South Africa's ascent, India's tailspin
Cricket stepped gingerly into the new year with familiar anxieties and concerns. The year gone by wasn't a dreadful one by any means, and looking purely at results it threw up several interesting outcomes. South Africa wrested the Test crown from England in their backyard, West Indies waltzed to the World Twenty20 title, and England finished their year with their first series win in India in 28 years, achieving it with an ease that startled cricket fans in both countries. But scratch the surface and you have an unremarkable and unfulfilling year. Sport can't be measured merely by results.
The quality that was missing was what true lovers of the game yearn for and what makes following sport such a rewarding and uplifting experience: the contest. The quality of cricket often ranged between middling and mediocre. It is often true that superior teams don't allow their opponents to play at their best, but far too often in the recent past, matches have been lost as much they have been won, and it has made watching cricket a dull, unattractive experience. Beyond base nationalistic pleasure, what joy can be derived from witnessing the annihilation of the meek?
I watched Michael Clarke score a triple-hundred in the first Test of the year and for three quarters of the innings he seemed to be battling only his own boredom - such was the feebleness of the Indians on the field. In the manner in which Australia have swatted away the subcontinental teams this year - 9-0 their record reads over Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan in the last three summers - it would seem the old swagger is back in Australian cricket. Indeed, they were, quite incredibly, only a Test win away from regaining the No. 1 rank at one point.
The truth is that they are now carrying their weakest top order since Allan Border started rebuilding the team in the early '80s, they have no world-class spinner, and their pace attack, though it bubbles with talent and promise, is also highly brittle. That Phil Hughes, who had to be, in the words of the chairman of selectors, protected from South Africa, has now taken Ricky Ponting's old position will tell you that there is no surplus in Australia batting stocks at the moment.
England staged a stunning rally after losing four successive Tests in the subcontinent to win three of the next five, but they were godawful against Pakistan in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In Tests at home between India's last two series against England, R Ashwin (40 wickets in five Tests at 18.50) and Pragyan Ohja (33 wickets in five Tests at 22.90) evoked, in terms of figures, the great tradition of Indian spin bowling, but they were so ineffective otherwise that it is impossible to judge how much the English batsmen had really improved since their amateur production in the Middle East.
As ever, the bigger problems lay off the field. It has become routine and tedious to say this, but cricket continued to suffer from the indifference, incompetence and lack of a common vision among its custodians.
The ICC will soon have a new structure - an all-powerful chairman and a ceremonial president, but the ICC board has opted to ignore the recommendations of the Woolf Commission, appointed by its activist former CEO, who did himself and the ICC no favours by jetting around the world and serenading the media as if that was the most important item on his job description.
Of course a few of the recommendations - which included some of the Full Members giving up their place on the ICC board - were utopian, but the ICC has been among the most dysfunctional governing bodies in world sport, and at a time when cricket desperately needs a steadying hand to balance itself across different formats, it needs its leaders to think global and think ahead. The current structure of the ICC board, where each member protects the interests of his home nation, is designed to focus on the narrow and the immediate.
Spectator burnout is the biggest challenge for cricket. T20 has managed to attract new audiences but they are fickle. Entertainment is what draws them and their connection to the game is tenuous. IPL 5 was a huge success in terms of audience response, but crowds have been thin at the Big Bash this year. More worryingly, Test attendances in Australia were thinner this season than they were the last, and ODIs between India and Pakistan didn't sell out.
It can be argued that the Tests in Australia suffered from bad weather and faulty scheduling. South Africa, the bigger draw, refused to tour in the second half, preferring to play a T20 match at home on Boxing Day instead, and Sri Lanka were poor opponents at the business end of the summer. Pakistan caught the Indian fans in a bad mood perhaps: the series began a few days after India had lost their first home Test series in eight years, and lost to England at home for the first time in 28 years.
But clearly the audiences are sending a message. It's an obvious one. They want more quality and less quantity.
South Africa: an Australian attitude
That South Africa should end the year as the No. 1 Test nation is not a surprise. The surprise is that it took them so long to get there. They have been consistently excellent over a number of years, winning matches and series all around the world, rarely embarrassing themselves in defeats, and with a core group of players who have been together for a long time. Yet they have always seemed to lack that little bit, that intangible extra, that goes into the making of champions. They have been solid but never spectacular, resourceful but not imaginative, gritty but rarely daring.
Did anything change in 2012? Perhaps nothing dramatic. But in Perth, in three hours of spellbinding batting, they revealed an ability to seize the moment and turn it their way with such force as to reduce their opponents to bystanders. In the age of T20, a scoring rate of seven an over isn't outlandish, but to watch two batsmen gallop away at that rate in Test cricket against a sharpish bowling attack on a quick pitch was breathtaking. With contrasting styles - Hashim Amla wielding a wand and Graeme Smith a pickaxe - they mounted an assault that would have reminded the Australian fans of their own team in its pomp.
One image stays imprinted in the mind: Amla fetching a ball wide of the pads and hitting it through midwicket - a skilful stroke, but one he plays regularly. The difference this time is that there are no stumps behind him. He has moved so wide that he is in the line of the bowler and first slip. That one image said everything that was to be said about the South African approach that afternoon. It had the air of invincibility.
It was more spectacular still, given what had gone before. Australia had had the better of the draw in the first Test, and South Africa had batted out of their skin to save the second. Midway through the first day in Perth, they had been in danger of being dismissed for under 150. But from there, like a canny boxer who first spars his opponent to weariness and knows when to raise his game for the knockout, they went for the kill with mechanical and ruthless efficiency. With their recently acquired Test crown at stake, it was a commanding performance.
There has been much disquiet about affirmative action in their cricket, but South Africa are clearly reaping the dividends of the rich variety their nation offers. It's plausible that both Amla and Vernon Philander wouldn't have broken through without the pressure there has been to include coloured cricketers in the team, and South Africa would be a much poorer team without them. They give the side the sort of variety earlier South African teams lacked. Supple, delicate and wristy, Amla brings Asian artistry to the traditionally muscular style of South African batsmanship, and Philander's subtle and skilful manipulation of the seam presents a different challenge from Dale Steyn's high-velocity swing and Morne Morkel's hustling, menacing bounce.
This was said about England after the 2011 summer, but South Africa look destined to stay at the top longer than the two previous occupants. England will challenge them and in Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar they have the two top-class spinners that South Africa lack. But South Africa currently have the strongest all-condition batting line-up in the world, and the best fast-bowling attack, and Smith, though he has given up leadership in the shorter formats, still has the zest for Test captaincy. No one would grudge them a long stay at the top.
India: plumbing the depths
India have fallen harder and deeper than even the most pessimistic forecasts predicted. But what will probably have hurt Indian cricket fans most is that their team was caught in a web designed for their opponents: to be outspun at home must rank among the most humiliating chapters in the history of Indian Test cricket.
To those who have been following Indian cricket closely it won't have come as a huge surprise. To start with, Swann and Panesar are among the three best Test spinners in the world today, and they were up against the weakest batting line-up India have put up in a home season in the last dozen-odd years.
The depressing thing is that India seems to have simply stopped producing world-class Test spinners. And it hasn't happened overnight. The most instructive aspect of it is that Swann and Panesar are classical spinners in the Indian mould. They bowl no mystery balls. The only tricks they rely on are the old-fashioned ones: drift, turn, change of pace and variations of flight. They bowl side-on, pivot their bodies around their front legs, and use their bowling shoulders to give the ball a rip. Their technical superiority over Ashwin and Ojha was, for Indians, embarrassingly palpable.
It is perhaps an outcome of their environment. Swann and Panesar have had to work hard to get the ball to turn on the less responsive wickets of England, whereas the Indian spinners have tended to rely on the surface to do the job for them. The skills the Indians have developed have more to do with restriction. Ashwin is a product of T20 cricket, where his assortment of variations is handy to keep sloggers in check. For an Indian spin bowler with classical skills and action, you have to travel back to the early '80s, when Maninder Singh and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan shone bright but brief.
India beat England at their own game in 2007, when their batsmen batted better in English conditions, and their quick bowlers seamed and swung the ball more skilfully. There might be hope for India if they - and that includes the spinners of the land and the administrators - have been stung enough by this defeat. Aspiring to quick IPL riches is the biggest disincentive against learning the traditional craft of spin bowling. At the moment Indian spin bowling is going in the same direction that West Indian fast bowling did a few years ago.
Pakistan: making the most of their chances
Even though the intensity has dimmed over the years, there is always something in the air when India and Pakistan play cricket. But so arbitrary and so random has their latest series been that it has hardly stirred an emotion. It can be argued that resuming the relationship is a worthy act in itself, but could time not have been found for three Tests instead of an unfulfilling combination of T20s and ODIs?
That Pakistan played only six Tests last year must count as one of cricket's misfortunes. Even Panesar, who hardly ever features in an England XI outside the subcontinent, played as many. England played 15 Tests, and only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe played fewer than Pakistan. They were seen much oftener in the shorter formats (18 ODIs and 16 T20s) but the most exciting aspects of Pakistan cricket find their best showcase in Tests.
Despite his team having played so little, Saeed Ajmal was joint seventh on the Test wicket-takers' list in 2012. And watching Junaid Khan swirl the ball both ways in Chennai brought as much joy as it did a lament for what might have been. Despite losing two of their finest bowlers to the spot-fixing scandal, despite being off the international map for long periods of time, and despite being often maladministered, Pakistan's bowlers continue to uphold one of the finest traditions in the game. Cricket owes them the responsibility of providing a stage.
Read part two here
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo