 1930, Smith soon shut the critics up, scoring 277 (a national record at the time) in the first Test, and after making 85 in the second innings at Edgbaston, broke Bradman's record for a visiting batsman at Lord's with 259 in the second Test. It established Smith as captain for a decade in which he inflicted much pain on successive England captains, even if that particular series somehow ended up in a 2-2 draw.

Steve Harmison
And finally, an example of how not to make a statement of intent... few could recall as much hype and hullaballoo as surrounded the build-up to the 2006-07 Ashes series Down Under, the first one after the epic 2005 encounter in England. Harmison loped in to bowl the first ball in Brisbane... and it bobbled away straight to second slip. It was as if someone had let the air out of a balloon. England went from bad to worse, eventually suffering only the second 5-0 whitewash in Ashes history. In Harmison's defence, a couple of years previously he had started the tour of the Caribbean - where England won 3-0 - with a devastating 7 for 12 as West Indies imploded for 47 in the first Test in Jamaica.

*1750 GMT, October 22, 2012: The caption incorrectly mentioned 30 wickets for Saeed Ajmal

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2012