December 28, 2011

Lyon, Lancs, and why less isn't always more

Part one of ESPNcricinfo's editors' picks of the best and worst in cricket in 2011

Sharda Ugra

senior editor
Best: India pull the World Cup out of Australia's grasp
You had to be there to believe it. The night India prised apart Australia's iron-fisted ownership of the World Cup, which had lasted a generation. Until that game, India were the disoriented heavyweights of the World Cup, hiccuping and staggering through their league. On opening night in the knockout round, another India came out fighting - quick, lean, committed.

Ricky Ponting turned up after the game to make a pronouncement: India would be going all the way. Ponting had done all he could, with a finger-printed century of boldness and beauty, giving the Australians half a chance. Right at the start, though, they were actually outmuscled in the field. The slowest Indian fielders hurtled towards the ball, the least athletic made dives. When it was time to chase, with all but the last established pair still left and Australia pressing forward, the Indians responded like eskimos caught in a snowstorm. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina dusted off the debris and pushed forward. In a situation made for pandemonium, they produced a collaboration of composure. The noise of the 42,000-strong crowd swelled as the total shrank, Australia began to scatter, and nesting birds flew out of the rafters of the Sardar Patel Stadium.

Before that game, India had been unconvincing favourites for the Cup. That night they rose to the full height of their powers and looked the future in its face. In less than ten days, they knew and you knew, they were going to win the World Cup.

Worst: The verdict
One long white van with eight black windows. Photographers trying to get a shot of the men inside. After 21 days, the spot-fixing trial at the Southwark Crown Court in London ended in this: all attention around a prison van driving Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir away.

It was a culmination of events that had begun more than 12 months before. A sting operation punctured cricket's confidence in itself and its practitioners, and turned fans' stomachs to stone. By the time the case began, the tabloid that had "stung" the three players and, by extension, all of cricket itself, had been shut down. The spot-fixing case was to form a large and, it is to be hoped, lasting ripple effect of what the News of the World was able to do: send professional cricketers to prison for cheating team-mates, fans and the game itself.

There had been some rumbling arguments about whether bowling no-balls should eventually lead to prison terms. In simplistic terms, it appeared excessive. Under the law, though, those were not just no-balls. It was scripting, for the sake of financial gain, a passage of play. Even the most finely tuned legal brains couldn't argue their way out of sport's most fundamental premise - that all play must rest on the unpredictable.

After the trial reached its conclusion, the incident its closure and the players their punishment, it still made for miserable viewing. Much like the sight of Hansie Cronje sitting hunched small in a chair before the King Commission, the prison van became one of cricket's forgettable yet haunting metaphors. Of squandered ability and opportunistic choices. Of what must always be the logical end to illogical deeds.

Daniel Brettig

assistant editor
Best: The Lyon-Clarke partnership
A new captain and a new spin bowler set out in Test cricket together and showed what can be achieved when the understanding of the former is married to the skill and desire of the latter. Lyon's first ball in Tests was an offbreak that kissed the edge of Kumar Sangakkara's bat in Galle, and Clarke held it brilliantly in his left hand to grant the bowler the perfect start. As a moment it came to epitomise much of what has followed - Lyon skilful enough to deliver wicket-taking balls, Clarke alert enough to take advantage with the right fields. In South Africa, on less helpful surfaces, Clarke made sure not to expose Lyon too much; the bowler responded with important wickets in the Johannesburg victory. Against New Zealand, he took on a wider role, confusing the batsmen with flight and bounce, then enticing the tail into giving their wickets away. India beckoned as the toughest task a spin bowler can face, but between them Lyon and Clarke had shown what was possible for an Australian slow bowler in the wake of Shane Warne, provided his captain can understand him.

Worst: The Test Championship squib
Context, we were told, was everything. Without a Test Championship to augment the World Cup and serve as a once-in-four-years centrepiece for the international calendar, the five-day game was destined to wander aimlessly towards the fringes. These words were spouted by just about every administrator connected to the ICC for the past two years, following on from similar words from the players themselves. All was set for the first edition, to be played in 2013, until the meeting of member chief executives received the news that such a tournament would not be a television-rights bonanza. Cue panic, backtracking the delay of the event until 2017, and the return of that most beige of tournaments, the Champions Trophy. Weighed next to short-term financial pressures, the future of the game was suddenly unimportant. When Haroon Lorgat, the ICC's chief executive, chose to depart a few weeks after the delay was announced, he did so withthese words: "We've got some seriously good players at the moment, shining in Tests. The chances of them being around in 2017 is zero."

