The year-end essay January 2, 2009

All hail the new boys

The rookies of the year, Pakistan's predicament, an idea that may have served its purpose, and one that has a way to go yet

Read part one of the year-end essay here

Mendis: Young and devious © AFP

Statsguru will tell you that it was the year of the bat. Twelve batsmen scored more than 1000 runs, notching up 45 centuries between them. Virender Sehwag, the second-most prolific scorer, with 1462, got his runs at a strike-rate of 85.84, faster than Sachin Tendulkar gets his runs in one-day cricket. The top scorer, Graeme Smith, got his runs at 65.81.

That these two men open the innings made a huge difference. Sehwag saved a Test in Adelaide, breathtakingly charged to a better-than-a-run-a-ball 319 in Chennai in response to a first-innings total of 540, won the Galle Test almost single-handed, set up the declaration against Australia in Mohali and made the Chennai victory possible. Three of Smith's hundreds came in the last innings of the match -- two were in successful chases and one saved a match -- and five of his six hundreds of the year were in match-winning causes. That they were the most decisive batsmen of the year brooks no argument.

The same can be said about Dale Steyn, who headed the bowling chart, with 74 wickets. He bowled with pace and control, and was quite unplayable when he got the outswinger going. Steyn more than made up for a disappointing beginning in Perth with a series-winning second-innings spell at the MCG. Unsurprisingly, among bowlers who took more than 30 wickets, he is on top in terms of strike-rate, and average too.

That was not the case with the next two on list: Mitchell Johnson and Harbhajan Singh, who took 63 wickets each but were way below on strike-rate and average. Steyn took a wicket every 36 balls, at 20, whereas Johnson took a wicket every 55 balls at 29, and Harbhajan a wicket every 67 balls at 31.60. For Johnson, apart from one spell in Perth, it was more a case of being the best bowler in a struggling bowling unit. He was strong and spirited but one-dimensional, and rarely looked a match-winner. Harbhajan helped India win a Test in Galle, but was otherwise disappointing. He continued to bowl to contain rather than to take wickets, and was unable to deliver on wearing last-day pitches at home.

Ishant and Mendis: it's not wickets alone
The sensational bowlers of the year were both rookies. Ajantha Mendis and Ishant Sharma didn't have lots of wickets to show but what an impact they made. It wasn't Mendis' fault he played only three Tests, but those three were against India, who have made meals of the best spinners. Mendis first jolted India's one-day batsmen in the Asia Cup final with 6 for 13, and arguably bowled the ball of the year to claim Rahul Dravid as his first Test victim. He would keep his hold over Dravid for the rest of the series, during which he also bamboozled VVS Laxman; claimed Gautam Gambhir, India's best batsman in the series, three times; and polished off the tail in a trice. Never have Indian batsmen been made to look so clueless against a spinner. In time, batsmen might be able to read his variations - he bowls offspin, floaters, googlies, and a flicked legcutter that has come to be described as the "carrom ball", but his real strength is accuracy. Indian batsmen claimed that they could read him, but he still finished with 26 wickets at 18.

Ishant's figures (38 wickets at 31.60 with a strike rate of 61) belie the manner in which bowled and the impact he made. That he took only one wicket in the second innings in Perth was a travesty. But not only was that one wicket the one that mattered, Ishant made Ricky Ponting the world's best batsman (certainly at that point) look like a novice for over an hour. On a slow and low pitch in Galle, he made a ball zip and curve. He remained a menace for Ponting and Australia throughout on dull pitches in the home series. In him, India have found their first genuine quick bowler.

South Africa: an end to quotas?
It was Desmond Tutu, the archbishop of Cape Town, who first used the term "Rainbow Nation" to describe post-apartheid South Africa, and South African cricket authorities have done their damnedest to get their cricket team to live up to that ideal - with mixed results. Only the naïve will argue that quotas have no place in sport: For a nation with South Africa's past, the healing power of symbolism cannot be overstated, and the system did yield, in Makhaya Nitni, the nation's first genuine black cricket hero.

South African cricket has developed enough to be able to limit affirmative action to the lower levels, which means equipping cricketers of all races with an equal opportunity to compete for a spot in the national side, and not handing out places on a platter

But in real terms, quotas should translate to equal opportunity, and South African cricket has developed enough to be able to limit affirmative action to the lower levels, which means equipping cricketers of all races with an equal opportunity to compete for a spot in the national side, and not handing out places on a platter.

