<
>

A baker's dozen of 2014 vignettes and stars

Brendon McCullum and the New Zealand team walk off the field AFP

I love to write articles that are not analytical, like this one. It is a journalist's article and I can prove to everyone (especially to myself) that I can pen such pieces. And I get a lot of pleasure in the selection process. So let us start 2015 with a decidedly alternate view of the year that has gone by. This article is guided as much by heart as by mind. So readers will find the content interesting and insightful. Of course, some may not agree, but it remains fun. Please let the brickbats (and, if appropriate, bouquets) fly.

1. Brendon McCullum: If I say that McCullum was the cricketer of 2014, it would take a brave man to challenge that statement. A triple-century that saved New Zealand from a disastrous loss. A magnificent 224 coming in at 30 for 3, which paved the way for a close win. A double-century at better than run-a-ball, which led New Zealand to a tough away win. And finally, an explosive 195, which took the New Zealanders to a tough home win. The last innings was a stroke away from three world records: the number of double-hundreds in a calendar year, the maximum number of sixes in an innings and the fastest 200 in history. And all through, McCullum led New Zealand with imagination and flair to their best year in international cricket: A 5-2-2 record. It is ironic that other than these four huge innings, McCullum did not cross 50 once in 12 innings. That explains why he has accumulated only 1164 runs despite four near double-centuries. But when he crossed 50, New Zealand could expect memorable efforts, leading to one draw and three wins. I hope the ICC recognises these efforts and anoints him (or Angelo Mathews) as the Cricketer of the Year.

2. Angelo Mathews: This was the year Mathews the batsman and Mathews the captain were in a zone, and what a zone it was! For a batsman batting at No. 6 to accumulate 1408 runs at an average of 88 is absolutely amazing. Most of the Tests were against the top nations, and played away. The best Mathews innings in 2014 was the magnificent 160 that helped Sri Lanka complete a rare away Test win over England. The equally good 157 against Pakistan saved Sri Lanka from certain defeat. It is also safe to say that if not for Mathews' 102, Sri Lanka would have suffered an innings defeat against England. Instead, they escaped with a draw to post a series win. The consistency of Mathews is highlighted by the fact that he had one single-digit score in 22 innings. I would not mind saying that Mathews was right up there, very close to McCullum, in the cricketer of the year stakes.

3. Rangana Herath: If there is another player who could challenge McCullum's position, it is the unassuming Herath of Sri Lanka. Despite not playing a Test in the last four months of the year, Herath captured 60 Test wickets in ten Tests: The highest, by a country mile, amongst bowlers. Sri Lanka won five Tests during the year and Herath played his part in the difficult away matches. His best effort was the 14-wicket haul in the Test against Pakistan. It was the best performance by a left-arm spinner in the last 70 years. In the previous Test, Herath captured nine wickets. All this against Pakistan, who play spin very well. There is no doubt that Herath was the bowler of the year, with the cherry on the cake being the once-in-a-lifetime T20 performance (covered later). He is the only player to feature twice in this chronicle.

4. Mitchell Johnson: There are those who walk, those who talk but not many walk the talk. Johnson was one of those who did so. After a lacklustre bowling stint in the desert against Pakistan, Johnson was not exactly setting the Gabba on fire. Everyone knows what happened. The groggy giant was woken up unwisely, and he went to town, like a juggernaut. First with the bat, then with the ball. Soon India were staring at a 0-2 deficit. But these were probably not Johnson's finest hours. Against South Africa earlier during the year, he was devastating. In every match he performed at the highest level and finished with 22 wickets in the series. Australia won a tough away series 2-1. In terms of impact Johnson was right there at the top, as proved by his impressive haul of 47 wickets in nine Tests.

5. Dale Steyn: By his own lofty standards Steyn had an average year, barring two incandescent performances. A haul of 39 wickets in nine Tests is very good but not "Steynesque". The first was when he captured nine wickets on the tough-to-bowl Galle pitch to take South Africa to an away Test and series win in Sri Lanka: a feat achieved by very few visiting teams. Most of his wickets were top-order ones. However Steyn reserved his best innings performance to the end of the year. In the Centurion Test, after a listless performance in the first innings, his second-innings spell of 6 for 34 was unforgettable. It was a truly vintage fast bowler spell, resulting in classic fast bowler dismissals. He bowled eight overs unchanged on the last day, capturing 6 for 34, destroying West Indies, who started the day at 76 for 2, for a paltry 131. This was a performance that brought memories of similar spells by Ambrose, Holding and Marshall a few decades back. When one sees a spell like this or the devastating reversing spell by Steyn late on the fourth day of the last Test, one can only wonder from where this talk of Test cricket dying emerges!

6. Nathan Lyon: Lyon's year was nothing great. He captured only 33 wickets in nine Tests. But he had one outstanding match and it was a series-changing performance. At the Adelaide Oval, where India looked like running away with a win on the last day, Lyon bowled wonderfully and despite being hit for runs often, provided Australia with a rare spin-centric match-winning performance. His seven wickets, coupled with the five he took in the first innings, were worth their weight in gold. Starting with the key wicket of M Vijay, Lyon kept on taking key wickets and did what Shane Warne failed to achieve - capture five wickets in the fourth innings at the Adelaide Oval. It is of interest that the last such spinner performance was 77 years back when Chuck Fleetwood-Smith captured six wickets.

7. Steven Smith: Mathews did it right through the year. He captained Sri Lanka and was their leading run-scorer. Smith was Australia's leading run-scorer, with 1146 runs in nine Tests and became their captain in the last two Tests. He took to captaincy like duck to water and finished the year quite successfully. He gained a win from nowhere in Brisbane and then played it safe, as warranted by the situation, pitch and series status. He was not foolhardy and now has a 2-0 win. Smith scored five hundreds, winning on four occasions and drawing the fifth. He batted beautifully with the lower order and was primarily responsible, along with Johnson, for Australia's 55% year (five wins out of nine Tests). He contributed in every Test Australia played in. If and when Michael Clarke returns, Smith's move up to No. 3 is called for. One could say that Smith just about edged David Warner out, who was only ten runs short of Smith's tally.

8. Shakib Al Hasan: After receiving a "behave or else" threat from the Bangladesh board for discipline issues, Shakib produced one of the finest all-round performances in the history of Test cricket. He scored a hundred and captured ten wickets in the match to join the pantheon of two allrounders who achieved this extraordinary feat: Ian Botham and Imran Khan. He achieved what Garry Sobers, Keith Miller, Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee could not.

9. Corey Anderson: New Year day in Queenstown. Heavy rain curtailed the match to a 21-overs-a-side affair. Martin Guptill's 1 in 7 was compensated by McCullum's 33 in 16 and New Zealand moved to 84 for 3 in eight overs when Anderson walked in. New Zealand were looking good for a total of 200. Anderson had other ideas. He smashed a 47-ball-131 and New Zealand finished at 283 for 4. The team scoring rate was nearly 14. Anderson scored at nearly three runs per ball. On the way he broke Shahid Afridi's world record of 100 in 37 balls by a single ball. There were 14 sixes in the Anderson innings. He hit a six every 3.5 balls. As far as sub-five-over spells are concerned, Ravi Rampaul's 3-0-64-0 was the most expensive in history. A day for many records. It is unfortunate that Anderson was not able to maintain even half that day's level subsequently. But on that day Anderson was king. If at all it was possible, he made a 51-ball-104 by Jesse Ryder look pedestrian.

10. Rohit Sharma: This was a peculiar innings. A sedate start, followed by good acceleration meant that Rohit Sharma reached 100 in exactly 100 balls. Everyone, including Rohit, might have been looking at a score of 175 and for the team to reach 300. What followed was carnage. Rohit threw his bat at everything and connected almost every single time, and finished with 264 off 173 balls. The story of the final 73 balls is worth mentioning: 164 runs, a strike rate of 225, 21 fours and eight sixes (132 runs in boundaries). It is very difficult to describe this innings. It was nowhere near the best ODI innings in terms of quality and context but Rohit created a 20% gap on the previous best innings and this record looks more invincible than Brian Lara's 400. Seen in the context of his inability to put bat to ball a month later in Australia, this innings seems a bit hollow. But records are records and have to be respected.

11. Stuart Binny: This match and spell by Binny were as bizarre as the previous entry. Missing the top two batsmen and led by Suresh Raina, India crumbled to 105, thanks to a magnificent spell by debutant Taskin Ahmed. Bangladesh looked like achieving a famous win. They reached 44 for 2 and the rest looked like a formality with Mushfiqur Rahim in and Shakib Al Hasan and Mahmudullah yet to bat. Common sense was needed. Unfortunately, a collective brain fade set in. No one else reached six runs. Three were dismissed for 0. The wickets: almost all to the gentle medium pace of Binny. He bowled 26 balls, conceded four runs and captured six wickets. A wicket every four balls. This was better than what Imran Khan, Waqar Younis and Gary Gilmour achieved. I still think I will wake up one day and find that this was a dream. The next match in which he bowled he had figures of 8-0-55-2. Bizarre seems too mild a word. But again, the numbers have to be respected and this was the ninth best spell in over 3500 ODIs.

12. Rangana Herath: This was a World T20 year, deservedly won by Sri Lanka, not through individual brilliance but team performances and individuals pulling together. Let us forget what happened later. That was an aberration for Sri Lankan cricket. But there was one spell that was as devastating as Anderson's, Rohit's and Binny's . Herath's spell of left-arm spin against New Zealand was something for the gods. Sri Lanka posted a low total of 119 runs and the powerful New Zealand batsmen were expected to cake-walk to the target. They reckoned without the gentle but great competitor. He finished with 5 for 3 in 3.3 overs. His initial spell was 3.0-2-2-4. Throw in a run-out and New Zealand lost five wickets in these two overs. In a ten-ball spell, Herath dismissed McCullum, Ross Taylor, James Neesham and Luke Ronchi without conceding a run. I have looked closely at the two other six-wicket hauls by Ajantha Mendis, but I would put this effort by Herath as the best T20 spell. As harakiris go, this effort by New Zealand matched that of Bangladesh a couple of months later.

13. MS Dhoni: Finally, the bombshell on the penultimate day of the year. Dhoni deciding mid-series that he was quitting Test cricket. Graeme Swann might have done it but he was not the captain. Leaving on one's own terms does not mean you quit in the middle of the series. I feel he could have announced his retirement but played at the SCG. Not for send-offs or anything like that but because it would have been the right thing to do. Having said that, I cannot but admire what Dhoni has achieved: two World Cup wins, the unflappable temperament, the way the No. 7 Indian batting position became a feared one, his Chennai double-century, one of the all-time great attacking Test innings, and the way he combined three diverse responsibilities together very effectively. India will miss Dhoni more than it seemed at that time. He could have batted at No. 6 if India adopted a five-bowler strategy. Can Wriddhiman Saha bat effectively even at No. 7?

However, there is no denying that the all-encompassing event that threw a long and wide shadow on the game was the unfortunate demise of Phillip Hughes. Amongst the many "if onlys", the immense effect this incident had on the cricketing community in general and the Australians in particular cannot be forgotten. To my dying day I will remember Clarke's utter desolation and grief, especially on the day of Hughes' funeral. It was a very touching sight to see Warner kissing the ground where Hughes fell, when he reached 63. There would have been very few dry eyes at the SCG. RIP: Phillip Hughes.

Now for the Bradman memorabilia. This is an interesting collage of two contrasting scans: depicting the fear Bradman had created in the minds of the English cricketing followers. It so happens that these are two posters from the same newspaper. The first one after Bradman scored 304 at Headingley The second after Bradman was bowled by JGW Davies of Cambridge University for 0. To view the scan, please click HERE. By the by it is worth remembering that both of Bradman's 300s were scored in drawn matches. And that 18 of the 28 triple-hundreds have been scored in drawn matches.

One final insight. In each of their four first innings, Australia scored and India conceded over 500 runs. This has happened only once before in a series of four Tests or more. During 2003-04, playing against West Indies, South Africa scored 561, 658, 532 and 604 and won the series 3-0. In 2014-15, Australia scored 517, 505, 530 and 572. Fourteen Indian bowlers conceded over 100 runs. Twelve West Indian bowlers "achieved" this in 2003-04. Australia did this in the last four Tests of a five-Test series against West Indies in 1968. Food for thought for the Indian think-tank. However, the efforts of the Indian batsmen have to be recognised. They have responded with 400-plus scores in each of these four Tests: A world record in such a Test series.