Andrew McGlashan

assistant editor
Best: Lancashire winning the County Championship
With the final shot of the County Championship season Steven Croft, the Lancashire batsman, got the boundary that sealed the club's first outright title for 77 years. It ended a day of drama. Along the south coast Hampshire had earned Lancashire's eternal gratitude for holding off Warwickshire despite their own relegation having been decided.

Lancashire were rank outsiders when the season began - and tipped for relegation by many - but a close-knit group of largely homegrown talent defied expectations. Although it was the joyous scenes in Taunton that marked the historic moment, as players, backroom staff and supporters revelled in the end of a wait that had spanned generations, the events a few days earlier, at Aigburth in Liverpool had ensured Lancashire still had a chance. With less than five minutes remaining Hampshire's last-wicket pair appeared set to thwart the home side's attempt for a crucial victory, but Simon Kerrigan, a 22-year-old left-arm spinner, made one bounce and find Neil McKenzie's edge, which gave him figures of 9 for 51.

The final two weeks of the season ensured another gripping finish to a Championship campaign. The tournament has its faults, and rarely gets the acclaim it deserves, but it has played a significant part in England's rise up the Test rankings. And it continues to provide fantastic stories.

Worst: Two Tests too few
It should have been one of the highlights of year, but it left us feeling unfulfilled. The decision that Australia and South Africa would play just two Tests was taken well before the teams faced off in November, but the series highlighted the travesty of such a marquee contest being reduced to the bare minimum. Administrators spoke a lot during the year about the sanctity of Test cricket but few backed up their words with deeds. The matches in Cape Town and Johannesburg were two of most absorbing you could imagine: a captain's innings from Michael Clarke, Vernon Philander's debut, 47 all out, Pat Cummins, and Australia's series-levelling chase. Then it suddenly ended at 1-1, with so much undecided.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, we were presented with the same situation when Australia faced New Zealand. Balancing the demands of a modern itinerary is not easy, and some of the criticism regularly thrown at administrators doesn't take into account the complexity of the issue. However, it didn't look good when TV rights issues were a key reason behind delaying the Test Championship, and it would be nice to believe that, at some point, a decision will be taken without money - in other words, Twenty20 and ODIs - being the main consideration.

Firdose Moonda

South Africa correspondent
Best: Zimbabwe's Test comeback
Shortly after lunch on August 8 in Harare, Kyle Jarvis struck Robiul Islam on the front pad, umpire Kumar Dharmasena raised his finger, and a small slice of Zimbabwean history had been made. After six years in the Test cricket wilderness, Zimbabwe re-entered the format with a win over Bangladesh, showcasing the reams of progress they had made in their absence.

A new pair of opening bowlers, Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis, shared ten wickets between them; an old face, Hamilton Masakadza, scored his second Test century in ten years, as did Brendan Taylor, in his first international as captain.

Pakistan brought Zimbabwe back to earth soon after that, inflicting six defeats on them, including a Test victory that was obtained in the course of one afternoon. But a month later Zimbabwe fought New Zealand to the brink, to lose by just 34 runs.

Worst: South Africa's choke
They seemed to have it all: a captain on his last crusade, the world's best allrounder, a formidable batting line-up, left- and right-arm seamers, and three, yes three , frontline spinners to suit the conditions. The expected stumble came in the group stage, against England in Chennai, but after they beat India in a nailbiter in Nagpur, it seemed nothing would stop South Africa.

The quarter-final draw was kindest to them, pairing them with New Zealand, who set them a mediocre total to chase in Dhaka. Then, despite having the bit between their teeth, a spectacular choke ended South Africa's World Cup dream. Eight wickets fell for 64 runs, starting with a catch plucked out of the sky by Jacob Oram to dismiss Jacques Kallis, and ending with Morne Morkel trudging back to the change room, his team 49 runs short. Grown men wept that day, as did a nation that hoped for greatness.