International cricket is unforgiving. It has no place for the callow and the underdone, nor for self-doubt. In 2002 the South African selectors destroyed two careers by pushing Justin Ontong ahead of his friend, the more deserving Jacques Rudolph, and they did the same again in 2008 by promoting Charl Langeveldt ahead of Andre Nel. In what must count among the most significant events in South African cricket, Langveldt sent them a message by making himself unavailable. Pride is an essential part of sport, and international players must feel that they belong.

In that light, the success of Jean-Paul Duminy, a cape-coloured cricketer like Herschelle Gibbs, is heart-warming and inspirational. Duminy is nearly 25; he has done his time on A tours and on the sidelines of the national team. When a place opened up, it was his by right.

A rainbow is one of the most magnificent sights in the world, but it can't be painted. The South African selectors must now let the natural process take over.

Cricket telecasts in India: the horror, the horror
India's television-watching millions have made the Indian cricket board the game's undisputed, lone superpower, but the experience of watching Indian cricket on television has grown proportionately worse with the BCCI's revenues. Even by its own abominable standards, the coverage of cricket on Indian soil was shabbier than ever in a year in which the Indian board registered record earnings.

All the usual irritants made their presence felt - if anything, more frequently: balls went missing, commentators were cut off mid-sentence, advertising got more intrusive, and you had to endure a million commercials before you could watch the replay of a dismissal.

Indian broadcasters have often had to fork out huge sums, banking on speculative earnings down the road. Nimbus, which bid US$612 million in 2006 for four years' rights and has struggled to pay its instalments since, has been forced to squeeze every second of commercial time out of telecasts. This has meant depriving the end consumer anything beyond the actual delivery: the captain and bowler setting the field, any banter between overs, the expressions of joy and disappointment after a dismissal, and everything else that makes cricket a game beyond just bat and ball. The least the viewer can expect is for the basics to be covered in a manner that befits the world¹s richest cricket nation. Instead, the coverage remains decidedly third-world.

When Ricky Ponting edged Paul Harris onto his front pad and was caught at forward short-leg at the MCG, Channel 9 produced an instant replay that captured a close-up of the deviation. Indian viewers have long been condemned to not being able to watch a replay of a dismissal until the next batsman has played a ball or two. And then the replays are often of such poor quality that the viewer is left none the wiser in case of bat-pad catches. Mercifully, there has been no referral system on trial in India: given the quality of replays available, it would be an even greater waste of time.

NeoCricket has brought no innovations apart from new forms of advertising; no new technology -- no HotSpot, no Ultra Motion cameras. It has reneged on its commitment to broadcast 72 days of domestic cricket. The concern for the bottom line is understandable, but in which other business does the consumer get such a bad deal?

Waiting for the hammer to fall: New Zealand and India had reason to feel they got the rough end of the review stick © Getty Images

Pakistan: cut off and hung out to dry
In the Chennai Test, which England gallantly returned to play after the Mumbai terror attacks, I asked an English journalist why Western players and boards should not be accused of double standards in dealing with security situations in India and Pakistan. His reply was simple, but chilling. It took the terrorists months of preparations to do what they did in Mumbai, he reckoned, but in Pakistan there lurks the danger of someone merely driving in with a van laden with explosives at an hour's notice. It was simplistic, and perhaps exaggerated, but it's a perception the Pakistan Cricket Board can neither fight nor ignore.

Last year was tragic for Pakistan cricket. It went by without their team playing a single Test; the Champions Trophy was cancelled; and at the end of the year India, among the few teams who would otherwise have travelled to Pakistan, called off their tour. Sri Lanka will go in their place, but they will generate nowhere near the amount of money India would have.

Cricket cannot afford to let Pakistan fall off its map, or to let the PCB go bankrupt. Cricket needs variety, and at their best, Pakistani cricketers bring a vim and edge those from few other teams can match. At the moment they are running dangerously low on supply after losing a number of players to the ICL, and prolonged international isolation will only exacerbate the problem.

Part of solution must come from the PCB itself. Of course it should not give up persuading the Western countries to tour, but it should be prepared to be flexible. It should also be pragmatic and realistic enough to accept that a difference does and will exist in the way countries view the security situation in India and Pakistan.

