December 14, 2011

All hail the men of the year

Time to salute the players who made 2011 in cricket the year it was

Cricket in 2011 found its twin symbols in the movies that moved me the most - Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. While the former is as depressing as middlebrow entertainment gets, the latter is profoundly uplifting - dissatisfaction begets nostalgia and thence our reluctance to appreciate the present. Whether, for lovers of flannelled tomfoolery, the pleasure was worth the pain is a question only history can answer.

This, after all, will go down as the year that saw the game plumb fresh depths in courtroom and committee room. Never before had cricketers been jailed for their activities on an international field. Never before had a purportedly reputable official alleged that Tests were "routinely fixed" (that Lord Condon submitted not a grain of evidence has only aggravated the potential for finger-pointing ructions). Never again will those running the game postpone a worthwhile new event to please the almighty broadcasters (sentiments typed with vastly more hope than conviction).

Not that the scars stop there. There was too much cricket, and too little of consequence. TV viewers and sponsors played Spot-The-Spectator. One national board refused to pay players for months on end; the chief executive of another was persistently accused of misappropriating more than a quarter of a million dollars; one of our foremost entertainers, Chris Gayle, spent as much time in the blue of Matabeleland Tuskers as the maroon of West Indies; squabbles over technological aids maintained a two-tier system of justice. Even in Thailand, rum doings were reported in the name of bat and ball.

Yet to those inclined to see their glass as half-full, there was certainly oodles to savour, not least in the subversion of traditional norms. Ravichandran Ashwin, Darren Bravo, Pat Cummins, Virat Kohli and James Pattinson all strode into the spotlight and lapped up the rays; New Zealand unveiled the Three Bs - Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell and Dean Brownlie; Mohammad Hafeez and Chris Tremlett were reborn. Jacques, Rahul, Ricky and Sachin duelled with age and, to varying degrees, prevailed. Alastair Cook completed his journey from precipice to throne. Dale Steyn widened the gulf between himself and the bowling pack to Persian proportions. David Warner roared out of his pigeonhole. Shane Watson looked poised to persuade even the hardiest sceptic that he may one day inspire the chorus "Keith who?"

MS Dhoni led India from front and rear to claim a mostly dull World Cup. Australia lost a World Cup fixture at last but even amid a period of upheaval still led the one-day rankings. In the space of six days, Mumbai and Johannesburg staged two of the most gripping climaxes in Test annals. England attained the No. 1 Test ranking through deep pace resources and flat-track bullying, but overall, the team of the year are Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan, who racked up 33 victories and a winning record, uniquely, in all formats, while never once enjoying home advantage. Sure, they did it by massacring the mediocre and marmalising the modest, but still. If ever a nation's cricket needed to unhinge itself from its past, Pakistan's does now.

The most endearing and enduring soundbite came courtesy Virender Sehwag. In Indore, fresh from the biggest of the year's most brutal assaults (those by Watson and Essex's Graham Napier, against Bangladesh and Surrey, were even nastier in strike-rate terms), having not so much broken Sachin Tendulkar's ODI peak as torn it limb from limb, he proffered a priceless postcript: "I am very happy with myself." And why ever not? We all know there's no "I" in "team", or "country" for that matter (though there is one in "side" and, come to think of it, "collective"), but if anyone has a right to toot his own horn it is assuredly the game's principal soloist. Besides, media training has scaled such heights of efficiency it's a wonder Bob Dylan has yet to deliver that belated follow-up to Blonde on Blonde - Bland On Bland. What joy to hear gut reaction rather than pre-packed line.

And so to this column's Five Cricketers of the Year, in reverse order of distinction. To those who feel that Dhoni's absence is akin to leaving Josef Stalin out of the Top Five Most Dastardly Dictators, let's just say his mantelpiece is creaking already.

