Things aren’t what they used to be. In fact, they might just be better than ever.
A couple of years ago, we were bemoaning the passing of the age of Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis and Dravid, and wondering who or what might keep fans engrossed in a five-day format whose obituaries have been written up for decades now. We tend to watch sport with an Après-nous-le-déluge [After us, the deluge] mindset. And in our eyes, no one can surpass the heroes of our youth.
If you can rid yourself of the nostalgia-tinted glasses, however, you might realise that we are on the cusp of another golden age. Joe Root topped the Test run charts and was instrumental in England’s surprise run to the final of the World Twenty20. Steven Smith continues to bat with George Headley-like consistency, surpassing 50 in half of his 18 Test innings this year.
Jonny Bairstow put together the kind of numbers that no wicketkeeper-batsman in the game’s history has managed to do, even as Virat Kohli aggregated 2595 across the three formats while averaging 86.5. Then, there was Box Office Ben Stokes, who made his 904 Test runs at four an over, and picked up 33 wickets for good measure.
The bowling can’t have been great, you say? Mitchell Starc and Kagiso Rabada had strike-rates of less than 40 balls per wicket – that’s all-time-great territory. Ditto for R Ashwin and Rangana Herath, two spinners who needed less than 50 balls per wicket.
England and Pakistan played out the series of the year, a 2-2 epic bookended by the visitors’ victories at the two London venues. In Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, Pakistan look to have two men with shoulders broad enough to assume the mantle from Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. As for Yasir Shah, he went about his legspin with the kind of energy once associated with the great Abdul Qadir.
Australia, despite the individual excellence of Starc and Smith, had a funny sort of year. They finished 5-5 in Tests, but lost the series that mattered most, at home to South Africa. The year ended with Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb as part of the Test side, and shoots of revival visible, though it remained to be seen whether those would survive the most arduous examination of all – four Tests in India.
The exploits of Kohli and Ashwin ensured that the Indians were, by a distance, the most dominant Test side, though only four of their 12 Tests – they won an unprecedented nine – were away from home. Sterner tests await in 2018, when they will have to face South Africa, England and Australia away, but for now, there are incredible achievements to savour.
The pacers, especially the fit-again Mohammed Shami, outbowled the opposition’s big guns, and the spinners were both strongbow and tourniquet according to the need of the hour. Kohli attacked often in the field, but also knew when to take a step back and play the waiting game.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in a Chennai Test that appeared to be meandering to a draw once Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings put on 103 for the first wicket. But those runs had taken nearly 40 overs of concentration to accumulate and once the focus faded in the afternoon heat, Ravindra Jadeja and India surged to victory, taking 6 for 40 in the final session.
India’s strength in depth was illustrated by the fact that Ashwin took 1 for 207 in his home game. With 72 Test wickets for the year, and ICC awards for Best Cricketer and Best Test Cricketer – at least one of which he will retain if he has even a half-decent series against Australia – Ashwin was comfortably the sport’s most valuable player. His captain, who has created a team in his feisty image, was the most influential.
Just to illustrate how far the team had come since the tribulations of the England tour in 2014, the 4-0 triumph over England was achieved with the assistance of the Decision Review System (DRS), the first time India had used it in a bilateral Test series since 2008. Kohli and his eager bowlers blundered a few times, but there were also some inspired referrals, including the two that accounted for the in-form Root in Chennai.
England won only six of their 17 Tests, losing eight, and their engrossing 1-1 draw in Bangladesh marked the debut of Mehedi Hasan Miraz, whose offspin fetched him 19 wickets at the tender age of 19. Hopefully, the Mirpur victory against England will ensure some attention for red-ball cricket in a country whose recent progress has primarily been in the 50-over arena.
India won 15 of their 21 T20Is, but lost the one that mattered, in the semifinal of the World Twenty20. West Indies, their conquerors on the night despite another sublime Kohli innings, finished the year with a 6-4 record, but the ability of their big hitters and change-of-pace bowlers to raise their games for the big occasion was unmatched. And for sheer drama, we may have to wait a while to witness anything to match Carlos Brathwaite’s four consecutive sixes to win the final.
David Warner smashed seven ODI centuries as Australia won 17 of their 29 matches, but a year that featured no major 50-over competition and the usual lack of context will most likely be remembered for South Africa’s 5-0 demolition of an understrength Australia, with Quinton de Kock advancing his claims to be considered part of the new generation of batting idols.
The forgotten, middle child will be back in focus in 2017, with the Champions Trophy in England, but 2016 was all about Test cricket pooh-poohing notions about its demise. As many as 40 of the 47 matches produced results, and India’s run of success came on pitches that were a world removed from dustbowls and Bunsen burners. For Kohli’s men, and Darren Sammy’s champions, the much-maligned months of 2016 were a time to cherish.