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Cricket is almost unique amongst team sports where the focus is as much on the individual as on the team. Whether it's the inordinate focus on stats and records or the fact that the game is ultimately an individual contest between a bowler and a batsman, cricket's very different from football, hockey, rugby and most other team games in that respect. And that almost automatically means that all fans of the sport have their favourite players that they look forward to watching and following more than some others. These affinities are formed for reasons that are mostly hard to explain, especially when it comes to players who are new and just making their way in the game. And it's greatly rewarding as a follower of the game when these newbies start to convert their promise into performance. I'm no different from most fans in this respect and the 2013/14 season (so far) has been brilliant as three young batsmen I've keenly followed for the last two or three years appear to have finally established themselves as definite stars of the future.
Kane Williamson is the youngest of the three but in my view he'll likely end up the best. The first time I watched him bat was on his Test debut in Ahmedabad. Walking out with the Kiwis in a soup, he batted as though he'd been facing spinners of the calibre of Harbhajan Singh all his life and walked off almost 100 overs later having taken his team to safety with a fine 131. A move up the order followed shortly and brought some struggles with it but his next two hundreds were excellent efforts, the first earning New Zealand a draw against Steyn, Philander, Morkel and de Lange, and the second setting up a rare away victory in Sri Lanka. But it's in this season that he's really come into his own and made the No. 3 spot his own, with an average of nearly 58. If he manages to stay over 50 through his career he'll comfortably end up amongst the all-time best Kiwi batsmen. What's been equally impressive (and more unexpected) is how he's gone about adapting his game to the one-day format and after a slowish start against the West Indies, reeling off five successive fifties against India. The fact that his technique and shot-making is so pleasing is a bonus.
Pleasing would not be high on the list of words used to describe Steve Smith's technique but ever since his comeback in India early in 2013, he's shown that a strong temperament and awareness of one's own game can take a batsman much further than just pristine technique. He's scored four hundreds in his last seven matches and each time he has arrived at the crease with Australia three or four wickets down and less than 150 on the board (less than 100 in two instances). Not a bad turnaround for a man who was first picked as a spinning prospect. Smith's confidence is now apparent when he strides to the crease and there is something about him that suggests he could be captaincy material in the future. His ODI and T20 records don't make for great reading at the moment but expect him to turn those around too sooner than later.
In terms of international experience, Ajinkya Rahane is a fledgling when compared to Williamson and Smith despite being a couple of years older. He did make his first-class debut earlier than the other two and its baffling it took the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar for someone who averages 60+ in first class cricket over more than 60 games to finally get a proper chance. Having been a keen follower of the Mumbai lad for a while, it has been very rewarding to see him grab his chances in South Africa and New Zealand. He might have come late to the party but I have no doubt that he'll join the ranks of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara pretty soon to form the backbone of India's Test batting line-up ahead of his fellow Mumbaikar, Rohit Sharma. It would also be good to see him get a longer run in ODIs, especially given the importance of solid back-foot players during the World Cup in Australia.
The next three names in this piece are players I have never taken much of a fancy to and had more or less written off. But they've bounced back in supreme style and silenced me, despite all being in the latter stages of their careers.
After 'homework gate' and his limp performance in the last Test against India in the 0-4 defeat early last year, if anyone had told me that Mitchell Johnson would claim 49 wickets in his next six Tests (average 13, strike-rate 30) I would have laughed it off. As it stands, Johnson has England and is now threatening to do the same to South Africa, and that too on their home turf. He's finally begun to demonstrate what Dennis Lillee meant when he called him a once-in-a-lifetime bowler. Like his mentor though, his record in Asia is staggeringly poor and (unlike Lillee) it's not so hot in England and the West Indies either. Will he go on to plug these holes in his record?
Brad Haddin is the second Aussie in the midst of a golden comeback and arguably was as influential as Johnson in giving Australia the Ashes. After Matthew Wade's second-Test hundred, Haddin was perhaps lucky to get back into the Australian side, but he's repaid the men who backed him alright. Consistency behind the stumps, nearly 700 runs (with at least four match-turning knocks) and invaluable on-field support make him my MVP for Australia at the moment. At 36, he probably won't be around for long, and like Johnson his record away from the Antipodes is quite poor. But no one can take away from the stellar season he's having now.
Your team is 200 runs behind in the second innings with just seven wickets (and over half the match) remaining. To walk in into this situation, and to respond with the first-triple hundred in your country's history, thereby earning an improbable draw and in the process a series win is a staggering feat. To do so as captain while fighting your naturally attacking instincts (and a dodgy back) is nothing short of awe-inspiring. For a long time, I didn't rate Brendon McCullum as a Test cricketer given his tendency to throw his wicket away so often. In the last two years though, he's really started to show a different level of hunger.
So there you have it. Six men that have made my cricket watching this season a great joy. Here's to finding six every season!
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