2010 Review

The return of swing and other stories

The top teams were on about an equal footing, which produced more absorbing cricket. And an exciting bowling art made a comeback

Sambit Bal

January 6, 2011

Comments: 39 | Text size: A | A

Matt Prior held the catch off Ben Hilfenhaus that sealed the match, Australia v England, 4th Test, Melbourne, 4th day, December 29, 2010
The Ashes has provided for absorbing, fluctuating Test cricket © Getty Images
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The last couple of weeks of the year are among the most pleasurable for the cricket fan. Apart from England, the weather is pleasant everywhere. There are festivities. And there are Test matches on television. In 2010 it was a bit more special than usual because the top four Test teams were involved in engaging contests in two different time zones. If you are in the subcontinent, like I am, what bliss it is to wake up to Test cricket in Australia and carry on watching through the day till it is late afternoon in South Africa.

Despite the Tests having been one-sided, both series have been full of surprises, drama and brilliant performances, and the momentum has swung from one Test to the other, with both series yet to be decided going into the last Test.

As Australia have fallen from their perch, the era of great teams has ended, at least temporarily. It is both a blessing and a blight. An even playing field makes for tighter, more interesting contests. At their peak Australia were so far ahead of the rest that matches involving them got predictable and dull. Now we know that a team can get hammered one week and return the favour with interest the next. England have now beaten Australia at home and away, lost to South Africa at home and drawn with them away, and lost to India at home and away. South Africa have drawn against India away and are level at home at the time of writing. India have won 14 of their last 23 Tests but haven't won a series in Australia and South Africa. So damn the rankings, no one really knows who is top dog in Test cricket, and that keeps the Test scene spicy and simmering.

The flip side is that the bar has been lowered, and while contests between teams are now more even, it has been at the cost of quality. England have brought their best team in years to Australia, to be met by one of the softest Australian teams in memory. India must have the thinnest bowling attack for a top-ranked team. And South Africa continue to lose too many vital games.

And while Test cricket looks and feels healthy and vibrant when the top teams are playing each other, the news from the bottom half has got more and more depressing. New Zealand managed to hold India to two draws recently, but the series held little spectator interest. Pakistan continue to provide sparks but the tragedy of their cricket is both created from within and by circumstances beyond the control of players and administrators. In the West Indies it's tough to figure out who cares less, players or administrators. New Zealand face a crisis of talent. And Bangladesh still don't look like they belong in the Test arena.

While nothing is more rewarding than Test cricket played at a high level, when it is between unequals, or even among low-skilled opponents, it can be a drag. The last year provided enough evidence of the vibrancy and viability of Test cricket between the top nations, but it posed some serious questions about the way forward.

 
 
The bar has been lowered, and while contests between teams are now more even, it has been at the cost of quality. England have brought their best team to Australia in years, to be met by one of the softest Australian teams in memory. India must have the thinnest bowling attack for a top-ranked team. And South Africa continue to lose too many vital games
 

In other ways too, 2010 was year of contrasts. While Indian cricket glowed on the field, the cricket board found itself mired in controversies and court cases. Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif lit up the English summer with the magic of their wrists before spot-fixing allegations against them plunged cricket into darkness. Pitches produced gluts of runs and cascades of wickets. Mitchell Johnson misfired for most of 2010 but produced one of the great spells of the year, in Perth. And the Umpire Decision Review System threw up as many questions as it provided answers.

The need for competitive pitches
It's never been a secret: keep bowlers in the game and cricket will be rewarding. And to keep bowlers in the game you need pitches that aren't a one-way street in favour of batsmen. It isn't a coincidence that the last decade was among the most profitable for both batsmen and cricket boards. Most of the money in cricket is made from television rights, and television companies make their money from ads that run between overs. The longer games last, the greater the number of ads that can be run. Curators, after all, are employed by cricket boards. Even if they were not explicitly instructed to roll out flatbeds, they got the message.

Statistically 2010 wasn't any better. The runs-per-wicket ratio from 43 Tests stood at 36.48, the second highest in the last 10 years. But there were plenty of encouraging trends. Perth was restored to life, Durban produced bounce and pace, Nagpur and Bangalore had enough for spinners, and most of all, the English summer sparkled with life.

Over the last decade English grounds, the most favourable in the world to swing and seam bowling, produced increasing amounts of runs. Lord's became a batting paradise, The Oval lost pace, and even Headingley no longer remained a haven for seamers. But something changed in 2010. In the hands of some skillful operators the ball wobbled and seamed, and all eight Tests - two were neutral ones between Australia and Pakistan - produced results. The spot-fixing scandal at the end of the season took the sheen off the summer, but hopefully the lessons will have been absorbed. It's not merely enough to keep the players on the field for as long as possible; to keep fans of Test cricket engaged, it is essential to provide a proper contest between the bat and ball.

