I am glad to be back "home", writing for my favourite readers on the premier cricketing portal. The sabbatical of six months, this time not of my own choosing, was spent fruitfully, writing for The Cricket Monthly and the long-standing print-cum-web magazine Sportstar. But there is no doubt that this is my home and it's nice to be back.
How do I return? With a bang, with what I have been promising the readers for many years, or quietly, getting my footwork, or in this case, handwork, settled? What settled the issue for me was the fact that the comments process on ESPNcricinfo is now handled through Facebook and I have no editing authority. Even my responses have to be through "Replies" on Facebook. Since I am not sure how this is going to work out, I decided to take the quieter way in, doing couple of low-profile pieces before switching to something that might draw heavy reader interaction.
For my first piece, I have chosen a favourite topic: an analysis-based review of the past year. I have combined an analysis-based shortlist and a final selection based on my perusal of the performances, looking into non-scorecard aspects as well. This is the correct way of identifying the really impactful performances. Later this year, I will come out with a comprehensive update of my individual Performance Rating tables and this article is a nice way to ease into that minefield.
I won't spend any time describing the current, much-revised, far-improved, Performance Ratings methodology. That is for later articles. Here I will only refer to the ratings points to help me identify the top three performances, so please do not raise queries relating to the basis of ratings work. Please be patient and wait a couple of months.
This article will not show tables of 2017 runs/wickets and proclaim Smith or Kohli or Lyon or Jadeja as the batsman/bowler of the year. There are enough excellent cricket writers who can do that very well. I will concentrate on performances that moved the world.
1. Test Batting - Innings
The top three innings of the year are listed below.
Chase came in at 37 for 3 and his innings helped West Indies recover from 107 for 5 to 312, and finally get a surprise win through a Shannon Gabriel blitz. Karunaratne's 196 was the anchor on which Sri Lanka's huge first-innings total of 482 in Dubai was founded. The buffer built in the first innings helped them to take in their stride a sub-100 second-innings score and defeat Pakistan to win the series, wholly unexpectedly, 2-0. In Pune, O'Keefe's once-in-a-lifetime bowling helped Australia secure a 150-plus lead.
However, the second innings was on a minefield and Smith's classic 109 helped them set India a huge target and a massive win. I might have gone for Smith's innings if it had helped them win the tough away series against India. They frittered away their advantages and lost 1-2. Sri Lanka were already sitting on a 1-0 lead and Karunaratne's innings, without doubting its magnificence, came when the team was comfortably placed through his long epic.
Hence, Karunaratne and Smith lose out narrowly to Chase's epochal innings. The state of the innings when Chase came in, keeping in mind the growing deterioration of the innings and the late wicket partnerships (all key Ratings measures), convince me that Chase's 131 was the best innings of 2017. Everything was right for this innings.
2. Special mention of a defensive classic
Thirty-five for 4, six hours to go, the Indian spinners on the rampage, delivering 20 overs per hour: The expectation was 120 all out at around mid-afternoon. What happened was a fightback that would warm the hearts of all cricket fans, irrespective of who they support. Dhananjaya de Silva orchestrated the save with a wonderful undefeated innings, with significant help from Roshan Silva. Dhananjaya's match-saving classic of 119 is specially recognised as the brave heart innings of 2017.
Anticipating pointed queries, let me say that both Smith and Kohli had a stellar year. However, many of these runs were scored in home conditions and not all attacks were world-class. The one innings of exception has found its way into consideration. It is very obvious that these two world-class leaders and outstanding batsmen will lay claim to being the best Test batsmen of 2017, but it is not a given that they also played the outstanding innings of the year.
There is no denying that this year offered rays of sunshine to West Indian supporters. They had three wins, two of these were against the top sides. The Headingley win against England was one of the most unexpected and well-deserved wins any lower-ranking side has had across the years. Their recovery from 35 for 3 in the first innings was due to centuries from Brathwaite and Hope. Then when they were set a tough target of over 300, Brathwaite scored 95 and Hope carried them home with an unbeaten 118. It is no wonder that both batsmen find themselves in the top two positions of match contributions in 2017. Amla is way behind with his cultured big fifties in South Africa's comfortable win over England at Trent Bridge.
However, there is no contest. Hope's two hundreds make the best match batting performance of 2017. In fact this outstanding performance finds a place in the top ten of the all-time match performance table.
Herath, as he did in Galle two years ago, produced an astonishing virtuoso performance and helped Sri Lanka defend the small target with 20 runs to spare. It is not surprising that this performance sits at the top of the table.
O'Keefe, who has not done anything of note either before or after, moved the Sahyadri mountains during those three days in Pune. He had identical figures of 6 for 35 and helped dismiss the strong Indian team for 105 and 107. It is again to be expected that these two almost identical performances are in the next two positions in the table.
The selection is tough. Do I pick either of the two O'Keefe gems or the masterclass of the wily old fox, Herath. In the end, the low Pakistani target, the lack of manoeuvring room and the way he finished off the innings in the course of five overs makes me give the nod to Herath's match-winning spell against Pakistan as the best bowling performance of 2017.
These three and Herath's Abu Dhabi performances (three points behind Shakib) are some of the most memorable Test bowling performances across the years. O'Keefe achieved identical figures and compiled a total of 1497 points. Even though his second-innings spell accounted for more top-order batsmen, it loses out slightly against the first-innings spell because of the huge target India were facing - 441. Incidentally this twin effort puts O'Keefe on a pedestal: the top ten of the all-time Test bowling performance table.
Lyon was devastating in Chittagong. This was not the usual Bangladesh team getting slaughtered at home and away. They had made the grade and were leading 1-0 in the Test series. However, Lyon's twin efforts helped Australia gain parity. Shakib's ten-wicket haul in the previous Test, in Mirpur, helped Bangladesh gain a historic win against the strong Australians.
Finally, the selection is easy, both from points secured and impact viewpoint. O'Keefe's twin efforts of 6 for 35 in Pune form the best Test bowling performance of 2017.
Chase's efforts were in a losing cause. Moeen's excellent efforts were responsible for the important Lord's win against the South Africans.
However, what Shakib did in Mirpur was unforgettable. It can safely be said that August 30, 2017 was the day on which Bangladesh came of age and informed the rest of the world in no uncertain terms that they were not going to be pushovers. They belonged to the elite. And this win against Australia, in a low-scoring match, was almost single-handedly due to the magnificence of Shakib in three of the innings. Clearly there is no need to look beyond Shakib for the all-round performance of 2017.
It is a nice feeling that I did not need to select anything other than the top-placed performance in the five categories so far.
There is no reason to look beyond de Kock's sterling efforts as the Test wicketkeeping performance of 2017. It is relevant that six of the seven victims were top-order batsmen. His 91 also came late in the order and helped South Africa recover from 94 for 6, facing 268, to reach 359. The innings fetched over 550 Rating points.
8. Test match of the year
This cannot be done based on points. I need to do a preliminary inspection, shortlist and then do the final selection. My shortlist, in chronological order, is given below. There is recognition for history, the sparks shown by teams down and out, and memorable away performances against strong teams.
1. Test #2271 between England and West Indies played at Headingley.
2. Test #2272 between Bangladesh and Australia played in Mirpur.
3. Test #2275 between Pakistan and Sri Lanka played in Abu Dhabi.
The first Test featured is a mighty win for West Indies through their unsung batting heroes, Hope and Brathwaite, at Headingley. These two batsmen scored 494 (66%) out of the 749 runs scored by West Indies in the Test. They made light work of the substantial chase of 322 runs in the fourth innings after helping West Indies recover from 35 for 3 in the first innings.
The second Test is a historic one, which finally showed Bangladesh to be a world-class team capable of beating the best. Despite scoring only 260, Bangladesh managed to secure an invaluable first-innings lead of 43. They then scored 221 to set Australia a tough but not imposing target of 265. Australia were dismissed 20 runs short and Bangladesh erupted. More on this chase later. Shakib, with his already chronicled world-class all-round performance, Tamim Iqbal, with two lovely 70-plus scores, and Mehidy Hasan's supporting all-round role of five wickets and 44 runs, were the highlights of Bangladesh's historic win.
Another close win for the unfancied team: this time for the Sri Lankans over the strong Pakistan team in Abu Dhabi. The two first innings almost cancelled out each other. Sri Lanka were bundled out for 138 and Pakistan, kings in their adopted home grounds, looked set for yet another easy win. Then Herath worked his magic and secured for Sri Lanka a 21-run win. Dinesh Chandimal's 155, Karunaratne's 93, Dickwela's 83 and Dilruwan Perera's four wickets were the key elements other than Herath's 11 wickets in the match.
After much deliberation, I selected Bangladesh's narrow win over Australia as the Test of 2017. It had everything: great bowling, good quality innings and a nerve-wracking final day. But most important, it was indeed an epochal match, maybe as important as India's win over England in Chennai in 1952 and Pakistan's famous win at The Oval in 1954.
Stoinis came in at 54 for 5, chasing 287, and held the innings together, finally to fall an agonising six runs short. In some ways this innings was similar to Kapil Dev's 175 not out at Tunbridge Wells. Later in the year, New Zealand were chasing a middling total of 280 and Guptill played an innings reminiscent of his World Cup juggernaut and allowed Ross Taylor play a slow supporting innings. New Zealand won with five overs to spare. The third innings in this list is still fresh in everyone's memory in which Rohit cantered to his third double-hundred in ODIs, although against a toothless Sri Lankan attack on a batting pitch.
I know that Stoinis' innings was in a losing cause, but the way he played and took Australia close to the imposing target, how he managed the late order and against a good bowling attack means that I see no reason to go past his classic as the ODI innings of the year. Let us not forget that the result is already integrated into the Ratings methodology.
Boult's bolts from the blue came in Mumbai and his four top-order wickets helped New Zealand gain an important win. Kohli's brilliance was matched by Tom Latham and New Zealand romped home.
Rashid was magnificent in Gros Islet, away from home. His spell was one of the best spinners' spells ever, across Full members and Associates. He came in to bowl only as the sixth bowler, else, he might as well have secured the elusive eighth wicket.
In Dharamsala, after the travails of the Test matches, finally Sri Lanka found a seamers' pitch and most importantly, won the toss. The story is described by this scoreline: India at 28 for 7. There have not been better ODI opening spells in India ever. Sri Lanka won and stopped the slide.
This time I am going out of line and selecting Rashid's nonpareil spell as the best performance of 2017. He might have moved up the table but for the below-par averages of the West Indian batsmen. Yes, it is true, if there had been better batsmen, Rashid might not have picked up seven wickets.
11. A memorable spell recognised
However, I am also going to accord equal recognition to Amir's devastating and match-winning spell of 3 for 16 against India in the Champions Trophy final as the most important and impactful spell of 2017. India never looked likely to lose to Pakistan in a World Cup match and had demolished them in the group match at Edgbaston. The Indians had already started celebrating. Every television channel was proclaiming that India had only to take the field to be crowned the winner. However, this was only the off-field hype. Kohli certainly knew that one bad hour could see the end of the match.
And that hour came as the Indian innings began. India were still expected to score the 320 needed, if not in a canter, at least in a trot. After all they had one of the best ODI top three in their ranks, with a combined total of 3713 ODI runs at an average of 65.14 in 2017. Amir was coming back from a spasm-induced break, but what a return it was. He dismissed Rohit Sharma for 0, Kohli for 5 and Shikhar Dhawan for 21. Nothing mattered anymore. Hardik Pandya's freewheeling innings delayed the inevitable and Sarfraz Ahmed not bringing back Amir to finish off the innings was frowned upon, but did not matter in the end. Pakistan had won the final. The Indians could grieve but they had to salute the genius of Amir.
12. ODI all-round performance
I have already talked of Stoinis' innings of the year, which gathered him 614 Rating points. Now let us go back about four hours. Stoinis dismissed Guptill, Kane Williamson and Colin Munro and finished with 3 for 49. He was the best Australian bowler by a mile, with 227 rating points. His match total is a huge 841 points. Stoinis' 3 for 49 and 146 not is the best all-round performance of 2017. In fact, readers won't be surprised to see that Stoinis is comfortably placed in the top ten of the all-time all-round performances table. If only he had hit an additional six!
What are the moments I would like to remember the year by? Let me list a few and select what was for me the defining moment.
Amir dismissal of Kohli in the Champions Trophy final
The young bowler, banished for five years, came back determined to make up for the time lost. The pinnacle of his comeback was his spell at The Oval in the final against India. The dismissal of Rohit for 0 was a body blow while the dismissal of Kohli immediately afterwards won the match for Pakistan. These two were the batsmen capable of scoring big hundreds needed to chase the huge total. The Dhawan dismissal merely confirmed the win. As such, the Kohli dismissal was the most important of the lot and is my first selection in the cricket moments of 2017.
Starc's "ball of the century" v Vince, Perth Ashes Test
There was no doubting that this ball would have taken out many top batsmen, especially in the early part of their innings. I would say certainly it was the ball of the year. Let us not forget some of the Dale Steyn, Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne dismissals from a few years back. But Starc's dismissal of James Vince was an unforgettable moment of the year. The look on Vince's face was enough to define that moment.
Shakib's golden 12 balls
The amazing Bangladeshi win over Australia was closed out with the dismissal of Josh Hazlewood by Taijul Islam. However the real trigger for victory was performed a few hours earlier by Shakib. After starting at 109 for 2, Australia were coasting at 158 for 2 with David Warner and Smith in command. Warner had already crossed 100. Then Shakib stuck twice in ten minutes, first by dismissing Warner for 112 and then 12 balls later, taking out Smith for 37. Bangladesh could see the opening and, unlike earlier in their Test-playing days, they grabbed their chances and went on to win by 20 runs. These ten minutes of Shakib magic constitute my next moment of the year.
Sarfraz's moment of madness, taking on Herath in Abu Dhabi
Chasing a small target of 136, Pakistan were rocked back on their heels by the Sri Lankan bowlers and were struggling at 36 for 5. However, Sarfraz and Haris Sohail steadied the ship and took them to 78. Another 20 runs and the balance would shift strongly towards Pakistan. Then Sarfraz had a moment of madness, stepped out to the greying giant Herath, was duly beaten in the air and stumped. The slide continued and Pakistan fell 20 runs short. This moment of magic from Herath is my next candidate for the moment of 2017.
Looking at the historical value of the win, the moment that extended to ten minutes and a double strike, the conversion of an almost certain loss to a strong possibility of a win, and the quality of wickets captured, I have no hesitation in declaring the twin strikes of Shakib Al Hasan as the moment of 2017.
The players who have been selected in this article are not the really well-known names, but clearly show that the lesser lights have their days and on those days, they get into a zone which their more privileged and well-known colleagues do not enter.
Quinton de Kock, Shai Hope, Shakib Al Hasan, Marcus Stoinis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Roston Chase, Steve O'Keefe, Rashid Khan, Mohammad Amir and Rangana Herath - that's not a bad collection of players. We could add Trent Boult and make a decent Test team.
Yes, I can hear someone in the corner asking me, "Hey! What about T20?" A very valid question, indeed. Unfortunately, my interest in T20 cricket is at an all-time low. Bilateral T20 series leave me cold. I still maintain my T20 database with due care since the only analysis I might want to do relating to the T20 game is for World T20s.
Finally, a peek into what I intend to do after the easing-in period of a couple of months. It is over 15 years since I came out with an official update of my "Wisden 100". I think it is time for me to present the new "Ananth 25". I have realised that 100 performances dilutes the list considerably and raises unnecessary queries. It is better to present the top 25, which makes this a rare achievement: around 1 in 300.
I will start with the top 25 bowling performances of all time. The bowling articles are likely to excite readers less and give me pointers on handling the responses. I will probably do this as a two-part exercise during March-April. The first article will present the top performances from the original list, the parameters used then, the evolution since and the current parameters used. The second part will present the current list of top 25 performances and shorter relevant lists.