January 2, 2017

Margins, morality, and the many collapses of 2016

A look at the top cricket trends of the year: slippery Test batting, Bangladesh's assertiveness, umpire calls, ball-tampering, and a captain called Kohli

Australia featured in seven Test innings collapses this year, four of them on the tour of Sri Lanka © AFP

It was appropriate that the last day of Test cricket in 2016 should have featured a collapse. It was hardly the worst of the year, but certainly the most dramatic in the context of the Test, in which Pakistan's first innings lasted till lunch on the third day (since over a day's play was washed out) before they declared at 443. To lose from there required a special effort, but in keeping with the theme of the year, Pakistan obliged, losing nine wickets in three hours, in the process outdoing England's efforts in losing ten in the last two sessions to be defeated by an innings in a Test in which they had scored 477 in the first innings. But that one lasted the full five days, and it was only ten days past.

If cricket in 2016 were to be set to a symphony, it could well have been called Collapso. For over 140 years, there were only four instances of a team losing by an innings after scoring 400-plus in the first innings; there were three more in the last two months.

From Galle to Gros Islet, from Dhaka to Christchurch. From Hamilton to Kolkata to Johannesburg, teams collapsed as if to show solidarity and empathy with each other. By our count, there were 29 collapses in the 47 Tests in the year; Australia led the field with seven, and England kept pace with five.

Team-wise collapses in 2016
Team Against Venue Innings From To Collapse
Australia Sri Lanka Pallekele 4 139 for 4 161 22 for 6
Australia South Africa Hobart 3 129 for 2 161 32 for 8
Australia Sri Lanka Galle 2 54 for 1 106 52 for 9
Australia Sri Lanka Colombo (SSC) 2 267 for 1 379 112 for 9
Australia Sri Lanka Colombo (SSC) 4 77 for 0 160 83 for 10
Australia South Africa Perth 2 158 for 0 244 86 for 10
Australia South Africa Hobart 1 2 for 0 85 83 for 10
Bangladesh England Chittagong 2 221 for 4 248 27 for 6
Bangladesh England Mirpur 1 171 for 1 220 49 for 9
England South Africa Centurion 4 58 for 3 101 43 for 7
England India Mumbai 3 141 for 3 195 54 for 7
England Bangladesh Mirpur 4 100 for 0 164 64 for 10
England India Visakhapatnam 4 75 for 0 158 83 for 10
England India Chennai 3 103 for 0 207 104 for 10
New Zealand India Indore 4 102 for 3 153 51 for 7
New Zealand India Kolkata 4 104 for 1 197 93 for 9
New Zealand India Kanpur 2 159 for 1 262 103 for 9
Pakistan West Indies Dubai 3 77 for 2 123 46 for 8
Pakistan New Zealand Christchurch 1 53 for 1 133 80 for 9
Pakistan New Zealand Hamilton 4 131 for 0 230 99 for 10
South Africa Australia Adelaide 3 131 for 2 250 119 for 8
South Africa England Johannesburg 3 23 for 0 83 60 for 10
Sri Lanka England Leeds 2 43 for 3 91 48 for 7
Sri Lanka Australia Pallekele 1 43 for 3 117 74 for 7
Sri Lanka England Leeds 3 79 for 2 119 40 for 8
Sri Lanka England Chester-le-Street 2 44 for 1 101 57 for 9
West Indies India Gros Islet 2 202 for 3 225 23 for 7
West Indies India Gros Islet 4 64 for 3 108 44 for 7
Zimbabwe New Zealand Bulawayo 4 45 for 0 132 87 for 10

Collapses are not unusual in cricket, and perhaps it was just freakish that there were so many in one year. Or maybe it was the acceleration of an evolution. The pace of the game has quickened: batsmen score faster, creating more time for results, which is a good thing. In general, pitches have become flatter, bats better, and consequently, strokemaking easier. Conversely, defensive skills and the mental discipline needed to bat out tough periods in challenging conditions have deteriorated. Notably, many collapses in 2016 featured ambitious shots when old-fashioned grinding would have done the job. Batting for a draw is an increasingly endangered skill.

