All hail the new blood
Being around a Boxing Day Test inevitably makes concerns about the appeal and viability of Test cricket sound like a conspiracy theory. But the main treat in the match in Melbourne, as it has been all series, was to watch the flourishing of batsmen who promise to rule the coming years. There is a fascinating strand that ties them together.
Virat Kohli, David Warner, Steven Smith and Ajinkya Rahane have all made reverse transitions to Test cricket. Warner's case is the most extreme, for his international journey began in T20 even before he had played a first-class game. Rahane's case is the most ironic because it was not his first-class excellence - an average of over 50 for years - but his IPL exploits that got him into the national team. Kohli and Smith too mastered the mechanics of the shorter forms before growing in stature in Tests.
When Australia began their home series against India in 2011, the leading batsmen of both sides carried a cumulative batting wealth of 69,539 runs, with 180 hundreds. When the Boxing Day Test started at Melbourne last week, the collective hundred tally for the top six for both teams fell short of Sachin Tendulkar's 51.
The 2000s were a golden age of batting, a freaky confluence of riches. India had Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag; Australia: Ponting, Hayden, Langer, Clarke and Gilchrist; South Africa: Smith, Kallis, Amla and de Villers; Pakistan: Inzamam, Yousuf and Younis; West Indies: Lara and Chanderpaul; Sri Lanka: Sangakarra and Jayawardene; and for England, Pietersen came along.
Most of those players have retired, and perhaps only a couple will be playing in about two years. The batting chart for 2014 was still dominated by the old guard - Sangakarra leading the way with 1493 runs at 71.09 (more astoundingly he has averaged nearly 65 over the last five years). Younis Khan, another golden oldie, is not too far behind. And Brendon McCullum, it would seem, has stopped discriminating between the three forms of cricket by deciding to bat in Test cricket in the same way as in T20 cricket.
But 2014 showed the next generation is ready to take over. Angelo Mathews, on whom Sri Lanka's batting hopes will rest over the next few years, had the most prolific year of his career. Kane Williamson emerged as New Zealand's most consistent batsman in all forms. Joe Root was easily England's leading batsman, but they also discovered Gary Ballance. Mominul Haque followed up a promising year by becoming the highest run-getter for Bangladesh. Rahane enhanced his reputation as India's most consistent batsman overseas and M Vijay became the answer to half of their opening problems.
It's the batting language of these players that commands attention. Kohli, Warner and Smith have all tightened their games to cope with the demands of Test cricket, but there is a visceral energy to their cricket that comes from instincts honed in versions of the game in which they are compelled to push the tempo forward.
Their technique, and character, will be tested in conditions or situations that demand grinding out overs. And there will be occasions - like with Kohli in England last year - when they come up short. But the best way to judge them and enjoy them will be to see them as who they are, and not in relation to those who came before. They are part of the game's evolution.
The big purge
Since administrators are no one's favourite people, their lapses and omissions are pounced upon - as you will have gleaned from the first part of this year-end essay - with relish. But the ICC can take a bow for its decisive and bold campaign against illegal bowling actions.
For years, the administrative approach towards illegal actions has been pussyfooted and muddled. Though the guidelines have been clear, the enforcement has swung between being wilfully negligent and laissez faire: a clear nod to making everyone happy, which has long been an ICC hallmark.
However armed with new technology and backed by political resolve - make no mistake, the decision-making on chucking has always been more political and administrative - the ICC has taken an unambiguous position that brooks no tolerance than what is provided for in the amended regulations.
Opinion has always been split about the merits of the doosra, on whether it's worth the trouble for what it adds to the game. It can be argued that the doosra poses no physical danger to the batsman, unlike a chucked bouncer or a beamer. Like any other ball, the doosra requires skill and practice, but it has also been a shortcut to success for many ordinary spinners. Also, the fundamentally troubling question is: once you go beyond the 15-degree limit, where do you draw the line? Mistakes were made in the past to make allowances for certain bowlers based on their reputation and on political expedience.
There have been some big casualities already. It is quite likely that two big names - Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine - will miss the World Cup, which will indeed be a loss. But on the brighter side, they - like Sachitra Senanayake has already - can remedy their actions and stay in the game. If not, cricket, and the fans, must cop it and move on. Pakistan have shown that they can win without Ajmal, and Nathan Lyon in the current series, like Graeme Swann before him, has shown that it is possible to prosper while obeying the rules.
Venom and tedium
Sports autobiographies are not designed to be literary successes or to be revelatory of human character, and the bigger the player, the lower the likelihood of their books providing such insight. For a successful athlete, there is too much self-absorption and narcissism and too little of a connection with the real world for a book to be rounded, and there is always too much at stake in terms of stardom, legacy and celebrity to be thrown away in the cause of honesty.
There have been a handful of exceptions, and Andre Agassi's Open was an extraordinary one. But most cricket autobiographies are at best an exercise in setting the record straight, and at worst, a perpetuation of vanity or a vehicle for score-settling. The odd peek into a champion's mind is an unexpected bonus.
Still, the two most talked-about cricket autobiographies of the year did a massive disservice to the players whose names they bore. With Kevin Pietersen, one of the most compelling, opinion-splitting and match-winning batsmen of his generation, there was no pretence about the singular agenda: to expose his tormentors, who threw him out of his dreamland, with a tell-all book that contained his version of the truth. Acid-tongued, courtesy a skilful biographer, the book was a voyeur's delight, but mostly it made you cringe. And the biggest revelation - inadvertent of course - was of Pietersen's own flawed character.
Not many would have expected Tendulkar's book to reveal much, which, in fact, made the odd bits of score-settling - against Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid - strike jarring notes in a book that amounted to little more than a reconstruction of matches in the dullest manner imaginable. Having interviewed Tendulkar a few times, I have had occasion to catch a glimpse of a finely honed cricket mind, but his autobiography guards his insights as fiercely as he does his privacy. Gideon Haigh, who has perhaps read every cricket biography ever written, had the perfect description for it: a mile wide, an inch deep.
The burden of history
Temba Bavuma scored only 10 runs in his first Test innings, being dismissed fending off a ball that reared up on him. But he was a big story just by turning up in the South African Test cap. It was a significant moment in South Africa's chequered cricket history to have their first black Test batsman. In a country where the vast majority of the population is black, and where cricket is the second-most popular spectator sport, he became only the sixth black cricketer in the side since their readmission in 1991.
Besides Makhaya Ntini (South Africa's first black Test player) and Bavuma, the others managed only 17 Tests between them. There is perhaps a message here for those frustrated with the national team not being adequately representative of the country's demographics. Ntini, who went on to become an icon, played in 101 Tests and took 390 wickets. He lasted that long because he was good enough. Test cricket is a hard enough place without a player being burdened by extraneous factors. Bavuma is aware of his place in history, but if he is to emulate Ntini, he can't afford to be weighed down by it.
Their position in the rankings will not show it, but New Zealand had a terrific year in international cricket, winning three away Tests (joint-highest with Sri Lanka, one of whose away wins was in Bangladesh). And one man was responsible for three of their Test wins in the year off his own bat.
When he gave up the gloves and moved up the batting order, there were doubts whether Brendon McCullum could hold his place in the Test side on one skill alone. He has let the runs provide evidence and his 2014 tally is the highest ever accumulated by a New Zealand batsman in a calendar year.
It wasn't merely the runs. It was that he made them count. Remarkably, his smallest century was 195, and his highest score below hundred was 45. His first double-hundred of the year set up a win against India, but he bettered that with a match-saving triple in the following Test to secure the series.
Towards the end of the year, came the most improbable of New Zealand Test wins, against a Pakistan team that had drubbed Australia 2-0, and it was powered by a double-hundred of such relentless bludgeoning power that New Zealand had nearly scored 350 in 61 overs when McCullum was dismissed. Only the pace of that innings created time for a win. And in the final Test of the year, when New Zealand found themselves inserted on a green pitch, McCullum responded with a 134-ball 195, scored while munching gum.
If there is a better candidate for Man of the Year, feel free to email me.
A Pakistan surge
What kind of a year would it be if Pakistan didn't spring a surprise? This year there was a twist too. The swiftness and the comprehensiveness of their blanking out of Australia in UAE was unexpected - they hadn't won a Test series against Australia in nearly 20 years - but who would have thought they would do it with their batting?
Younis Khan, sulking and smarting after being left out of the ODI team (and having dared the selectors to leave him out of the Test side too), made the Australians feel the heat of his indignation by reeling off two hundreds in the first Test and a double in the second, and sprinting past Inzamam-ul-Haq as Pakistan's top century-maker. He wasn't the only one: Azhar Ali made two hundreds, Sarfraz Ahmed chipped in with one, and Misbah-ul-Haq - what was he thinking? - joined Viv Richards as the scorer of the fastest Test hundred with the cool saunter of a man born to do it.
Of course there were the customary new bowling stars. Zulifiqar Babar and Yasir Shah, 36 and 28 years old respectively, but with only eight Tests between them before the series began, shared 26 wickets, and made the Ajmal-less series not only bearable, positively giddy. A month later, Shane Warne was still drooling about Yasir. New year, new excitement.
And a debut of our own
Allow me to end on an indulgent note. This year we made an investment in our faith in cricket's ability to sustain literary and narrative journalism, and your interest in consuming it by launching The Cricket Monthly, our digital features magazine, available on multiple platforms. It is only five issues old but it has already put together a body of work that makes us proud. In approach, rigour and scale of ambition, we have attempted to go where no other cricket magazine, including two of our own in the past, have gone before. We have been mightily encouraged by your enthusiasm for it.
Read part one of the year-end essay here