January 1, 2018

Of Smith, Kohli, and the year cricket's future took shape

The administrative developments of 2017 hold promise for the years to come

The idea of four-day Test cricket is an ill-conceived one, and the fact that Zimbabwe lasted only two days in the first of the trial matches did the concept no favours © AFP

The year just past did more for cricket than we perhaps might grant. Some changes - like the Packer intervention 40 years ago, or the arrival of the IPL ten years ago - are more eye-popping and skin-scalding, while the effects of some can be less palpable immediately but are equally significant in the long term. Nothing felt tectonic in 2017, yet history might record it as a foundation-laying year for cricket's future.

If cricket were a person, it would feel it was waging a war against the times. By its very construct, it demands a commodity scarce in these times: attention. You can't truly enjoy a game of cricket - even T20 - without immersing yourself in the minutiae for a reasonable period of time, and Test cricket, the grandest form of the game, running over 40 hours at its fullest, stretches credence. To lose it would be a tragedy, but preserving it would take some imagination, and a dose of hard-nosed pragmatism.

Cricket hasn't always been blessed with visionary administrators, but after a period of rancour, muscle-flexing and one-upmanship, when the small world of the game seemed split irredeemably into the powerful and the helpless, a new order has emerged out of consultation and collaboration, and there is a shape and structure to the cricket calendar based on the spirit of co-existence - not only that of the member boards but also the three different forms of the game. Yes, the bigger teams will play more Test cricket among themselves and there will be a lot more two-Test series (that unfulfilling variety), but in order to stay healthy, cricket needs to find a balance between what traditional fans find worthy and what emerging fans find attractive, and the proposed international calendar, expected to be formalised in the new year, is a vitally important step in that direction.

The inescapable reality is that by itself Test cricket isn't financially viable in many countries, but even in the shortest formats, each team requires a few well-rounded cricketers, and Test cricket remains the best finishing school for producing those. Just like international cricket is based on interdependence, and so are the leagues that dip into the global talent pool, the three formats are more interdependent than it appears.

But at the same time nothing shows Test cricket in a poorer light than an unequal contest. So, while the pool has been expanded with the addition of Afghanistan and Ireland, it isn't the worst thing that there will be more Tests between evenly matched teams. The newer sides need to be nurtured and phased into the big league, and apart from meaning and context, Test cricket needs more marquee contests. Finally there will be a Test championship, and one-day cricket, which is elevated during the World Cups and meanders in between them, has been given shape and structure with the one-day league.

Administrators often, and justifiably, cop flak for getting things wrong. Let's give them a pat or two on the back for the clear-minded and sure-footed path they have set cricket on.

Are four-dayers the charm? Not likely
No questions were answered by the experimental four-day Test under lights in Port Elizabeth because Zimbabwe folded inside two days. However, the idea is hardly radical. The first four-day Test was played in 1905-06, and there were 131 of them before this latest one.

How long a Test should run seems be a perennial question. There were timeless Tests, six-day Tests and four-day Tests, till the idea of the five-day Test was firmly established in 1972-73, though a six-day Test was played as late as 2005, when the ICC experimented with the idea of pitching a Rest-of-the-World XI against Australia, the No. 1 team at that moment.

However, unlike with day-night Tests, which are clearly designed to maximise viewership and enhance the viewing experience, the idea of the four-day Test is either ill-conceived or confused. Though the purported objective is to make Test cricket more attractive to younger audiences, it is hard to fathom how that can be can be achieved by merely lopping off a day and thereby disrupting the construct and rhythm of a Test match.

Smith or Kohli: who do you pick as the batsman of the year? Brendan Thorne / © Getty Images

Tests have a peculiar appeal because of the very nature of their set-up. Many, indeed, don't last the duration, but an episodic narrative is central to the idea of Test cricket, and a key component of that idea is to allow latitude for a humongous first-innings score. The four-day format will lead to an artificial constriction of the first innings - 120 overs will become optimal - and will remove the prospect of a dogfight between bat and ball on the fifth day, when the degradation of the pitch is at its maximum.

The suggestion that the invention of the four-day Test is part of the fight against attention-deficiency is facetious. Those who consider 40 overs to be the perfect diet are unlikely to be lured into watching Test cricket if the number of overs is cut from 450 to 380. Instead, the real motivation appears to be purely commercial: it will yield savings in hosting costs and create space for more short-form cricket.

This would be acceptable if the consequences were not as deleterious. Thankfully, cricket is far from reaching a consensus on the matter.

A tale of two greedy batsman-captains
Ultimately it's the players who draw fans to the game, and above all the great performances of 2017, the year sizzled and simmered with the sound of runs from the bats of Steven Smith and Virat Kohli and the intensity of their personalities. India v Australia was easily the series of the year - each Test had its own texture, the series went to the wire in the final match, and a couple of sessions made the difference - and while Kohli won the series, Smith the won batting honours hands down. A war of words between them, ugly as it was, heightened the pitch.

Kohli and Smith have more in common than they might perhaps care to admit. It is exaggerated in Smith's case, but both move across the crease - Smith back and Kohli forward - making them, on the face of it, prime lbw candidates; both have an obscene hunger for runs; they are buoyed by leadership (look at their averages as captain); and the ferocity of their desire drives their teams.

As a batsman, Smith is a phenomenon. It's hard to think of a sportsperson whose early years betrayed so little of his impending greatness. It is staggering now to think that it was the promise of his legspin that earned him his first Test cap. From there to have fashioned and trusted in a method that has yielded a Test average of 63 and rising, and which makes him a batsman against whom bowlers can only rely on hope, is something to be marvelled at: attempting to make sense of it will be futile. Last year alone, he made two Test-defining hundreds - on a mud-pit in Pune and on a testing pitch in Brisbane - and sealed the Ashes with a double. Technical purity was the cornerstone of Sachin Tendulkar's greatness; Smith has created his own state of grace.

Kohli is yet to achieve the same command in Test cricket, but given how preeminent he is in the shorter formats, his all-round skills make him Smith's equal. No one in the history of the game has chased better, and it was unthinkable even in the age of Tendulkar that a batsman could average over 50 in all formats over a period of time. Watching Kohli lead or field, it would be natural to worry if his fire will burn him, but then you watch him bat or marshal a chase and you see a man who has found a way to balance his emotions.

Midway through their careers, these two have pulled away, in terms of numbers at least, from the competition -- Joe Root had a middling Ashes and Kane Williamson simply doesn't get enough opportunities - and if they can keep the hunger intact for a few more years, lots of batting records will be under threat.

Home and away: it's the same old story
Australia won the Ashes back conclusively under Smith, and Kohli's India equalled Australia's record from the last decade of winning nine consecutive Test series. But they merely confirmed a trend of the last ten years or so: the good teams are near-invincible at home but rarely beat the other good teams away. The last time an Ashes was won away was in 2010-11, when Andrew Strauss' England won in Australia. Australia haven't won in England since 2001.

Six of India's series wins in their current streak have been at home, and they have beaten only Sri Lanka and West Indies* away. It compares not unfavourably to Australia's streak between late 2005 and mid 2008, which too contained six home wins (including the one-off Super Test). If anything, India have been more dominant at home, recording six innings wins and eight wins by over 200 runs compared to three innings wins and five by over 200 runs by Australia.

The jury is no longer out on whether women's cricket is a draw or not Firdose Moonda / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The only difference - and a big one - was that Australia beat South Africa away. The new year presents India with the perfect opportunity: if they can keep their streak intact in South Africa, not only would they establish a new world record but also add a layer of authenticity to their status as the No. 1 Test team in the world.

Ladies front and centre
In all my years in this job, rarely have I rooted for an Indian cricket team as much, and been as gutted by their loss, as I was in the final of the Women's World Cup. It wasn't because of a sudden gush of nationalism but rather because, like many others, I was alive to the potential impact on the women's game. In many ways, it had already been a breakthrough year for women's cricket, and Harmanpreet Kaur's six-laden cracker of a hundred in the semi-final had already ensured that the final would be most watched women's match ever. But what possibilities lay ahead.

What if Mithali Raj hadn't run herself out after playing herself in? What if Harmanpreet hadn't found the fielder on the backward square boundary? What if Veda Krisnamurthy had held her nerve? What if Shikha Pandey had not run for that non-existent single? As things stand, the Indian women's team returned home heroes as losing finalists, but a win for them, like those of the men's team in the 1983 World Cup and 2007 World T20, could have been transformative for the women's game on the global stage.

With the right stage, proper marketing and getting the game on TV - nothing is more critical - it can create its own niche. There is now more power and sharpness to the women's game, and exposure and practice will only bring more match-savvy.

But they need more game time. The Women's Big Bash League has already created a template, and surely there is a space for another league if not more. And what about a fund for women's cricket, like the ICC's Test match fund? That will be an investment in the game's future.

The hills are alive with the sound of T20 leagues
It seems like yesterday that Brendon McCullum blaze-started the IPL at the Chinnaswamy stadium, but the tournament completed ten rambunctious years in 2017 and now begins a new chapter. It has been admired and reviled in equal measure, has seen as many lows as it has highs, but undoubtedly it has redefined the way the game is played, watched and run. And most importantly, scandal and controversy haven't dimmed the fans' enthusiasm for it; in fact in a perverse way, they seemed to have kept the tournament in public consciousness in the off seasons.

This year will bring a fresh player auction and life-changing moments for some players; a new broadcaster; perhaps a few new playing conditions; and there will soon be a de facto window has been created for the tournament in the international cricket calendar. But the IPL's most profound impact has been in what has spawned. The Big Bash is now sometimes the main course during the Australian summer; the Bangladesh Premier League seems to have recovered from its early troubles; the Pakistan Super League is establishing itself; England is looking to add oomph it to its own T20 league; and Cricket South Africa will no doubt get its act right and the T20 Global League will be launched.

In asking the question sometimes if the game is better off for it, we perhaps miss the bigger point. The ultimate object of sport to provide cheer and gratification to the fans through athletic excellence. T20 is far less memorable than Test cricket, but it's a game in sync with the times.

Exit Misbah, Younis
It would be facile to say how much Pakistan are missing Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan: experience gained over 193 Tests and more than 15,000 Tests runs is not replaced easily, particularly in a country known for its bowling riches. Pakistan made the point about the end of an era emphatically by promptly surrendering their fortress in the middle east to Sri Lanka, who were fresh from a 0-3 drubbing at home by India.

But the Misbah-and-Younis era was always about a lot more than the runs. It was more profound: it was about a certain manner, a way of being. It wasn't that Pakistan didn't produce bursts of sudden brilliance or combust abruptly under their watch, but that wasn't their only way; for long stretches, they found a tempo and a method to suit their resources. From the murky waters of spot-fixing, which cost Pakistan their captain and their main pace weapon, Misbah, with Younis by his side as leading batsman and senior statesman, guided the team to a place where it was okay to be dull and dogged. That they kept the team together and largely taint-free was by itself a rousing achievement; that Misbah went on to become Pakistan's most successful Test captain and took the team to the top of the ICC table was nothing short of a miracle.

…And it's goodbye from them © AFP

Pakistan weren't sexy and mercurial under Misbah, but they weren't profligate either. And they didn't underachieve, which is not a thing that can't be said about all Pakistani teams. Who knows, he might even make a better prime minister than Imran Khan.

Afghanistan: the romance lives on
Not a year passes by when Afghanistan don't pull a surprise. For the last five years, they have been the most romantic story in cricket, and their development as a cricket nation has kept with the optimism around them. Rashid Khan is now among the most sought-after bowlers on the T20 circuit, and Mohammad Nabi isn't far behind.

There is an element of being at the right place at the right time about them being granted Test status - their rise has coincided with a genuine desire at the ICC to expand the pool - but no one can argue it hasn't been well earned. Their elevation is a triumph of passion and of the pursuit of a dream, and they have enriched cricket as much the game has lifted them.

But in many ways, the hardest task for them - and for Ireland, who have been rewarded for their perseverance and patience - lies ahead. The shorter formats shrink the gap between the mighty and their challengers, but Test cricket presents a harsher scrutiny of skills and character. It has taken Bangladesh more than 15 years to become competitive at home, and in the contemporary landscape, where audience interest and commercial value will play a bigger role than ever, there will be less room for indulgence.

Goodwill apart, the thing going for Afghanistan is that bowling is their stronger suit. They have tall and strong fast bowlers and crafty spinners who can be expected to keep their batsmen in the game by not conceding huge first-innings totals.

No one expects them to start beating bigger teams in the next years, but their Test debut against India will be among the most anticipated events of 2018.

The man of the year
There was Shashank Manohar, who in the previous year presided over the dismantling of the Big Three structure, which had centralised power in the hands of the Indian, English and Australian cricket boards, and used his diplomatic skills and trust and goodwill from most cricket boards to facilitate the relatively smooth finalisation of the new, balanced cricket calendar.

There was also Rashid Khan, a cricketer from the margins, who fizzed around the world T20 scene with his delicious mixed wares of legbreaks and topspinners.

But it was hard to look beyond Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, who between them scored 4572 international runs with 18 hundreds in 2017 and led young teams with passion and fire. Kohli played more and scored more hundreds but Smith shades it for me for scoring them in tougher conditions and when they mattered the most. Without him Australia would have been blanked out in India, and the Ashes might still be alive. He will be the biggest project for bowling coaches around the world next year.

*Jan 2, 8:58 GMT: India won away series in Sri Lanka and West Indies, not Bangladesh, as was mentioned

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