The return of swing
A look at the top wicket-takers' table for the year tells a happy story. Two of the top three are swing bowlers and there are a couple more in the top 10. Between them Dale Steyn and James Anderson have swung the ball in all conditions, and have done what opening bowlers are meant to do: take out top-order batsmen.

For over a decade Glenn McGrath specialised in the surgical dismantling of batsmen, but his control and accuracy were near freakish, and McGrath was arguably the greatest defensive bowler in the history of the game. In its own way, that perfection was both beautiful and terrifying, but in the hands of lesser practitioners, back-of-the-length bowling and the business of preying on the patience of the batsman can get tedious. In contrast, there are few better sights in cricket than aggressive swing bowling.

As Ian Chappell says elsewhere on this site, swing bowling is wonderful for cricket because not only does it bring the prospect of wickets but also the prospect of boundaries. To allow the ball to swing, the bowler must pitch it up, creating the opportunity for good batsmen to unfurl the most majestic of cricket strokes: the cover drive.

It is a somewhat mysterious art and often bowlers themselves don't fully comprehend it. Mitchell Johnson, who turned devastating when he managed to curl it into right-handers in Perth, readily admits he doesn't quite know how to get it going, and Sreesanth, who can bowl some unplayable outswingers on his day, goes whole days searching for one. For advice he can do no better than turn to Zaheer Khan, who has developed a keen understanding of the aerodynamics of the cricket ball.


Dale Steyn celebrates after he dismissed Harbhajan Singh, South Africa v India, 2nd Test, Durban, 2nd day, December 27, 2010
Steyn: is it time to call him one of the greats? © AFP
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Zaheer, however, is not an out-and-out swing bowler, and relies on various tricks, including seam, cut and reverse. For the revival of swing bowling the game should be thankful to Steyn and Anderson. With Anderson there always remained the question of his effectiveness away from English conditions, which he has dispelled emphatically by swinging the Kookaburra ball in Australia like no one has done in recent memory.

The player of the year
By a distance it was Sachin Tendulkar's year with the bat, but push me to pick a player of the year and I will unhesitatingly plump for Steyn. Anderson and Graeme Swann took nearly as many wickets, but no one took them more breathtakingly than Steyn. For that matter he also took them more regularly.

Steyn is that rarest of species, a genuine fast bowler who swings the ball late. The outswinger is his stock ball, but the predictability hardly makes it easier. He bowls a great length, and his perfect ball begins its journey with the natural angle inwards to the right-hand batsman and starts shaping out fractionally prior to hitting the pitch, but the line is still around middle and off, so the batsman has no option but to play it; only if he is lucky in the extreme does it evade the edge.

Steyn destroyed India in the first innings in Centurion and Durban, but those were pitches and conditions tailormade for him. His performance of the year, and arguably the bowling performance of the year, came against the same opposition, but on a flat wicket in Nagpur. After South Africa had plundered 558 for 6, Steyn removed Murali Vijay and Tendulkar in a searing opening spell and blew out the lower order with a five-wicket burst in his third spell.

During the Boxing Day Test his career strike rate dipped under 40 and he now stands as the best among those who have taken more than 200 Test wickets. In this club, only three bowlers - Muttiah Muralitharan, Richard Hadlee and Clarrie Grimmett - have a better five-wicket-haul-per-Test ratio than him.

If he can maintain his fitness and enthusiasm, he should end up as one of the all-time greats. Cricket needs the likes of him.

Tendulkar: an Everest of his own
What do you say about a man who has just had his best year in Test cricket after a 21-year career full of greatness? Sachin Tendulkar's place in the pantheons of cricket's greats had never been in doubt, but 2010 has perhaps made it a little easier to answer the perennial question: who after Bradman? Beyond everything else, it's a number that enshrined Bradman's undisputed status as the pinnacle of batting. Tendulkar has now created his own Everest: his tally of international hundreds - certain to cross 100 - and runs are unlikely to be surpassed ever.

Longevity is a crucial element of greatness and Tendulkar passed that test years ago. But the incredible aspect of his performance in 2010 was not merely his mountain of runs but that he is playing some of the best cricket of his career. In the 1990s, Tendulkar was a more entertaining batsman to watch: a combination of batting genius and the rush of youth produced some electrifying contests against some of the world's great bowlers. The Tendulkar of the 2010s is a mellower, cannier and tighter batsman, who knows how to temper his game to the rhythm of the match. He has adjusted his game to suit his body, his defence is tighter, and he still has all those shots. In fact, he has been playing more of them.

It's no secret what keeps Tendulkar going. Life outside the game has never held much interest for him. He enjoys being a family man and spending time with his close friends, but it's cricket that still consumes him. And because he has never taken the game for granted, his pursuit towards perfecting his craft continues. And he has become so much a part of the game that for his fans it is unthinkable to think of the game without him.

In part two, tomorrow: Pakistan, the UDRS, and India as cricket's bully

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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Posted by   on (January 7, 2011, 19:06 GMT)

I saw a comment or two deriding Zaheer. Must be those jealous fans who can't stand India being no. 1 i guess. Anyways here's the stats for Zaheer in 2010 - 9 matches (8 in the subcontinent) 47 wickets at an average of 21 and a strike rate of 39!! Only Steyn is better folks and that is because he's fitter and hence maintains such stats over more matches, otherwise almost nothing between them.

Posted by   on (January 7, 2011, 13:20 GMT)

but as regards to swing bowling.......... no 1 is even near to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.....

Posted by nks1234 on (January 7, 2011, 13:09 GMT)

When we compare SRT and Kallis in this series we must not forget that India did not have anyone like Steyn in their ranks. I would not rank Zaheer below Morkel but he cant match up to Steyn even in his dreams. We must also remember that S.A. batsmen played much better. Their batters(excluding bowlers) scored 1455 runs @ 50.17 whereas Indians scored only 1272 @ 34.38 only.

Posted by Jelanichem on (January 7, 2011, 12:14 GMT)

The India South Africa test series, is the best I have seen in years. Finally we had pitches that had something in it for the bowlers where it required real skill and greatness for a batsman to make runs and therefore a result was likely instead of a dull, high scoring draw. Seems like the cries of the cricket fans for the curator to stop preparing lifeless pitches that were doing nothing more than padding the stats of ordinary batsmen while destroying test cricket has been heard. Give us more pitches like these so we can have enthralling contests like these and there will be a revival in the interest in test cricket. Test cricket is not dead, the game is just administered by people who seem to want it to die.

Posted by bhaloniaz on (January 7, 2011, 10:19 GMT)

zaheer along with steyn and anderson. Zaheer is not among top 10 bowlers. Harbhajan is a top bowler.India's rise to number 1 has made so many people blind.While india can compete with top teams, Zaheer is NOT a top bowler. England, SA, even Aus can beat india in a neutral venue. SA drew the series,but it was clear who dominated the series. Indian batting is great,but so many teams have similar batting powers [SA, Sri, Eng, even Aus]. Indian batting has depth [Doni at 7 and Harbhajan at 8]. Swan or Harbhajan are good wicket taking threats [not the best], and them bowling long spells allows their team to play without the 5 bowler or the all-rounder.

Posted by ashish514 on (January 7, 2011, 9:55 GMT)

@Muhammad Faisal Khan Durrani - Dunno about jealousy or partiality, but yes, Pakistan seems to never stop producing one good seamer after the other. Now and then a new Pakistani pacer bursts out into the scene with dangerous swing, good pace and stellar performances. The only think which lacks is consistency and focus. Who knows what Shoaib Akhtar could have been if his career was not marred by so many controversies. Same can be said about the Mohammad Amer, and Asif. And they themselves are responsible for it. With some discipline on their part and more discipline on Pak cricket administrators' part, who knows one of Amer, Gul, Asif, Shoaib, Sami etc. could have achieved heights similar to Waqar and Wasim. Some of them still have time. Wahab Riaz also looks promising, hope he learns from others' mistakes. Also, perhaps this is the reason of the neglect you are talking about. Though they are good, they haben't utilised their talents completely.

Posted by nish075 on (January 7, 2011, 9:38 GMT)

I'm 21, and I've never seen the great Windies quartet or the likes of Dennis Lillee bowl. But I have seen Akram, Waqar, McGrath, Walsh, Ambrose and Donald and no one is as exciting as Steyn when he's in the groove. To bowl like that in the current day batting havens is simply out of this world!! His duel with Sachin in the 3rd test was absolutely gripping!!

Posted by Nerk on (January 7, 2011, 8:25 GMT)

McGrath was an awesome bowler. He bowled an inch outside off, the perfect, line. Not a foot outside like many current day bowlers. If anything McGrath was an aggresive bowler, with a deadly bouncer and a great yorker. He just never looked it. Looking at India, what a year! Great batting was the bedrock, but what I was most impressed about was the ability of India to comeback in a series. Against N.Zealand they drew the first two, just, and then thrashed them in the third. Against Sth Africa they got annihilated, then in the second BANG! I don't fancy their bowling attack without Zaheer, and if Harby goes I don't think Sree and Ishant have the maturity to lead the attack. But all the best to India and well done over 2010!

Posted by   on (January 7, 2011, 7:07 GMT)

Funny that somebody is worried about a player - Kallis - being left out, when a test playing nation is not mentioned at all. Sri Lanka anyone? and they aren't half as bad as Bangladesh either.

Posted by jeromix on (January 7, 2011, 6:25 GMT)

NOT a WORD about Sri Lanka. 4th in TESTS and 3rd in ODI's after humbling the mighty Aussies At Aussie.

What about MUrali? His retirement an end to a great era of the Worlds greatest Bowler?

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Sambit BalClose
Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

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