Devendra Bishoo
This has been a year of small, cherishable miracles: Zimbabwe's resurgence under Alan Butcher and Brendan Taylor; Dhoni recalling Ian Bell in the cause of decency; Ponting walking - for an lbw; Australia careering to 21 for 9; MCC inviting Tony Greig to give the next "Spirit of Cricket" lecture. It's still fiendishly hard to see past the fact that the international circuit's No. 2 wicket-hunter, with 65 all told, should be a legspinner from Berbice - let alone one who looks as if a gentle sneeze might blow him over. The younger of the bravura Bravo brothers may be shaping up as the brightest star in the Caribbean firmament but runs are not the priority. With Ravi Rampaul coming on in leaps and bounds, Fidel Edwards round-arming his way back to unpickupability, and Kemar Roach emerging as a second enforcer, the revival may have begun in earnest.

To those who feel that Dhoni's absence is akin to leaving Josef Stalin out of the Top Five Most Dastardly Dictators, let's just say his mantelpiece is creaking already

Ian Bell
Warwickshire supporters can congratulate themselves on their prescience and faith but few others would have guessed that the shy young thing Shane Warne derided as the "Shermanator" would grow into the most watchable batsman in the business. That 2011 Test average of 118.75 doesn't lie. Nor do those five hundreds in 11 innings. What was once an endearingly fragile walk to the crease is now the epitome of breezy sturdiness. Yet if muscle and reliability are now assets, neither has come at the expense of aesthetics. With VVS fading, however gracefully, and Mahela Jayawardene out of sorts, connoisseurs of style have a new poster boy.

Saeed "Mr Doosra" Ajmal's 85 international wickets to date headed the rest by a street; Younis Khan has averaged 80 in nine Tests since being recalled; Shahid Afridi unretired to transformative effect; Mohammad Hafeez came of all-round age; Umar Gul and Junaid Khan made it possible to pretend Mohammads Asif and Amir had never been considered their superior; Zaka Ashraf has almost made it possible to pretend that Ijaz Butt had never existed. Kudos for the current Pakistani resurgence, though, goes primarily to Misbah, whose calm leadership and even calmer batting have lent stability to the most storm-tossed vessel on the high seas. The contrast to his disgraced predecessor could hardly have been starker. Among the new, true allrounders - i.e. those picked across all three formats - none averaged more than his 57.20. The first 40-year-old national skipper since Imran Khan? Don't put it past him.

Stephen Davies
Seldom glimpsed inside an international boundary, his most conspicuous onfield acts did little more than haul Surrey up from where they had no right being and back to where they once belonged - winners at Lord's and promoted to the top tier of the County Championship. Only in the shortest form did he not regress. Three regular stumpers posted more impressive first-class averages than the one unfortunate enough to be his country's designated Test No. 2 at a time when the top dog is as prolific in that department as any to tend timber while sporting the three lions. Then again, it's not exactly every year that you become the first cricketer of renown to make his homosexuality public.

On February 27, regardless of whether the tabloids forced his hand, Davies trod where few active sportsmen have ever dared to tread. Whether others feel liberated to follow, we can only wait and see; much will depend on whether he can translate that admirable resolve into a substantial career, but will almost certainly rely even more on the maturity of those tempted to test that resolve and the punishment meted out to any who fail to resist. Wherever this leads, his courage and determination should never be underestimated or forgotten.

Kumar Sangakkara
Nobody has scored more international runs in 2011 than his 2156. Nobody manned a burning bridge more defiantly than he did during the Test series against Pakistan - 516 runs at 86, when Sri Lanka's next most manful contribution was Tharanga Paranavitana's 195 at 39. Yet it was as an orator, with his "Spirit of Cricket" lecture at Lord's, that he dazzled. Greig has some act to follow.

Sangakkara began by expressing sentiments that ought to echo throughout every cranny of cricketkind: "I strongly believe that we have reached a critical juncture in the game's history and that unless we better sustain Test cricket, embrace technology enthusiastically, protect the game's global governance from narrow self-interest, and more aggressively root out corruption then cricket will face an uncertain future." In proudly tracing the inspirational history of Sri Lankan cricket he also denounced those who threaten to ruin it. Describing the club structure as "archaic" and the administrators as unstable, he marvelled that so many world-beaters had somehow been produced.

What lingered longest, nonetheless, was his closing musings: "Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity." Good thing he didn't insert "Judaism": I'd have felt obliged to have his babies.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton