Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2009 Review (Cricket)

As I write, we are just a day and a few hours away from the end of the first decade of the 21st century. From the point of view of the cricket afficando, the noughties will be remembered as the decade when cricket underwent an extraordinary transformation- and I'm not talking about the IPL alone. Let's review the teams in alphabetical order.

Australia finish at No.3, a fair ranking of where they stand currently. Although the year has finished well for them, even the most optimistic Australian fan would have to admit that their performance left several questions hanging. They were forced to sweat and scrape by an unfancied West Indies side that was expected to be rolled over and handed back the ashes in a series where they seldom looked a side that could win. Never mind what statistics say, the fact remains that Australia condeded first innings leads of 210, 102 and 172. Several young players made a strong impression. Its likely that Australia will remain a very competitive side, but the days when they routinely smashed oppositions are long gone by.

For Bangladesh, 2009 marks a historic year. Two back to back test wins in the Carribean- their first ever wins abroad and first ever series win (against admittedly a second string West Indies side)- and a healthy Win loss ration in limited overs cricket capped a superb year for the perennial whipping boys of international cricket. Hopefully they can build on the momentum they gathered during the course of the year.

England end the year in a position that's a far cry from where they stood a year ago. As far as horrid starts go, England reached a new low with the Pietersen-Moores fallout that resulted in a massive blood letting, soon followed by the nadir of a thrashing at Jamaica that cost them the Wisden Trophy...for all of 69 days. But as has often happened with England, just when they seemed to have reached a point of no return, they sensationally bounced back with an Ashes win no one expected of them (especially after Australia beat the South Africans in their own backyard a few months before) and as I write, they're well placed for a crushing win and a 1-0 lead over South Africa at the mid way stage of a series there. They could conceivably push for No.1 in the near future, depending on whether they can continue the good work done over the last 9 months or so.

India finished the year sitting at the top as first among equals, if only just so. With a strong batting line up and a decent attack- surely the best attack any Indian side has ever had- they certainly look a side that can sustain a high level of performance, subject to their being able to find able replacements for their aging middle order. Unfortunately for the fans, India played a mere 6 tests in the year, but made a fine fist of it with a historic series win in New Zealand- their first in that country in 41 years- and a cruching 2-0 win over Sri Lanka. Having reached where no Indian side has even threatened to approach, the challenge for India is to build on their magnificent efforts over the last couple of years.

New Zealand had a mixed year, starting off with a disastrous home series against the Indians and ending with a 1-1 draw in a hard fought series with Pakistan. While their performance against Pakistan was heartening, the retirements of Bond and O'Brien poses a massive challenge for the future.

For Pakistan, 2009 was an imminently forgettable year. Already isolated from the world community due to growing security concerns, they had a new nadir thrust upon them by the abandonment of a home series against Sri Lanka at the mid way stage due to a terrorist outrage. A 1-1 draw against New Zealand showed that they could still be a competitive side. They went on to lose badly at Melbourne, but were by no means humiliated. The emergence of Umar Akmal and Mohammed Amir plus the return of Mohammed Asif were huge positives for them.

South Africa finished 2009 in a manner that mirrored England's. Starting off with a historic series win in Australia and their short lived rise to No.1, South Africa's fortunes sensationally nose-dived as the year progressed. A 1-2 reversal against the touring Australians began the slide and their performance in the series against England has done little to suggest that they are going to rediscover the highs of last December. Admittedly they had England 9 down in the second innings at Centurion, but they ultimately had only themselves to blame for it- taking 153 overs to score 418 in the first innings is simply inexcusable in this day and age. As I write, they're all set for a crushing defeat in the second test, with an attack that holds few horrors and a batting lineup that looks as predictable as Mitchell Johnson's bowling. At the end of the decade, they're a side in need of regaining lost ground and few sides are better equipped to do it.

Sri Lanka had a mixed year, like almost every other team going around. 2-0 wins over Pakistan and New Zealand propelled them to No.2 in the ICC rankings, but a 0-2 reversal against neighbours India saw them slide down to No.4. From a long term perspective, the decline of Muralidharan would be Sri Lanka's biggest worry, the fact that Ajantha Mendis ceased to be a mystery and seemed to go backward only compounded the situation. Another matter of grave concern for Sri Lanka has been their batting. Spectacular at home, their batsmen (Sangakkara apart) have failed to recreate the same magic abroad and the fact remains that nearly all their wins in recent times have been at home.

While other sides experienced fluctuating fortunes, West Indies had a year that showcased the best and worst in their cricket. A sensational 1-0 win over England- their first series win over quality opposition in nearly 7 years- promised to make it a memorable year, but the gains of that win were frittered away with a listless performance in England, where they handed back the Wisden Trophy they had fought so hard to regain, within ten weeks of having pulled it off. A players strike resulted in their fielding a second string side that promptly lost everything it played. Even for a decade that was dismal by any standards, the losses to Bangladesh was the unquestioned nadir, seemingly confirmed by a three day thrashing at Brisbane. But as it happened, they finally hit the resistance level, bouncing back to pull of superb performances in the remaining tests.

If they can replicate their outstanding performances over the last couple of years and avoid the kind of embarrasments they conjured up at Lords/ Brisbane earlier this year, West Indies will surely be a force to reckon with in the years to come. The arrival of Kemar Roach and Adrian Bharath were huge positives, as was their showing in Australia. I daresay the days when West Indies sides folded in without a fight are over- here finally is a side from the Carribean that seems determined to put the humiliations of the recent past behind it.

Overall, at the end of the decade the game is in a state of flux. There's no clear world No.1, nor does there appear to be a side that can remain at the top for any sustained period. The standard of the game is at its lowest since I started following the game and pitches are only of two types: dead and deader. The 2000s has been the decade of the batsmen, with several willow wielders boasting of 50+ averages (40 is no longer the benchmark of quality). Nevertheless, with batsmen increasingly playing their shots, draws have become fewer. There are at least 4-5 teams that could legitimately aspire to be in the top 3. For the first time in decades, there's the No.1 slot up for grabs for he that dares.

In short, the future could be exciting. How it turns out, only time will tell.

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