<
>

The golden boys

Four ODIs in Australia, one T20I in a bilateral series against Sri Lanka in India, the World T20 opener and semi-final, one T20I each in Zimbabwe and the USA, and two ODIs in the five-match series against New Zealand. Eleven matches lost in 12 months. Not a single Test among them. This at a time when cricket is played all year round.

It has undoubtedly been India's year in international cricket. No team has won as much in 2016. Their win-loss ratio of 2.818 is streets ahead of the next best team, South Africa, who won 1.818 international matches for every loss in 2016*. Speaking purely statistically, this was also India's best year in international cricket: they have won 31 matches, two more than their previous best, and have never managed such a good win-loss ratio.

Only three times before this have India won more than twice as many matches as they have lost in a year. Like in 1993 (win-loss ratio of 2.666), 1994 (2.222) and 2013 (2.636), India have played much more at home than away this year, but to win close to three matches every four times you play is not to be scoffed at, no matter where you play them. There was a certain ruthlessness to India when they were ahead in 2016, and resilience when they were down. Except for the ODI series in Australia, never did they look listless.

It was a year in which coach Anil Kumble's pragmatism teamed up with Test captain Virat Kohli's ambition and aggression. Kohli pushed for positivity - even dropping Cheteshwar Pujara and M Vijay at one point - and Kumble reinforced faith in his solid cricketers. Outside the national set-up, India A and India Under-19 coach Rahul Dravid made sure match-ready cricketers were available whenever there were injuries. Jayant Yadav and Karun Nair were perfect examples; even Kohli was surprised how ready they were and how quickly they learned.

India's lower order was the best in the world, providing them the liberty to play an extra bowler, which made all the difference when the days got long and tight. The home Tests were played on traditional Indian pitches and not on designer tracks as in 2015, something former team director Ravi Shastri spoke of on air. India's performance in Tests in 2016 was more wholesome than in 2015.

Vijay and Pujara were support acts with the bat, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami with the ball, but the leaders were unmistakable. Kohli batted with discipline in Tests; at one point he played just one lofted shot off 805 balls of spin. He willed India through to the World T20 semi-final. He scored ODI centuries in vain in Australia, but chased stupendously against New Zealand at home. With the ball, R Ashwin missed a lot of limited-overs cricket but was peerless in the longest form. Not to mention, he got runs almost every time India were in a trouble.

High point
England inaugurated India's slide with a 4-0 whitewash in 2011. Next year they beat India 2-1 in India. In 2014 they had thrashed India 3-1 in England. Arguably New Zealand were the better side of the two India blanked in their home season in 2016, but finally getting one past England will have been sweet - and sweeter still because the 4-0 series win came on fair pitches, despite losing four tosses, and from playing high-intensity cricket for longer than their opposition, as opposed to spectacular cricket.

Low point
The bowling on flat pitches in Australia and the outfielding on those big grounds were a concern, but the major heartbreak was the defeat in the World T20 semi-final. The sheer occasion and anticipation in the home T20 World Cup make the defeat a low point, even if India lost to the eventual champions, an undisputedly better T20 side. The way India came back from the first defeat, the way they survived despite ordinary cricket against Bangladesh, the way Kohli carried them through to the semi-final, the memories of the 50-over World Cup win at the Wankhede in 2011 - it all combined to give an impression that the title win was perhaps preordained. So the heartbreak when they couldn't find a way past West Indies' might.

New kid on the block
He was a nervous wreck when he debuted in India's last Test of 2014, but KL Rahul has been India's most improved cricketer over the last two years. All through 2015 and the first half of 2016, he was still a back-up Test opener and considered too old-fashioned for the limited-overs side. In the IPL this year he went through a metamorphosis. He worked on his strength and conditioning to add more yards to his hits. Reverse sweeps appeared. The solidity never left. There were hundreds in each format; Tamim Iqbal was the only other player to achieve the feat.

What 2017 holds
MS Dhoni will definitely get a chance to become part of the conversation again, when he leads India to their Champions Trophy title defence in England. The Test side is young and fit and likely to continue its dominance. According to the current FTP, India are scheduled to host Australia in four Tests; not many will bet against a repeat of the 4-0 scoreline from 2013. They are also scheduled to go back to Sri Lanka, which should be a close contest given how Sri Lanka too have discovered batting talent to replace their legends. By all reckonings, we will be denied the most mouth-watering contest of 2017: a full home series against Pakistan.

India will need to decide whether Dhoni can go on till the 2019 World Cup. And if he can, will he do so as captain or as just a player? The rest will be about preparing for 2018, when India are due to tour South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, a sort of reverse of 2016.

* Stats current up to December 25, 2016