Jacques Kallis tries in vain to survive a bouncer from Sreesanth
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The top 20

The balls of the century, No. 16: Sreesanth to Jacques Kallis

Immovable object meets irresistible bouncer

Sambit Bal  |  

South Africa v India, Durban, 2010

How many great balls materialise by design, the ball following the path, velocity and the trajectory visualised by its creator, and how many kind of happen because bowlers have persevered with a rough idea? Did Sreesanth visualise the grenade that exploded at Jacques Kallis that morning in Durban? No, possibly. Did he know it was possible? Most certainly yes. Such things happen on fourth-day pitches, particularly ones that are beginning to develop cracks.

But before we get to the ball, a quick look at what it meant. South Africa began the fourth innings needing 303 to wrap the series 2-0, a tough ask that didn't look improbable when the openers rocketed to 63 in 12 overs. It was Sreesanth who made the breach, first hitting Graeme Smith on the fingers and engaging in a verbal altercation that led Smith to gesticulate at him with the bat, and then get out to a miscued pull shot. Sreesanth also accounted for Hashim Amla, whose waft at a wide ball ended as a nick to the keeper. But South Africa started the fourth morning under clear blue skies, with 192 for a win and two of their best batsmen - Kallis and AB de Villiers, double centurion and centurion from the previous Test - at the crease.

Now to the ball. If there was ever one to remove an immovable object, it would be hard to find a better example. All 20 balls in this series on the best balls of the century represent the very best of bowling, but it can be argued that in some instances at least, the batsmen contributed to the dismissals in varying degrees. But this ball, this one would have got Kallis every time.

I asked four top-order Test batsmen if Kallis, or they themselves, could have played the ball any differently, and the answer was the same: when you get a ball like that, you absolve yourself of every trace of blame. Watch the ball again, and again: Kallis, among the great technicians of all time, lines up to play it as he read it from the point of delivery - with a little shuffle towards the middle from a leg-stump guard, pressing forward slightly but not over-committed, and perfectly balanced, bat coming down to meet the ball above the knee roll.

But he finds the ball leaping towards his chest from a length in a way that offers no scope for retreat. Regular bouncers take off somewhat like planes, with a gradual incline, offering a better sight to batsmen and room to manoeuvre their bodies out of harm's way. Top-order batsmen still get pinged because some bouncers are just too quick and impossibly angled, or because they have taken their eyes off the ball or got their footwork tangled. Retrieval is impossible for Kallis, because this ball has exploded from a metre ahead of the normal bouncer length, and all he can do is let his survival instinct take over.

His body jerks back, contorting like a bow, and his hands rise reflexively in faint defence, not against dismissal but bodily harm, and the ball, angled in, homes in on the glove and lobs up gently. Perhaps only a genuine tailender, likely staying rooted outside the leg stump, would have survived this ball, but if there was ever a ball with the batsman's name on it, Sreesanth delivered it that morning and turned the Test decisively India's way.

The balls of the century

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal