Saturday, January 3, 2009

Cricket in 2008- A glance

I have been thinking to write a blog on cricket, which incedentally is my passion and i can boast upon in depth knowledge of it. Following cricket for 16 long years has made be glued to it. Here i go upon a brief write up on my thoughts for cricket in 2008. 2008 has been an year which made heads turn around to cricket and was a zig-zag year for emotions of cricket lovers throughout the world. Cricket in 2008 was a year of revolution and churning, of big money and big egos, of acrimony and conflict, but also of wonderful spirit and luminous cricket. It was a year in which the might of Test cricket was challanged and in the end it stood up to be the truest form of entratainment for 5 solid days. At the start of the year money got a grip on the mind of the organisers and eventually choosen players became richer and fear loomed that the 20-20 format would marginalise Test Cricket which was the ultimate test for a player to prove his versatality. The IPL was a grand success as intensified the fear, but the criticism of the Stanford Leauge and its shambles gave an clear indication of the way cricket would shape up with the money. It was a time Test cricket had got an idea of how to be back on the track and it rightly boomed back into limelight at the end of the year.

The year began in the ugliest manner imaginable. The Sydney fiasco left many cricket lovers hurt and evoked anger , ill-will and malice. Former cricketers fumed on such conduct and the morale of the organisers dropped into deep unknown seas. Alas the year ended with such high regard for a powerfully humane gesture from England, returning back to India even after the Mumbai blast held the nerves of many. Such powerful gesture followed by gripping finishes in Perth and Chennai ensured that Test cricket remained on top. It was also the year in which the ICC failed and grew more irrelevant, umpiring system being reviewed, drying up of matches for pakistan and almost no mathes in zimbabwe.

Life after the IPL

It was an opportunity to reshape cricket. A domestic tournament had transformed cricket so radically and so profoundly, that viewers worldover were shell-shocked. The IPL was the biggest thing to happen to the game since Kerry Packer and its impact is expected to be more far-reaching. The focus in the first year was money - eight franchises were sold for over US$730 million; over 150 players, including 72 foreign players, were bought for over $45 million, and the television rights were sold for $1 billion. The tournament was an unqualified success. It attracted unique viewership in excess of 100 million in India, an 18% increase on the number that watched the World Twenty20 in 2007. Stadiums spilled over with fans, some of whom had never been to a cricket ground before. Most of all, the cricket was of the highest quality. What had seemed like an audacious gamble the previous year had paid off spectacularly. The IPL took cricket beyond a new form - it created a new world for itself.

Cricket organisers all over the world saw a huge opportunity for quick a quick buck and scampared with schedules for accomodating the new entrant in the already overflowing cup. Many countries are planning for a similar off shoot and all these together could easily challenge the king of cricket - Test Matches.
Viability of FTP
In theory, the Future Tours Programme of the ICC is an egalitarian concept, aimed at providing equal opportunity to each Test-playing country(9 in total). In reality, it is a blight. Administrators cried themselves hoarse in 2008, hailing Test cricket as the pinnacle of the game. Without doubt it is, but not when it is a mismatch. Test cricket is considered the pinnacle because it presents the ultimate test of skill. Between mismatched teams, it can feel farcical, and be economically unviable. Rich nations have an obligation to sustain and develop cricket - not by indulging weak countries with a quota system, but by providing a competitive playing field. India have got away with not inviting Bangladesh home even once since they were admitted to the Test fold - at India's behest. At one level, it seems hypocritical, at another it is pragmatic and justifiable. England are likely to follow suit next year, and it is a welcome decision. Bangladesh, their performance in the final Test notwithstanding, boost only one thing in Test cricket: the batting and bowling averages of their opponents. If they can offer a semblance of competitiveness, it is at home. It is futile having them play Test cricket in conditions that render them hopeless. New Zealand have played 14 matches but nothing significant other than 2 matches against australia. West Indiea and Bangladesh - 9 matches each but none was heard about. India and SA have palyed the most, 15 each and australia 14. Only these have been worth talking. Not to forget England's(12 matches) tour of India. Pakistan - are they a test playing nation?? - not even a single test.
Rather the ODI's have been numeorous, round the year. India again leading the pack with 29 ODI's (Won 19), followed by SL (14 of 27) and bangladesh!!(5 of 26)... Other countries fared equally with an average of 20 matches this year.
What cricket needs is not a lot of Tests, but more meaningful ones and equal competition by each team rather than stark difference in numbers. When the current FTP expires in 2011, it will be a good idea to bin the formula altogether and start clean. There can only be so much cricket in a year: let it be the best possible the game can provide.

Australia's decline
A more level playing field. It was inevitable and anticipated. No team can lose three of its biggest match-winners and carry on like before. Between them, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne took 750 wickets at 20.78 in the 71 Tests Australia won with them playing together. McGrath took 377 wickets of batsmen from numbers one to six, of which the top three accounted for a staggering 225 at an average of 18.22. Australia lost only one Test match in which Adam Gilchrist scored a hundred. It was always a question of how much the team would fall after the departures, not if.

For the record, Australia had their worst year in a decade and a half. Since winning the fractious Sydney Test at the start of the year, they didn't manage to beat India, losing to them thrice. They lost twice in Perth, their fortress, and failed to take 20 wickets in four out of their last six Tests of the year. They turned to six different spinners in an attempt to replace Warne, including Cameron White and Nathan Hauritz, who were not the first-choice spinners even for their state sides. Their last Test of year, where they struggled to finish off South Africa's first innings, merely highlighted a problem that has haunted them all year - finishing off the tail. Harbhajan Singh scored four Test fifties against them, let alone Zaheer Khan, Dale Styen, and others contributions.

Australia's decline is both good news and bad news. It opens up the field, makes Test cricket more exciting. For years they have almost been competing with themselves: Can Ponting's Australians go one-up on Waugh's Australians by winning 17 Tests in a row? After you were done being awed and dazzled by them, it got monotonous and boring. A more level playing field makes for better watching. This year will carry huge anticipation: Any one of the four top teams - Australia, South Africa, India and England - could end the year on top of the Test ladder. But the bad news is that the level playing field hasn't come about as a result of others raising their game but because Australia have fallen. For years they have set the benchmark for excellence in world cricket, and that mark has been lowered now. India's series victory in 2000-01 felt far more special than the one this year because it came against Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Wonder if opposition batsmen will feel the same satisfaction in milking Mitchell Johnson, a fine bowler, but no more, and whichever spinner Australia might fancy putting up?

After their first series loss at home in 17 years, even Ricky Ponting will be forced to concede that the sun has set on a glorious era. Australian cricket must now ponder if Ponting is the man to lead them out of a slump. A team of winners can almost run on auto-pilot, but a struggling team needs a leader. A feeling has been growing that Australia under Ponting have grown too triumphalist, too blinkered and too self-absorbed. They have also been living in denial. Cricket needs a strong Australia, but the regeneration will need a fresh approach: It will need both strength and humility, steel and statesmanship. Ponting is still Australia's best batsman, but is he is the leader they need at this hour?
The challengers
It was apt that South Africa and India split the Test series they played this year. They were the teams of the year, the ones that brought Australia down. India began the process and South Africa completed it resoundingly. But South Africa ended the year ahead. They haven't lost a series in over two years; they now hold the trophies in all but one of the bilateral Test series they competed in(against india), and they won 11 out of their 15 Tests in 2008, seven of those away from home. Now that they have dispelled the cross that weighed them down, repeated ignominy against Australia, they are the legitimate No. 1 Test team in the world. India, who lost to Sri Lanka away, and needed a rank turner to draw level with South Africa at home, have some catching up to do.

Both teams have been largely successful due to their batsmen. Graeme Smith for SA has been the strength of pillar and the team largely reflects his own personality. He has been reeling centuries after centuries be it match winning or match saving. It is no wonder that he is the highest scorer of the year. Along with him 4 others are in the list of 15 most run scorers for the year. Not to forget their bowlers, 3 of the top 10 wicket takers are South Africans lead by Dale Steyn with 74 wickets.
In many ways it was India's year. While South Africa were ruthless and clinical, India were sparkling and captivating. They were the ones who first ambushed the champions in Perth, the Australian bastion, and beat them in the one-day finals. For the last few years India have been crossing items off their to-do list: Test wins in Australia and South Africa, series wins in West Indies and England, openers providing hundred-run partnerships abroad, batsmen coming to terms to pace and bounce, and pace bowlers coming to the party. For years India have dominated world cricket with their financial muscle, but now they have a team that is beginning match their wealth. When they travel abroad now, they will be expected to win. That's a significant change. More significant for them is their opening pair, especially Gautam Gambhir who is clearly the leading scorer in the ODI format and also among the Top 5 in tests. 6 of top 20 are indians in the top scorer list in the tests and 5 of the top 10 in ODI's. Bowlers arent too far. Zaheer khan and Ishant sharma are currently the fast best bowlers around.
Individual Heros
Twelve batsmen scored more than 1000 runs, notching up 45 centuries between them in tests, and two of them in ODI's. 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 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.
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 theAsia 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. 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.

Other prominent playes include MS Dhoni(India's New Captian), Shiv Chanderpaul, Gautam Gambhir, AB De Villers, Hamish Amla, Ricky Ponting and the most important of all - Sakhid Al Hasan. Hasan has been very much instrumental in keeping the name of bangladesh afloat rough waters with a phenomenal year both with the bat and the ball. Bangladesh have been able to challenge New Zealand hard thanks to him. He has been thier best batsman and best bowler this year. He is still 21 and surely has a long way to go.
With this note i am competing this blog. I have tried best to cover most and do remind me if i have forgotten any issues that have been omitted.

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