January 1, 2016


McCullum's side left an unforgettable imprint on the World Cup, and they also produced the batsman of the year

New Zealand and Brendon McCullum showed the world that it was possible to win, and lose, with grace © AFP

It was a year that was lit up by men who would own the future, and by the Brendon McCullum brand of cricket, which demonstrated to the world that unflinchingly aggressive cricket can reside in perfect harmony with what we have come to understand as the spirit of the game. But the abjectness of West Indies and Sri Lanka brought 2015 to an end with a whimper.

Hope for better lurks round the corner. It involves only the BCCI on the face of it, but given Indian cricket is the honeypot around which the global cricket economy is built, structural reforms to the body that controls it should be of huge significance to the cricket world.

By the general standards of cricket administration around the world, the BCCI is reasonably well run, and by the standards of sports administration in India, it is a shining beacon of efficiency and dynamism. But a lot is expected of the organisation that runs the sport that remains, despite distractions, a national obsession in the world's second most populous country, and the organisation that has rightfully assumed the leadership of world cricket. That is what makes the Lodha Committee recommendations so eagerly awaited. And unlike other such reports in the past, this one can't be easily binned, for it has the might of the Supreme Court behind it.

Already, everything that happened in the course of the year seems remarkable. At the start of the year, N Srinivasan's grip on Indian cricket, and by extension global cricket, seemed unshakeable. As part of the ICC revamp, Srinivasan had managed to corner for the BCCI a large chunk of the world body's revenue, formalised a takeover of the ICC's decision-making process along with the cricket boards of England and Australia, and secured for himself the position of the ICC's first chairman. Even though he remained barred from contesting the BCCI election, he appeared to have retained his hold over the electoral college of the board. But how swiftly it all unravelled.

However, in a twisted way, Srinivasan can be credited for the reforms that have been instituted by the BCCI. Judicial intervention wouldn't have been required had he chosen propriety over power when Gurunath Meiyappan, his son-in-law and de facto CEO of Chennai Super Kings, was found betting on IPL matches; it is quite plausible that business would have gone on as usual at the BCCI. But once the courts got involved, everything, including the very structure of the BCCI, became open to scrutiny.

Empty stands for Test matches are a turn off. Night Tests may be the way forward, as the Adelaide Test proved © Getty Images

Pragmatists and cynics will attribute it to the sword hanging over the BCCI's head in the shape of the Lodha ruling, but whatever angle they are seen from, the reforms instituted by the current administration are already spectacular given the past behaviour of the board.

The issue of conflict of interest has been openly tackled, the sub-committees, forever a tool of appeasement, have been pruned, and the BCCI's accounts have been made public. Shashank Manohar, returning as BCCI president, has even gone further, in expressing his disapproval of the Big Three takeover, at the risk of annoying his colleagues who enthusiastically endorse India's claim to one-fifth of the ICC's global revenues as perfectly legitimate. Manohar and his comrades in the anti-Srinivasan camp cannot escape the culpability of being complicit in allowing him to own a IPL team in the first place, but in his second term Manohar has walked the talk so far. Still, even the most reform-minded administrators will spend a few anxious nights before the Lodha committee tables its recommendations. They could be game-changing.

A pink future?
There was a game-changer on the field too, in the shape of the pink ball. As an idea it wasn't as revolutionary as the last big one. T20 cricket has reshaped the game in a manner and at a pace that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. And both night cricket and a different-coloured ball have existed for decades. But this involved Test cricket, a form that has been left, apart from the Decision Review System, primarily untouched over the years. And for the right reasons too.

Test cricket is nothing without its traditions, and the traditionalist in me has always baulked at the idea of Test cricket at night because it alters the basic dynamic of a game played over five days - "days" being the operative word. Apart from the worry over the visibility of a pink ball at night, there was the worry of how the evening atmosphere might influence the course of play. In Durban, the white ball fizzes around under lights; in much of the subcontinent, the dew makes spinners redundant; and away from the tropics, in the early part of the summer, it might simply be too cold at night for an outdoor sport.

But I have also known first-hand, from Nagpur to Galle to Abu Dhabi, the emptiness of a cricket match without spectators, and it hasn't been lost on me how joyless bare stands can look on television. Test cricket can't afford to be stuck in a bubble until everything goes bust. It is true that the charms of Test cricket are for a fan of a certain orientation, but it has to give itself the best possible chance of being seen.

Adelaide exposed the dangers. It became quickly apparent it was a Test of two halves. The pink ball lasted and looked beautiful on television. That the match was over in three days wasn't that much of a cause for concern, because the unfamiliarity required adjustment from batsmen, but the real worry was that the ball behaved differently under sunlight and under the halogens, wobbling and nipping around more after the sun went down, raising the possibility of a team getting the rough end of the conditions twice.

In a twisted way, N Srinivasan can be credited for the reforms that have been instituted by the BCCI © AFP

But it was obvious it was a hit with the fans. The atmosphere was electric. The first day alone drew over 47,000 spectators to the ground, just 6000 fewer than the total attendance over five days in the preceding Test, in Perth. Television too registered record numbers. And the cricketers themselves seemed to have a good time. Even accounting for the novelty, the match was a hit. It's not about to become the norm soon, but we should be seeing a few more.

Pitch imperfect
There were a couple of other three-days Tests that drew the attention of the cricket cognoscenti. It riled Virat Kohli, India's Test captain, no end that the negative chatter about the state of the pitches had taken the sheen off his team's series win against the top-ranked Test team, one that hadn't lost an away series in 11 years. There was further indignation when the ICC reported the Nagpur pitch, on which 32 wickets fell on the first two days, as poor.

It is a fact that teams hardly win Test series away from home these days. For all their formidability at home, Australia have been abysmal abroad; and apart from their remarkable win in India, England haven't won a series abroad in five years. Most countries design pitches to suit their team. England resorted to two slow and flat pitches to negate Mitchell Johnson in the home Ashes in 2015, and when the plan backfired at Lord's, they responded with green and soft pitches tailored for seamers at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, on which Australia subsided to first-innings scores of 136 and 60.

But the point about Nagpur, and to a great extent Mohali, was lost on the India team management. No one would grudge India the right to make turners, and as proved in Delhi, they were the better team over the series, and would probably have won 4-0 had the Bangalore Test not been washed out. Delhi and Bangalore provided perfect examples of Indian pitches - they were slow, assisted spinners, but the bounce was even, and for batsmen willing to apply themselves, both survival and run-scoring were possible.

In Mohali and Nagpur, where the top layer of the wicket started coming off on the first day, batting was a lottery, and the even most secure defensive technique wasn't a guarantee of survival. There was no telling which ball would turn how much, which one would shoot and which one leap. And unlike most seaming pitches, which get better as the match wears on, an underprepared pitch can only get worse.

The pitches in the Sri Lanka-India series were good examples of what Test matches need © AFP

In between the Ashes and South Africa's tour of India, Sri Lanka provided the best examples of competitive pitches, when Kohli took his team there on his first full series as India's Test captain. There was a bit of swing in the air, carry for pace bowlers who bent their back, seam movement off the pitch, and turn. But none of it so excessive that batting was impossible. India won 2-1, and for many Indian fans, it was the more satisfactory win.

The team of the year
Brendon McCullum's New Zealand didn't win the World Cup, they didn't win a Test series away from home, and they even lost a one-day series to England, but they were, in many ways, the team of the 2015. They brought freshness and joy, they attacked with bat and ball, and hared about the field in packs, and they did all of it with a smile. Most of all, they showed the world that it was possible to win, and lose, with grace.

It was a high point in my career in cricket journalism to watch part of New Zealand's World Cup campaign at home, to feel the force of a rugby-dominated nation rally behind their immensely likeable cricket team. McCullum gave his bowlers licence to prey for wickets - often his response to a boundary was to post one more catching man - and when they faced the ball, they came out with bats smoking. To be in Auckland for their semi-final against South Africa, where the noise and emotion resembled that of a big match in the subcontinent, was magical. It was certainly the match of the tournament, and when Grant Elliott, a South African who has made New Zealand his home, deposited Dale Steyn into the stands in the final over to take his team to its first World Cup final, you could feel the energy of a nation behind him.

Even more poignant was when Elliott stopped to extend a hand to Steyn, now lying on his back, shattered and broken, before joining his team-mates in celebration. It wasn't rehearsed or orchestrated; it was, as Elliott said later, a statement of empathy for a fellow competitor. A few days later, as Australia swamped New Zealand in a one-sided final at the MCG, Brad Haddin provided the other side of picture with his ugly send-offs to several New Zealand batsmen, including Elliott, and then raised the pitch in a radio interview where he said the New Zealanders deserved it because he couldn't stand them being so nice. Nothing more needed to be said.

Mohammad Amir needs cricket, but can cricket not do without him? © AFP

The Amir question
Another ugly fight was played out in the public eye in the last week of the year, when Ramiz Raja and Mohammad Yousuf traded insults on live television in a manner that appeared to have nothing to do with the subject at hand. But then the topic of Mohammad Amir's re-integration arouses strong sentiments. Amir was 18, with magic in his wrists and the world at his feet, when he chose, at his captain's bidding, to go over to the dark side. He has since served a five-year ban for spot-fixing and spent time in a correctional facility. Though he is now eligible for selection, opinions are strongly divided over whether cricket is obliged to welcome him back.

The principle of justice says that every person deserves a second chance after he has paid for his crimes. And Amir, the argument goes, deserves greater leniency on account of his youth and obvious talent. The other argument is equally compelling. Any form of fixing is the lowest of sporting crimes, and no other nation has been betrayed as deeply and as regularly by its cricketers as Pakistan has been. And to none does the betrayal feel more raw than to colleagues, whose honesty stands sullied by association. It isn't a surprise that two leading Pakistani players went public with their resentment; it is a surprise that more haven't. Mohammad Hafeez and Azhar Ali must be complimented for taking a stand.

Having done his time, Amir must be allowed to lead a normal life, but as a young man there must be other avenues open to him. Why must cricket carry the burden of his rehabilitation? Here is a simple parallel from life: if an employee is found guilty of criminally defrauding his company, what chance is there of him being employed in the same company after he has served his sentence? Of course, Amir needs cricket, but can cricket not do without him?

Welcome, Bangladesh
The 11th edition of the World Cup featured many familiar themes. England were abject, South Africa floundered in a knockout match, the Associate nations provided the excitement in the early part, and in the end, there was no surprise about the winner. Unpredictability is one of the highlights of following sports, but that the best team took the trophy was in many ways a reaffirmation of the primacy of the World Cup, and it struck a blow for one-day cricket.

The idea of a Test championship remains stillborn. With a new wind blowing at the ICC, it is plausible that the notion might be back on the table, but just how a five-game where the draw is one of the likely results can yield a champion in a knockout format in a satisfactory manner is open to question. Meanwhile, one-day cricket remains the only viable option for a wholesome championship.

Fifty-over matches might not be the ultimate contest of pure skill, but the ODI is also not as much a game of chance as T20 is, which is borne out by the fact that only twice in the last 36 years has an absolutely unfancied team won - India in 1983 and Australia in 1987. Predictably, the best teams of their era - West Indies in the '70s and Australia in the last decade and a half have dominated, giving the World Cup the right to top billing in cricket. In contrast, if you want to pick a winner in the coming World T20, be my guest.

The other welcome feature of this World Cup was the emergence, at last, of Bangladesh as genuine one-day contenders. Kenya have featured in the World Cup semi-final before, but Bangladesh's passage to the knockout stage of this edition was well earned, and with a bit of luck, they might have pushed India closer. They followed up with back-to-back series wins at home, against India and South Africa. And hearteningly, their rise was scripted by the emergence of a crop of spunky quick bowlers, led spiritedly by Mashrafe Mortaza, their combative captain. Bangladesh's progress in Test cricket remains stilted, but learning to win is a good habit.

In a world where young batsmen are confused about how to develop their game, Kane Williamson is the perfect model © Getty Images

Here's looking at Kane
With the departure of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, cricket lost two vital links with a generation of batting greatness. The great batsmen from the '90s all went at the start of this decade, and only Younis Khan, AB de Villiers, Alastair Cook and Hashim Amla remain from the early noughties. It was more than batsmen that Sri Lanka and cricket lost, as Mahela and Sanga - you could rarely speak of the one without evoking the other - stood for a much grander idea. They were leaders and statesmen, pillars and keepers in a cricket set-up ravaged by politics and inefficiency; proud Sri Lankans but very much citizens of the cricket world. Such men are not easily replaced.

In pure batting terms a new generation has taken over. The run charts for 2015 were dominated by them. Virat Kohli's graph fell a bit, partly because of India's insistence on pitches that made run-making tough - in that sense, his pursuit of Test wins at the cost of his batting average was admirable - but all his rivals shone. Steven Smith and David Warner plundered hundreds, Joe Root has emerged as England's most reliable batsman, and Kane Williamson continued to compile his runs so serenely that he might as well have been batting in a world of his own.

Of all his contemporaries, Williamson appears to possess the most complete game, a combination of technique and temperament to succeed in all conditions, all situations, and all forms. The shorter formats of the game have added more energy and dynamism to batting, which has become pacier and more attractive, but there has been a palpable erosion of defensive technique, which makes the contemporary batsman vulnerable in conditions suited to bowlers, particularly against the moving or turning ball.

Kohli has showed that pace doesn't scare him, but he nicks off far too often for a batsman of his stature; Smith scored two hundreds in England but failed every time the ball nipped about; and Warner is yet to master the turning ball. But Williamson is yet to reveal an obvious weakness in his batting. His defence is secure, most of his scoring strokes are orthodox, and yet he has been able to adapt his game to every form without a noticeable change in playing style. When wickets fell in a rush in New Zealand's home World Cup match against Australia, he hit the calmest of sixes to settle the nerves; and in the final Test of the season, on a pitch affording generous bounce and movement, he kept New Zealand's unbeaten home streak intact with an unbeaten 108. The next highest score was 35. He ended the year with a Test average of above 90, and he was the second most prolific scorer in the world in ODIs.

But more than anything else, in a world where young batsmen are confused about how to develop their game, Williamson is the perfect model. McCullum was a tempting thought, but in the end Williamson is easily my man of the year.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal