February 2, 2009

New year, new thrills

Cricinfo staff
A crazy debut, bunnies rule, and an old-timer refuses to go quietly

Mirpur madness: Murali celebrates sealing a win for Sri Lanka © AFP

The Tailender Who Wasn't
When Muttiah Muralitharan walked in to bat in the 94th over of the tri-series final in Mirpur, a total of 276 runs had been scored in the day. Only three batsmen had scored at more than 50 per 100 balls, and 18 wickets had fallen. Sri Lanka had recovered from 6 for 5, but at 114 for 8 they were still 39 short of preventing back-to-back losses to Bangladesh. What followed was madness. After six balls of defence, Murali picked the medium pace of Rubel Hossain for some manic hitting. In overs 46 and 48, he made room on both off and on sides, hit four boundaries and two sixes, and made everyone wonder what the whole fuss about the slow scoring was. Sri Lanka's eventual margin of victory? Two wickets, with 11 balls to spare.

The Tailenders Who Weren't
By the end of it Graeme Smith complained Makhaya Ntini didn't protect him enough. Smith, with a broken thumb, and tennis elbow, came in at No. 11 to try and save the Sydney Test, after Ntini and Dale Steyn had, on a cracked pitch, survived more than 17 overs for the ninth wicket. Ntini continued the unwavering resistance after Steyn's fall, but with only 11 deliveries to go in the match, Smith was bowled by Mitchell Johnson. By then Steyn had faced 65 deliveries, and Ntini 75; and they had hung around for an hour-and-a-half each. They don't make tail-end bunnies anymore.

The Allrounder
They'll soon rename the Shere Bangla National Stadium the Shakib Al Hasan Stadium. Over the last month, in six matches not extensively televised, Shakib put in crucial performance after crucial performance to keep Bangladesh afloat against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. He won a Man-of-the-Match award for his 92 not out in a chase of 148 against Sri Lanka, and was the pivot Bangladesh turned on in the other games. Starring also were his 10-over spells for 11, 15, 22 and 24 runs. On slow and low pitches he scored 223 runs off 232 balls in the month, and took 11 wickets at 10.2 and an economy-rate of 2.2.

The Decision
After the event it would be easy to call it foolhardy: Smith, the man who has changed the face of South African cricket, risking aggravating a potentially career-threatening injury just to draw a Test after the series had been won. That he played the series was a miracle in itself, after the injured elbow. For his troubles he got a fractured hand in Sydney courtesy a nasty lifter from Johnson in the first innings. But if Australia thought they had seen the back of Smith, they had another think coming. In the final overs of day five, with his team 8.2 overs and one wicket from going undefeated in a series against Australia, thanks especially to the fight put up by the tail, Smith made his move. Riding on adrenalin he came out to bat, and proceeded to do so, at times with one hand, negotiating 16 balls before Johnson bowled him a nasty incutter - one that Smith later reckoned would have got him had he been fully fit.

Hopping wounded: Graeme Smith has an ouch moment while batting with a broken finger and a dodgy elbow in Sydney © PA Photos

The Debut
Shane Warne kept talking on air during the MCG Twenty20 of how a club player had come out of nowhere to capture the imagination of the whole of Australia. Warne even regretted he didn't sign him for his IPL team. During his 43-ball stay David Warner, yet to make his first-class debut, showed just why. He pulled, flicked, slogged, drove, scooped Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini with ease, and fell only 11 short of making only the third international Twenty20 centurion.

The Veteran
Sanath Jayasuriya has to be lying about his age. He just cannot be closing in on 40. Forty-year-olds don't do what he did against India in Dambulla. On an oppressively hot and humid day, on a sluggish track, Jayasuriya scored a workmanlike century, his second in his 40th year, and became the oldest man to make an ODI century. That he played a different game from his team-mates was evident: when he got out in the 40th over he had scored 107 in 114 balls, while the rest had managed 64 off 122. Visibly short of fluids, cramping up, kneeling down between deliveries, he nevertheless ran 18 twos - four of those back to back. It was his 12th century since he turned 35.

The Catch
This Australian summer has been JP Duminy's. He has been all over the Aussies - with the bat in the Tests, and with both bat and ball in the one-dayers. In the first Twenty20 he almost pulled off a great chase, and in the second a great catch to try and derail Australia's chase. Australia needed only 56 runs off 43 balls when David Hussey chipped one over Duminy at mid-off. Duminy ran yards and yards, looking back over his shoulder at the ball as it dropped, changed course a fraction to his left at the decisive moment, timed his dive forward perfectly to grab it in both hands, and then popped up acrobatically in celebration.

The Unexpected Success
Eyebrows were raised all over the world when Johan Botha was chosen to lead South Africa in the ODI series after Smith was ruled out. Mark Boucher - forever the best man - and Jacques Kallis, were both more senior and had more permanent places in the side. But Botha proved to be inspirational, both as a captain and a shrewd offspinner in the middle overs. Under him South Africa never seemed to lack inspiration in the field, and the timing of the batting Powerplays was usually perfect. Botha finished the joint-leading wicket-taker in the series to boot, giving away an economical four an over.

Warner: club cricketer goes a-clubbing © Getty Images

The Finisher
Botha may have inspired South Africa's march to No. 1 in ODIs, but it was Albie Morkel who made sure they got there. Coming in at No. 8, Morkel won them the first and third matches from seemingly impossible situation to keep their noses ahead in the series. In the Melbourne game, they needed 51 off 38, and Morkel duly smacked 40 off 18 deliveries. In Sydney he scored another 40 off 22 to blast them home. The clean hitting, the unwavering cool - it all evoked a certain Lance Klusener.

The New Dimension
When ICC split the second 10 overs of bowling restrictions into batting and bowling Powerplays, it seemed like another ploy by some computer nerd to make a simple game complex. In the month of January, though, when a flurry of ODIs were played, the batting Powerplay got its own back. While the bowling Powerplay lacked imagination, and was almost always taken immediately after the first 10 overs, the batting Powerplay kept awake those who viewers who used to fall asleep during the middle overs. The timing of the batting Powerplay proved crucial too, turning the game either way depending on how many runs were taken during those five overs. South Africa scored hit 49 from overs 45 to 49 to win the first ODI, and 41 between the 41st and 45th to win the third match. In Dambulla, Sri Lanka proved it could go horribly wrong when the timing of the batting Powerplay wasn't right. They delayed taking it until the 39th over, by which time Jayasuriya was tired; once he got out, the new batsmen couldn't clear the field at will and could take only 20 runs off the next five overs. In the end the target Sri Lanka set was below-par by about 25.