That Test cricket has been more result-oriented - there were only seven draws in 2016 - is highly welcome progress from the soporific '80s, when draws accounted for over 40% of all Test results; but Test wickets, and Test wins, shouldn't come cheap.

The battle for No. 1: home-cooked
When you have to refer to a ranking system to figure out which is the best Test team in the world, it's a sign. For nearly 30 years from the mid-'70s, no one needed to look at a chart. The West Indians ruled for nearly two decades before ceding ground to Australia and then combusting. The matter of who is on top has been fuzzy ever since Australia fell off the perch.

Last year began with South Africa on top; they were soon replaced by Australia, who were then toppled by India, who then passed on the mantle to Pakistan before wresting it back and keeping it for the rest of the year.

In theory, a level playing field should mean competitive cricket. Against the dominant West Indian team, the margin of victory was often the only curiosity, and except when playing in India, Australia found charity in their hearts only in dead rubbers. Otherwise, cricket lovers had to satisfy themselves only with awe, not a contest.

No other team has been able to match their excellence - as Ian Chappell would say, no one caught up with Australia, Australia have joined the ranks of the rest - but home invincibility is the new predictable. India haven't lost a series, or a Test, at home since late in 2012; Pakistan haven't lost a series in their adopted home for seven years; England have lost only one series at home since mid-2012, and Australia have only lost to South Africa (twice). Only South Africa among the top five have lost to two different teams at home, Australia and England, in the last four years.

Among the teams that have held the No. 1 spot in recent years, only South Africa have consistently maintained a positive away record (it was 9-8 in 2016), but they have lost more at home than any other top team; India are yet to win a series in Australia and South Africa, ever; Australia's recent record in the subcontinent is 0-9; Pakistan have now lost 11 successive Tests in Australia and have never won a series in South Africa.

India's claim to be the best team of 2016 is legitimate, for they have only lost one Test out of 21 in the last two years, and have been unbeaten in a series in this period, both home and away. But of course they haven't played the other top teams - Australia, England, South Africa and Pakistan - away from home, and ten of their 14 wins have come at home. Virat Kohli is an ambitious man: he will know what his team needs to do to be considered great.

Traditionally, good teams and good players have been good, or at least competitive, in all formats. West Indies are now forcing a rethink. They continue to rot in the bottom half of the Test rankings, but they are redefining the contours of T20 cricket

Bangladesh: tigers with real teeth
Greatness is a lofty ambition for Bangladesh, but 2016 will be a signal year for the world's youngest Test nation. Not merely because they won a Test against a top Test team for the first time but also because losing valiantly was no longer enough.

In another time, coming close to beating a leading Test nation would have been considered both a heartbreak and a victory of sorts for Bangladesh. And the effort would perhaps have exhausted them for the next battle. But neither happened after they fell 23 runs short of beating England in the first Test of the series, in Chittagong.

It was hailed in some quarters as a victory, for it was the first time Bangladesh had claimed 20 wickets in a Test against a major team, but Tamim Iqbal, their senior batsman, changed the narrative . "We shouldn't be happy with so little," he said. "It was a good Test match, but we lost in the end. Five years from now, it will read that we lost the game."

Tamim led the way in Dhaka with a first-innings hundred and second-innings 40, as Bangladesh, rather than being crushed by the near-miss, overturned a first-innings deficit to win the Test crushingly.

They have made rapid strides in the shorter versions of the game in recent years, but Test cricket subjects its practitioners to the sternest of examinations, and it is unforgiving to weaknesses both of skill and character. Rarely is a Test victory achieved by fluke, and by staying the distance with England for nine days, Bangladesh proved something to the people who really matter: themselves. This is no false dawn; more wins will follow.

West Indies: the T20 beat
Traditionally, good teams and good players have been good, or at least competitive, in all formats. West Indies are now forcing a rethink. There were encouraging signs for them in Test cricket in 2016 - they batted over 100 overs in the third innings to save a Test against India, won a Test against Pakistan in the UAE, and in Kraigg Brathwaite, they have found a Test opener in the classical mould. But they continue to rot in the bottom half of the Test rankings. Meanwhile, they are redefining the contours of T20 cricket.

In India last March, they became the first team to win the World T20 for the second time, and they did so with loose-limbed, free-spirited power-hitting that put no premium on wickets. In the semi-final against India, they chased down 193 with 20 fours and 11 sixes, 31 scoring shots fetching over 75% of the runs required.

With 19 needed in the last over to win the final, in Kolkata, Carlos Brathwaite, their hulking No. 8, who is the antithesis of his namesake in the Test team, hauled his side over the line by carting Ben Stokes for four successive sixes with a coolness that said to the world: why are you surprised?

Why should we be, indeed? The reasons for West Indies' decline are manifold, but the lure of T20 leagues and disillusionment with continued maladministration has turned a bunch of naturally gifted strokemakers into a merry band of global T20 mercenaries, and in a twisted way, it has helped build the most dangerous hitting machine in a form of the game that rewards power, athleticism and instinct over rigour, patience and innings-building. For cricket's emerging audiences, they are the new poster boys. To grudge them their place would be regressively wistful.

The BCCI v the judiciary: a risky game
In 2016 year we witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the BCCI engaging in open warfare with the judiciary over - true to its name - control of Indian cricket, and it at the time of publication of this piece, it has led to the dismissal of the president and the secretary of the board and more heads were expected to the roll.

The facts of the case are too well known to bear repetition. It was the intransigence of the former BCCI president N Srinivasan, who was allowed to own an IPL team through an amendment to the BCCI constitution, that started this crisis. Now a collective unwillingness from the BCCI's satraps to cede power has created an air of civil disobedience. When it came to light that Srinivasan's son-in-law, who for all purposes ran Chennai Super Kings, the IPL franchise owned by Srinivasan's company, had been betting on IPL matches, Srinivasan did not take decisive action against the franchise nor accept the suggestion that he should step down as president of the board while his son-in-law and the team were investigated. He eventually did so at the behest of the judiciary, which also suspended his franchise, but by then the Supreme Court was well on its way to ordering a comprehensive overhaul of the BCCI.

Bangladesh showed that they were up for the unique challenges that Test cricket presents to its practitioners © Getty Images

It is possible to feel a degree of sympathy for the current office-bearers of the BCCI in light of the recommendations of the Lodha committee, which was mandated by the Supreme Court to put together administrative and governance reforms for the BCCI. The current administrators inherited a mess, and they did initiate a number of measures towards transparency and accountability. These included clear guidelines on conflict of interest, publishing details of the board's expenditure on its website, the appointment of an ombudsman and a CEO, and a perceptible openness in media interactions.

Also, the BCCI is by a significant distance the best-run sports body in India. It has been known to flex its muscle, often self-servingly in matters of global governance of cricket, but given the scale of the game in the country, from age groups to the state level, cricket is remarkably well run in India, despite an amateur administrative structure that is underpinned by politicking.

Of course it falls well short of the ideal standards of sports governance, and the Lodha committee, which spent a considerable amount of time and effort in accepting and studying suggestions from a diverse group of people, including cricket administrators, in recognising that this is an one-time opportunity, has gone deep and wide in wielding the broom.

It can be argued that a couple of recommendations were idealistic - the Supreme Court struck down the suggestion that advertisements on cricket broadcasts on TV could only be aired during lunch and tea breaks - or naïve, like the suggestion that representatives of the franchises should be part of the IPL's governing council. It can also be argued that a three-member national selection committee, instead of five, isn't ideal for a country of India's size, and possibly also that the one-state-one-vote policy isn't all that critical to better governance. Cricket is, after all, rooted in tradition, and Mumbai and Baroda have played historical roles in shaping cricket in the country; empowering smaller states need not come at the cost of disenfranchising established larger associations.

However, the BCCI, instead of trying to engage with the Lodha committee, chose a path of confrontation at the very beginning. They avoided meeting them, openly defied some of the recommendations, appointed a former Supreme Court judge with a known antipathy towards Justice Lodha as the board's counsel, filed a review petition when the Supreme Court made the Lodha recommendations mandatory, and finally, simply refused to implement some of them, citing the BCCI constitution and saying that the changes required to be approved by the general body comprising the state associations.

Kohli represents India's zeitgeist: insouciant, abrasive, driven, ambitious and self-aware, he is responsible for the aura of positivity around the Indian dressing room, for the energy and intent, and most of all, the commitment to winning

In the end, the biggest issue is about holding on to power. The most significant recommendation lays down guidelines for who can be an office-bearer, and if adopted, a large majority of current office-bearers at the state level will have to go, and the senior functionaries of the BCCI, including the president and the secretary, will have to vacate their positions when their current terms are up.

It's not a surprise that when asked to vote, the bosses of the associations, - some of whom have run these organisations as their personal fiefdoms - have chosen their own survival. But in doing so, they have brought themselves into an unprecedented and dangerous confrontation with the highest court of the land.

DRS: Who's the margin for?
Cricket's justice system became uniform when the BCCI finally submitted itself to the Decision Review System. I have not been the most enthusiastic endorser of the system as it stands - I still have problems with the predictive element, and I have an issue with players using it as a tool to gamble - but to have two sets of playing regulations should have been unacceptable from the beginning.

The BCCI's apprehensions about the predictive technology haven't disappeared, but apparently the technology has improved, and Anil Kumble's endorsement after he visited MIT's labs to understand the system played a role in India softening its position. Still, there are still multiple technologies in operation, there is still manual intervention, and lab and match conditions are not identical. Every once in while there will be a DRS-assisted lbw decision - like the one that Kagiso Rabada won against Mitchell Marsh in Perth - that will stink and confound, but the clock is unlikely to be wound back, so let us focus on a couple of other aspects that continue to grate.

The idea of umpire's call was built into the system to guard against the margins of error in the ball-tracking technology. The benefit of doubt in this case belonged to the umpire, which in a sense overturned the age-old tradition of granting it to the batsman. In simple terms it meant - assuming that the technology was spot-on - identical instances could produce different outcomes, depending on the umpire's original decision. Recently the margin for the umpire's call was reduced to grant more of an advantage to bowlers. What about following through on that, instituting a benefit of doubt for the batsman (the area that currently constitutes the umpire's margin) and removing the umpire's call altogether?

Why was the umpire's call granted when it came to where the ball pitched and where it hit in the first place? Assuming that the pitch mat can be trusted, there is no guesswork involved once the picture is produced. If sound and thermal imaging can be taken as conclusive evidence, why not the recreated image establishing the landing and impact of the ball? Not only is the aggrieved denied justice in such cases, but worse, they are made to lose a review. Must the game legislate to protect umpires, or to create uniformity in decision-making?

What if the margin of an lbw decision that makes up an umpire's call was instead changed to a benefit of doubt for the batsman? © Getty Images

Ball tampering: take morality out of it
South Africa were left bristling when Faf du Plessis, their captain and the keeper of the ball, was found guilty of ball-tampering during the tour of Australia. It was the second time du Plessis had been charged with such an offence, and both times the evidence had been supplied by the broadcaster. The team, and its fans, were incensed that the controversy took some sheen off their away series win, and the home fans and a section of the local media certainly contributed to them feeling that way, but their anger was misplaced: once presented with the evidence - it was clear that du Plessis had a mint in his mouth while using saliva to shine the ball - there was little else the ICC could do apart from charging him. Given that it was his second offence, it could be argued that du Plessis was fortunate to escape a ban.