The facilities at the Abu Dhabi cricket stadium are world-class, and Test cricket has been played in Sharjah: Pakistan must be prepared to adopt these as their home grounds. The conditions there are decidedly subcontinental, and perhaps the PCB and the ICC can persuade the local authorities to hand over the pitch preparation to Pakistan to grant them home advantage. Attendance shouldn't be a concern for Test matches, not least because Tests are often played to empty grounds in Pakistan, especially in the bigger cities. Anything is better than a drought.

The review system: work in progress
A decision will have to be taken this year on the umpire review system, which was tried with mixed results in two series in 2008. The teams that gained from it - Sri Lanka and West Indies - loved it, while India and New Zealand were understandably not so enthusiastic. The findings so far point to one thing: The system was trialled to get rid of obvious umpiring mistakes, but ended up delivering verdicts in marginal ones.

If carried forward, it could change the nature of the game profoundly. As evident from the India-Sri Lanka series, bowlers are likely to earn many more leg-before decisions. Dravid was given out sweeping Muttiah Muralitharan on a full-forward stretch, and the impact was only marginally inside the line.

But the bigger problem is that the technology is nowhere near good enough. Thin edges still cannot be picked -- the camera can lie, Snicko isn't reliable, and HotSpot isn't used. Brendon McCullum was furious that Mark Benson didn't reverse Rudi Koertzen's decision to give him out caught behind in Napier; but you couldn't blame the third umpire. While the replay didn't establish a nick, it didn't prove that McCullum didn't nick it either, so the original decision stood.

And then there is the issue of technology malfunctioning, and of human error in applying technology. Sehwag, the first man to be given out under the system in the first Test against Sri Lanka in Colombo, suffered on both counts. Koertzen, the third umpire, didn't spot an obvious deflection off the front pad onto the back one; and Virtual Eye showed the impact to be in front of middle stump, but outside the crease. Sehwag was indeed hit outside the crease - on the front pad, which was in line with leg stump. The second impact was in front of middle stump, but the back foot was within the crease.

Dhoni has shades of Sourav Ganguly's leadership qualities, and on the evidence of his few matches in charge, greater tactical nous. Most of all, he seems immune to the media

If the intention is to eliminate the kind of mistakes that nearly created a diplomatic crisis in Sydney last year, there could be a simpler, common-sense solution. Allow the third umpire to be pro-active. If he spots an obvious error, let him tell the man in the middle immediately. It might lead to batsmen who know they are not out lingering on a bit longer, but more or less everyone will accept the marginal ones, and the game will move on.

Dhoni: India's man of the hour
Midway through India's one-day series against England, a story appeared in a Bengali paper that Mahendra Singh Dhoni had threatened to quit over a difference with selectors over RP Singh being replaced by Irfan Pathan in the side. It was instantly picked up and played out ad nauseam by the electronic media. Expectedly Dhoni was asked about it at a pre-match conference. He didn't duck or obfuscate. He said it was "disgusting and disrespectful" that a matter discussed in the selection meeting should be leaked to the media.

Many Indian captains have been frustrated and embarrassed by such leaks, but Dhoni wasn't prepared to suffer in silence. He has many distinguishing qualities: the most remarkable among them are his self-assuredness and forthrightness. He finished off by saying that he was confident the issue wouldn't create a problem within the team because he enjoyed the trust of both Irfan and RP. Add to that affection and admiration.

India are lucky to have found Dhoni to take them through a crucial hour of transition. He has shades of Sourav Ganguly's leadership qualities, and on the evidence of his few matches in charge, greater tactical nous. Most of all, he seems immune to the media, which as Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble found, often poses a much greater challenge to Indian captains than opponents on the field. So far, admittedly, he is yet to taste the kind of press that drove Dravid and Kumble to distraction, and he has maintained an aloof, and in fact slightly amused, air about media criticism.

As captain he doesn't seem burdened by precedents or shackled by the fear of consequences. There is a method to his tactics, but he has allowed himself to be guided by his instincts. In some ways he is an old-school captain, not given to over-theorising or over-reliance on the laptop, and guided instead by a cricketer's reading of situations. As a result, his decision-making has come across as uncomplicated and uncluttered. He also seems to possess that intangible thing that all successful captains need: luck.

There will be days when his plans misfire and luck deserts him. That will be his true test. Last year was one in which he could do no wrong. Still, all signs suggest he will be all right.

Read part one of the year-end essay here

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo