A week or so ago, inspired by the kazillion 'looking-back-on-2008's-cricket' articles to come, I sat down to write one of my own. It never got finished, distracted as I was by South Africa's exhilarating campaign in Australia, Bangladesh's attempts at renaissance against Sri Lanka, some entertaining domestic cricket, and the Gayle-show on as the Kiwis faced the Windies. Cricket squeezed the most it could out of even the very last days of the year, and right now, looking at the half-finished draft, I couldn't help but think, 'ah, chuck this'. The game transcends any attempt I could possibly make to sum it up, and 2008 was a more tumultuous year than most for this beautiful game. The normal Powers That Be on the cricket field are all out of whack, and therefore 2009 promises to be an exciting year for the game. I can only provide my fleeting impressions of how cricket this year affected me, because that's all my spectrum is limited to. I don't even play the game (hell, the only sport I took up seriously was tennis, and even that fell to the wayside for academics), but I adore it with an inexplicable passion, and therefore I sit here and type, despite the sleep tugging at my eyes.
The year started off interestingly enough, with the Eternal Drama Queens of Cricket presenting you their ultimate production: Sydneygate, Jan '08. More than anything, apart from all the accusations of racism, blackmail, threats, and the vitriol, it was the actual cricket that disappointed me most. Don't get me wrong - I thought Sydney played host to a fantastic Test match that week, but I was reduced to crying tears of bitter disappointment even as a confused Ishant Sharma gazed dazedly at his captain at the other end when he was the last Indian wicket to be dismissed with just five minutes left on the fifth day to be played out for a draw even as the Australians went completely - and undertstandably, in retrospect - berserk in delight. Mixed dangerously with the disappointment was anger and resentment, as the Test had also showcased every kind of blunder an umpire could possibly make on a cricket field, and the team most harmed by this incompetence from Benson and Bucknor was India. Sure, fine, the umpires make mistakes, we get it, but Sydney '08? Was too much to take in one go. Bucknor adjudging Andrew Symonds not out when he had clearly edged Ishant Sharma to Dhoni... I mean, what the hell? It was probably the only time I have ever seen Dhoni stare at the umpire in abject disbelief, and Ishant was left practically doubled over in agony, clutching his hair, and all I wanted to do was go and give the kid a hug. The bottomline was, at the end of the match, I was left feeling utterly cheated, and I suspected, so did many other Indians and that exacerbated every little ramification of whatever happened in that Test. The true extent of the BCCI's financial muscle was exposed, resentment built, Indo-Australian relations were almost irreparably damaged. I thought it was all great entertainment at that time, really, but this statement from Anil Kumble? Hit home in more ways than one: "Only one team out there was playing the spirit of the game. That's all I can say." in that firm, polite voice of his, barely glazing over a simmering anger... the first time I actually stood up and applauded. Kumble handled the fall-out of Sydneygate so well, and the way the team regrouped under him to record an unprecedented win at Perth... it was the absolute high-point of Kumble's captaincy stint. To have gotten his 600th Test wicket in the same game -the wicket being that of Symonds' , ha - was just a sweet bonus. What a man.
And after that was the triangular ODI tournament, and amidst all the furore about senior players being dropped in favour of younger greenhorns, the seemingly inexplicable faith being shown in a woefully out of form Yuvraj Singh, illegal gloves, verbal sending-offs, obnoxious weeds, shadow-boxing, streakers and rugby tackles, India shone through in the end, shored up by the brilliance of their bowlers and Sachin Tendulkar, and a batting line-up that finally managed to click. The finals were won, and the last-ever CB Tri-series trophy to be hosted by Australia was securely in Dhoni's hands, even as his ice-cool demanour was finally broken with a warm, proud smile as he asked the youngest member of his team to lift the trophy first. Talk about proving a point! Here was where we really got a feel of where he planned to take his team as a captain, and it was a portent for great things to come.
Despite all the euphoria however, our inconsistency as a team was once again highlighted as we struggled to draw the home series with South Africa that followed, leaving aside Sehwag's triple-century on a Chennai featherbed. Folding up for 76 on the first morning of the Ahmedabad Test within 20 overs has got to be one of Indian cricket's most humiliating moments.
Still! All was forgotten as soon after that, the IPL started. And everything else ended.
As a spectator, forgetting those two months ain't gonna be easy (not that I want to). Before the player auctions, I was half-considering ignoring the whole thing, faced as I was with the dilemma of whether I ought to support Dhoni's team or the Chennai team, Dhoni and Chennai being two things close to my heart. That was, of course, happily solved by the fact that Dhoni was bought by Chennai for an astronomical sum, but looking back now, I realise now that even if I'd wanted to, I could never have ignored it. The IPL was everywhere. On TV. On the ka-zillion news channels. On billboards. In TV ads. On the radio. In the newspaper. On the internet. My friends' conversations.
Just. Everywhere. It was mind-boggling. And a marketing masterpiece.
I watched and followed, open-mouthed, mind inundated with Twenty20. There was slapgate, there was glamour. There were half-naked cheerleaders, there was delicious controversy. Endless gimmicks. Great music. Horrible commentary. Non-stop advertising. Good-looking comperes (mm). And not to forget, some great cricket as well. Although admittedly, toward the end of the tournament, as a spectator I felt utterly exhausted and was relieved when it finally ended, leaving behind hungry cricket fans even where there were previously none (Nothing more frightening than having my hitherto cricket-phobic mother come with me to watch a match, and admire Adam Gilchrist's batting).
International cricket went inexorably on - the Indian ODI team, overworked in the unforgiving subcontinental summer, reached and lost a couple of finals, the final of the Asia Cup being the more significant of the two, as Ajantha Mendis rent the young batting lineup into pieces with his uber-mysterious spin bowling, announcing his arrival on the world stage as a formidable possible successor to Muralitharan. It was then that Dhoni decided enough was enough, that if the iterinary wasn't loosened, he was going to take matters into his own hands, and took a self-enforced break from the Test series against Sri Lanka, which was eventually lost 2-1 in a series that briefly exacerbated the whole seniors turmoil in Indian cricket, especially considering that the Middle Order collectively failed against the wiles of Muralitharan and Mendis. Dhoni returned for the ODI series, the bowlers shone with preternatural awesomeness, Dhoni almost singlehandedly held the threads of the fraying batting line-up together, the team made most of the little dollops of luck that came their way, and the ODI series was won, with India left a lot to think about.
Pakistan's terrorism-induced isolation in world cricket finally came to a head as the Champions Trophy scheduled to be held there was postponed (read: cancelled). India went on to win the Border Gavaskar Trophy after that, decimated England in the ODI series, won the Test series as well via one of the more memorable fourth-innings chases in Chennai, finally ending a mixed year with an anticlimactic Plod.
So? I don't disagree that it was a great year for Indian cricket, apart from the whole falling apart in Sri Lanka part. The reasons for this are manifold: things that previously used to be an uncertainty in Indian cricket are now our greatest strengths - a fantastic pair of opening batsmen, excellent up and coming pacers, a solid wicketkeeper-batsman, and an innovative, aggressive captain. Funnily enough, the previously rock-solid middle order turned out to be a little soft this year, though.
A lot has been written about how India finish the year as the no. 1 team. Uh, I'm not too sure about that. Like Sourav Ganguly said, we've played most of our Test cricket at home this year, and lost the only two overseas series that we did play (Australia and Sri Lanka). We have yet to play an overseas Test with Dhoni at the helm. With the Pakistan tour cancelled, his first overseas challenge will come in the form of a tour of New Zealand. I feel that India will falter there, but will hopefully come out of the experience a better team.
Moving on from India, the end of the year showed up who was truly now the best team in the world: South Africa. Topping off an excellent year with a first-time series win in Australia, with two absolutely phenomenal Test matches throwing up some fantastic names like deVilliers and JP Duminy, has given Graeme Smith plenty of reasons to smile, smile so hard his (non-existent) lips crack. 11 wins out of 14 Tests in the year? That's the freakin definition of phenomenal.
Australia, however, start the year playing the last Test of the series they've already lost - a position they haven't been in in nearly 16 years, 16 years where whole generations of cricketers have come and gone, either to bask in the glory of Australian dominance or to get spanked by it. Sure, Australia is in a tough position, presumably brought about by some mistaken belief in their old unshakable dominance, when clearly, with a retired Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, an out-of-form Hayden, Lee and Hussey, lack of a proper spinner, a rash of injuries to key players, and the exposure of the limits to Ponting's leadership, they aren't. What surprises me, though, is the reaction of the Australian media. I mean, the death of Australian cricket? Over-reaction much? Sure the team had a tough year and it will be some time before they come close to being the team they once were, but these post-mortems from the Australian media aren't helping matters any. They seem to have firmly perched their rear on the panic button, and while that is admittedly funny and great to enjoy, it ain't pretty. And here I was, thinking only the sensationalist lookit-me-dammit Indian media did that. It is an international malaise, apparently, and somehow, that's not very reassuring. At all.
And the Australian selectors aren't helping matters any. Before the Border Gavaskar Trophy, I had no idea who Trevor Hohns or Andrew Hilditch was - to me the Australian selection board was just an anonymous bunch of suited men who had the most enviable job of typing out and selecting the best players in the world and sit back and watch them win match after match. Now, though? When faced with an actual crisis situation? They run around, completely confused. Australia have gone through a kabillion spinners for the Test team, some of them not even the first-choice spinners for their State sides, they have persisted with out-of-form players in Hayden and Symonds out of some apparent misplaced sentimentality, denying younger players the opportunity to play for the national team (hello, where's Marsh, Jacques, Rogers and the rest?). All this while, the Aussie selectors have had a team that they could put together like a complete jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces fitting perfectly against each other, forming a formidable team that demanded the highest intensity and great feats to be defeated. Now, though? Now, the jigsaw box has been upended, the pieces are all scattered and several are missing, and the selectors are trying to fill in the gaps with misshapen pieces of cardboard and glue.
So. 2009 promises to be a year which would finally decide who takes over from Australia, and my bets are on South Africa, although India seem to have a great chance as well. Exciting stuff. Also looking forward to the Twenty20 season this summer. I've enjoyed all the exhilarating Test cricket, now I think it's high time for some T20 action.
Oh, and because I couldn't help it, here are my 2008 teams of the year:
Gautam Gambhir ( I know, I know, where's Smith? you ask. I say that while he's had a phenomenal year, I prefer to look at the opening combination as a whole rather than the individual batsmen. As a combo, VirunGauti have always been greater than the sum of their parts. A fantastic rocket-propellant at the start of the innings).
Ricky Ponting (Amla just misses out)
Shivnarine Chanderpaul (like, duh)
AB deVilliers (has had a great year with the bat, and is an awesome fielder)
Mahendra Singh Dhoni -wk, capt. (Need I even explain?)
Ishant Sharma (sorry that Johnson had to miss out, but Zaks and Ishi have been so phenomenal, even on tracks least conducive to pace, and are one of the main reasons India has done so well this year)
Ajantha Mendis (all hail this special spinner. He promises even greater things for Sri Lanka in the coming years)
12th man: Hashim Amla
Chris Gayle (br... if I were a bowler, I would be afraid of this combo. Very afraid. )
Gautam Gambhir (highest run-scorer in ODIs this year, and has previously shown the temperament and ability to be a successful number three, as in Australia)
Kevin Pietersen (there's no getting away from this man)
Yuvraj Singh (ah ha ha, after I brainwash him to believe that every opposition he plays against is England)
Mahendra Singh Dhoni - wk, capt.
12th man: Stuart Broad
Here's wishing everybody a happy and prosperous New Year 2009.
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