The Oval miracle: When the unstoppable Umar Gul blinded England
Pain. Regret. Ignominy. Utter '2010' and 'England' in the same breath and Pakistan cricket fans are forced to hark back to the scandalous summer where the world came crashing down for a teenage pace prodigy, a superstar seamer and a newly installed skipper. As the trio comprising Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt was caught in the blatant act of spot-fixing in the middle of the Test series, a severely depleted Pakistan side still carried on with the tour amid growing hostilities between the two boards.
The fading light for the visitors gradually turned bleaker with four successive defeats during the white-ball leg of the disastrous trip. Battered by the narrow margins of losses, Pakistan were in desperate need for an injection of inspiration, a source of aggression from somewhere to rally the deflated spirits. This is the grim backstory that dominated the lead-up to the third ODI at The Oval with Pakistan on the brink of a soul-crushing series beating.
It was then, on that fateful day in 2010 when one of Pakistan's finest exponents of reverse swing, Umar Gul engineered a captivating demolition job to stun the hosts in front of a jam-packed stadium. The controversy and flair, which usually marks the profile of Pakistan's celebrated pacers, evaded the smiling assassin Gul, whose heroic performance in the face of a rampant England unit vaulted him into the pantheon of greats.
"There was a lot of pressure on me given my status as a senior strike bowler and I had picked up only one wicket in the first two games."
Charming his way during a rapid death-overs burst, Gul manifested himself as some lightsaber-toting protagonist in the Star Wars franchise as he consistently produced the gratifying 'thunk' of the ball disturbing the woodwork. From 201-5 to 211-9, England's thumping slide triggered by man of the moment Gul can hardly be rationalised in simple terms.
Umar Gul starred with a career-best 6/42 at the Oval ©Getty Images
His career-best 6/42 mirrored the typical Pakistan 'haal', a term coined by prominent cricket writer Osman Samiuddin to describe the frenzied state embodying a surge which transforms a meandering contest into an astonishing victory. The often-overlooked clash may not garner a mention among the more popular come-from-behind wins for Pakistan but it had all the elements of a classic thriller with Gul perched on top with his sizzling spell.
Recalling his incredible exploits 10 years on from the epic encounter, Gul focused on the burden of expectations from disgruntled fans that weighed the team down heading into the ODI.
“It is a great memory, performance-wise. The way we made a comeback in the one-day series against England. Before the third ODI, we had lost the previous two matches and the spot-fixing incident had cast gloom in the dressing room," the 36-year-old said in an exclusive chat with Cricingif.
"The crowds and our supporters in England were quite disappointed. My own performance [preceding the third ODI] was not satisfactory because I had missed the last two Tests due to a hamstring injury. After recovering, I had not done that well. There was a lot of pressure on me given my status as a senior strike bowler and I had picked up only one wicket in the first two games. There was also pressure from the resentful fans. Our main aim was to make our supporters happy with our performances."
The first half of the match at the Oval was rather anticlimactic for Pakistan. Piecemeal contributions devoid of substantial partnerships helped the tourists trudge to 241 as they were bundled out with two balls to spare. A young Fawad Alam was Pakistan's highest scorer (64 off 86) while Abdul Razzaq stitched a useful stand with Gul towards the end to lift them past the 200-run mark.
Despite Pakistan's batting journey paling in comparison to the run-fests in the previous two games, Gul remarked motivation was intact.
"Had a feeling I will be man of the match on this ground since that venue has been lucky for me. I had achieved the world record [of being the first bowler to take five wickets in a T20I] in the 2009 World T20 on this ground."
“You can never predict anything in cricket until the last ball has been delivered. We were just focused on giving our best and not losing hope. Being a professional sportsman, you never become disheartened. In the first innings, we made 241 and the discussion in the dressing room was that the match hasn’t finished yet. If we have made these runs, England will also have to make these in order to win it from here. Shahid bhai relayed the same message in the middle that we have to keep fighting till the last breath," he stated.
Intriguingly, Gul was buoyed by the belief of excelling in the match even before proceedings commenced. It was at this very venue that the speedster had stormed into the history books by becoming the first player to take a five-wicket haul in a T20I, a startling feat achieved in the 2009 World T20 event. The confidence gained from the record spell gave him the impetus to repeat the stellar performance.
"Even before the match began at the Oval, I told a teammate that I have a feeling I will be man of the match on this ground since that venue has been lucky for me. I achieved the world record [of being the first bowler to take five wickets in a T20I] in the World T20 on this ground. I had told Shahzaib Hasan that it would be a dream if I can repeat those heroics in the World T20 and earn the man of the match award. Alhamdulillah, this happened."