Arguments emerged, inevitably, once again about changing the ball-tampering law to allow the application of external substances, or to allow alteration of the ball with fingernails. It's hard to argue with the notion that the game will be anything but enhanced by the ball swinging more, but any deviation from the current position on artificially altering the condition of the ball will only add to complications. What kind of substances ought to be permitted? What prevents someone from manufacturing chemicals specially design to alter the ball? Or to harden the fingernails?

Ever since the causes of reverse swing came to be known, cricketers have tried to "manage" the ball in whichever way they can, and not all of them have been legal. The use of sweat and saliva has always been acceptable, but the envelope has always been pushed with mints and other edibles. It was no surprise that Australian cricketers were among the ones least exercised about du Plessis' transgression. It can be safely assumed that the South African cricketers and fans would have been far less indignant about the charge laid against their captain had it not carried the implication that he had cheated. Before trying anything more drastic, it's the moral code that cricket needs to change. I doubt Inzamam-ul-Haq would have risked forfeiting a Test in 2006 had the charge of ball-tampering not seemed like dishonour.

Cricketers try to take or create advantage in several other ways. They run on the pitch, slow the game down deliberately, appeal for non-existent edges or for catches that haven't carried, abuse each other, and occasionally even get physical. Sometimes they are fined, and occasionally even banned. In most cases they cop their punishment and move on. There is no reason to treat a bit of mint mischief otherwise. Take the business of morality out of it.

By staying the distance with England for nine days, Bangladesh proved something to the people who really matter: themselves. This is no false dawn; more wins will follow

The player of the year
A ball after Kohli had gone deep into the crease to wristily whip Adil Rashid between two men guarding against that very stroke on the leg-side boundary, he responded to Rashid's shifting of the line of attack to off stump with a leave that carried nearly as much intensity. The front foot pressed fully forward, the eyes zeroed in on the ball, the bat swivelled upwards with a flourish before he held it over his head, and he stayed in his pose. Of all his strokes from that series-sealing double-hundred on a turning Wankhede pitch, this is the image that has stayed with me. Even while letting a ball go, Kohli was making a statement.

There are no half-measures with him. He doesn't so much chase the ball as hunt it down in the field; when he takes a catch, he pretty much owns the wicket in that moment. You fear for the well-being of Cheteshwar Pujara's knees whenever Kohli is his running partner, which is often. Watch him twirl his bat before he takes guard for each ball: it's as if he is channelling all his energies inwards before assuming the composure required for the business of batting.

No one scored more international runs in 2016. Kohli got them in some style, and nearly every time his team needed them. He hauled India to the World T20 semi-final*, where India's bowlers were unable to defend the 192 he helped set; his ODI form remained imperious, but for sumptuousness it was hard to look beyond his Test runs. He scored them to set up Tests, to put sizeable first-innings targets to shame, to take the match away on tricky third-innings pitches, and to save a Test. And he scored them in some style.

However, it is as the leader of a young Indian Test team that Kohli made his greatest impact. His field placements - too few catching men, too many at the boundary too soon - are often at odds with his body language, and he remains a touch too excitable in calling for reviews (if for nothing else, a cool head is needed for DRS decisions), but Kohli has the personality that leadership demands. He represents India's zeitgeist: insouciant, abrasive, driven, ambitious and self-aware, he is responsible for the aura of positivity around the Indian dressing room, for the energy and intent, and most of all, the commitment to winning.

His captaincy, and batting, will be tested in tougher conditions, but this much can be said already: Kohli's team will not be diffident travellers. When it came to naming cricket's man of the year in 2016, there was not too much of a contest.

*January 2, 8.40GMT: It was incorrectly stated that Kohli hauled India to the World T20 final instead of the semi-final. This has been corrected

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