Pakistan's defence of 242 was punctuated by momentum-shifting knocks from England captain Andrew Strauss, Irishman Eoin Morgan and all-rounder Luke Wright. Prior to the match-defining spell imbued with thunderbolts, Gul had snaffled the crucial scalps of Strauss and Michael Yardy.
"It became very difficult for the lower middle-order to cope with reverse swing at good pace in excess of 90 mph and we managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat."
But barely anything can be fluently rosy when Pakistan cricket is in the equation as Morgan and Wright sculpted a tremendous fightback from 103-5. Morgan's slew of ambidextrous strokes swung the game in England's favour as he raced to an attacking half-century. England were 41 runs away from a series-winning triumph with a total of 12 overs remaining when Gul reentered. The daunting scenario for Pakistan even cast a fear for Gul, who admitted: "it felt like the game was slipping away from our hands".
However, Morgan's fantastic vigil reached a tame conclusion when he recklessly dispatched a leg-stump half-volley from Gul straight into the hands of substitute fielder Wahab Riaz. This timely dismissal was indeed the stimulus, which caused a buzzing Pakistan team to follow pace spearhead Gul lead them to glory. Gul then made it a point to uproot the poles of Tim Bresnan and Stuart Broad with disdain to stamp his authority. A sharp in-ducker and a booming 85 mph yorker that brought the demise of the duo were mixed with equally fearsome deliveries. Such was the intimidating nature of Gul's bowling that England did not dare consider opting for the batting Powerplay whilst he was on-song.
Razzaq bowled last man Anderson to hand Pakistan a dramatic win ©Getty Images
“The two set batsmen [Morgan and Wright] were playing and we knew if we got a wicket, we could get into their long tail. Morgan was playing very well and Wright was on a fluent 25-30. When I was reintroduced into the wicket, I luckily got the wicket of Morgan on the very first ball of the spell. Although that ball was not very good, it was half-volley on the pads but luckily, the ball went straight to Wahab Riaz fielding at square-leg," Gul related.
"I was in fine rhythm thereon and found reverse swing. It thus becomes very difficult for the lower middle-order to cope with reverse swing at good pace in excess of 90 mph. We snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and then repeated our performance at Lord’s [in the fourth ODI]."
By the time Gul had finished his 10 overs, England's last hope was wiped out when Razzaq bowled James Anderson to hand Pakistan a dramatic 23-run win.
"There is nothing impossible in cricket but sometimes people think you’ve lost the match and then you win the match singlehandedly, it is an unforgettable experience.”
Gul's unbridled destruction in the third ODI was clearly not a one-off occurrence as the limited-overs maestro left his imprint on the subsequent outing at Lord's as well. Although the highlight of Pakistan's win was Razzaq's brutal onslaught in the death overs, Gul reigned supreme again with four bowled dismissals, signifying his unparalleled accuracy. In the midst of a spate of magnificent reverse-swinging yorkers, Gul also delivered a memorable slower off-cutter to clean up Graeme Swann. The sight of Swann's mangled stumps drives home the point of Gul's ingenuity. The wicket was followed by an animated celebration where the star paceman gestured towards his skipper Shahid Afridi and the two embraced.
"I knew that Graeme Swann would have done homework against me and would have planned accordingly that when I exploit reverse swing, I usually bowl the yorker or do in-swing to bring the lbw in play. Right before the wicket-taking delivery, I had a chat with Shahid Afridi where I suggested him bringing fine-leg in the circle and keeping square-leg and mid-wicket on the boundary so I could bowl the slower one," Gul narrated.
"But he told me to stick to my stock deliveries since I was generating a lot of reverse swing. I was adamant and knew that Swann would have read my plans and would be waiting to time my faster delivery. He [Afridi] then left it to me and set the field according to what I wanted. Swann was ready for pace but got deceived by a slower one that gripped and turned inwards to rattle his stumps. If you rewatch the celebration, I pointed towards Afridi and it was a great moment. You feel very contented when you plan something and execute it perfectly.”
Gul's irresistible spells in the 2010 ODIs in England may not have culminated in a series win for his side but the brilliance conjured by him will forever be held in high regard. It will perhaps go down as the greatest exhibition of reverse swing by someone not named either Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis.
“This was one of my best performances, across both ODIs [Oval and Lord’s] as they came in unexpected victories. There is nothing impossible in cricket but sometimes people think you’ve lost the match and then you win the match singlehandedly, it is an unforgettable experience.”