December 25, 2012

A preposterous innings, a horrific injury

ESPNcricinfo staff
From KP's Mumbai classic to Sri Lanka's Test-starved 2013: our writers pick the best and worst of the year gone by

David Hopps

UK editor

Best: Pietersen's 186
The tweet from Matt Prior said it all: "Reintegration complete. Well played." The congratulations were for Kevin Pietersen after one of the most compelling Test innings ever played.

Focus only on the match itself and, in the second Test in Mumbai, Pietersen produced a wonderful attacking innings - 186 from 233 balls - on a wickedly turning pitch, an innings that combined great skill, moments of daring and innovation, and utter conviction. It possessed individuality and self-belief writ large.

As great players sometimes do, he not only changed the course of a match, he challenged wider perceptions. Before Pietersen's innings began, England were a doomed team that could not play spin, held together by the resilience of a plucky new leader, Alastair Cook, but seemingly destined for overwhelming defeat in the series. By the time Pietersen's innings ended, perceptions were entirely different. The series was alive again.

It was the context that made Pietersen's innings outstanding. Here was a man who had suffered months of character assassination, a man deliberately made an outcast for several months by England's management to teach him a lesson that would either bring him in line or get rid of him for good. His commitment to England's cause had been questioned and his relationships with team-mates and officialdom had deteriorated. He became trapped in a spiral of parody Twitter accounts, disenchanted text messages to opponents, and ill-judged Youtube apologies. His hurt and bewilderment as the dispute ran out of control must have been immense.

In the Times, Simon Barnes called it preposterous, and a better word could not be chosen. A preposterous dispute had been followed by a preposterous innings. The stand-off, however necessary at the outset, had became so overblown that it almost destroyed his career; the innings was so wondrous that it also seemed contrary to reason.

Worst: The redevelopment of Adelaide Oval
My lowest moment of the year was when I happened upon a video showing the demolition of Adelaide Oval. Do not tell me this is progress. It is the appalling destruction of what was once the most beautiful Test ground in the world. I'm not from Adelaide, I'm not even Australian; it is nothing to do with me, but I will never forgive them.

You can't blame McMahon Services for taking pride in the fact they reduced Adelaide Oval to rubble in only 18 days. You can't blame them for producing a time-lapse video complete with triumphant martial music that would not be out of place in a Russian military parade. You can't even blame them for taking pride in their ultra-reach demolition booms, their cutter-crusher demolition shears and their waste-handling grapples. I don't really know what they are, but now I have seen what they can do.

What has happened in Adelaide is a heist. A financially stricken cricket authority has sought refuge by allowing AFL to relocate in a once uplifting, characterful, beautiful cricket ground that will soon be just another featureless 50,000-capacity stadium.

I am watching the speeded-up video while I am writing this and it makes me despair. As fluffy white clouds scud across blue skies, and diggers rampage around as if drawn straight out of HG Wells' War of the Worlds, I scream at the video, "Why not tear down the cathedral in the background while you are at it?"

Some justify the wreckage by talking of progress, some resented the endless references to the beauty of Adelaide Oval because they saw it as representative of Adelaide's entrenched conservatism. But beauty should not be the preserve of the fortunate few, it should be the aspiration of the many. Now AFL has a stadium in the middle of town and Adelaide has a cricket stadium, no longer the most beautiful in the world, that smacks of betrayal.

Firdose Moonda

South Africa correspondent

Best: South Africa become No. 1
Day five at Lord's. England in chase of 346 mount a steadily rising challenge. At 282 for 7, with Matt Prior and an increasingly cheeky Graeme Swann at the crease, a coup is unlikely but possible. Murmurs become whispers, which become words that if there is one team who could mess things up from having the opposition 146 for 6, that team is South Africa.

Perennial victims of pressure, they were expected to succumb again. Then, the only two underperforming members of the squad, Jacques Rudolph and Imran Tahir combined to run Swann out. The man underrated throughout his career despite being the fastest to 50 Test wickets in over a century, Vernon Philander, was left to mop up and he did. After years of trying, South Africa succeeded when it mattered most. No.1 was rightfully theirs.

The England series win was not only remarkable because South Africa were crowned the best in the world but because they achieved that title with two things they previously lacked: level heads and united hearts. Never before had a South African change room appeared so relaxed, so in control, and so genuinely caring of each other.

Worst: Injuries
When Marchant de Lange's back began hurting during the unofficial T20 tri-series in Zimbabwe, it was brushed off as nothing serious. He was named in South Africa's squad to tour England, but was then ruled out before the series started when the injury revealed itself as a stress fracture. De Lange was due to make his comeback during the Champions League Twenty20 in October; his return was pushed back to November, then December, then January, and now February 2013. If that gets moved to later in the year, do not be surprised.

De Lange's growing pains are similar to those of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazelwood and James Pattinson. The Australian trio are all under 23 and have all been sidelined because of stress fractures. Management of young quicks has never been more important, as the fixture list grows and so does the demand for more firepower.

The year was filled with hamstring niggles, which affected Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis, a quadriceps strain that plagued Chris Morris, an ankle impingement that ruled Lonwabo Tsotsobe out, and thumb and wrist injuries that claimed Tim Southee and Wayne Parnell's summer.

But none of those wounds was as horrifically significant as the one Mark Boucher suffered in Taunton. In those few moments, after the bail popped up and hit him, there was confusion, because in the absence of blood no one knew really knew what had happened. Later the team manager explained in graphic detail how Boucher's eye was punctured and the clear liquid he felt on his gloves when he touched his face was optical fluid. Boucher was forced to retire as he lost sight in the eye, which he has yet to regain. Life, rather than just cricket, was brought into sharp focus, and it was a reality check for everyone present that day.

Andrew McGlashan

assistant editor

Best: James Anderson's spell in Nagpur
Pitches were the focus of much talk during England's Test series in India. Subcontinental slow in Ahmedabad, raging turn in Mumbai, a little pace in Kolkata… then dead in Nagpur. Only once during the five days did it look as though there was a realistic chance of a result.

That came late on the second day, following a world-class spell from James Anderson that left India floundering on 71 for 4. A booming inswinger had dispatched Virender Sehwag, then he returned with reverse swing to remove Sachin Tendulkar (for a record ninth time) and Gautam Gambhir. On a deathly slow pitch, India found him almost unplayable during that late spell. No other seamer (or in fact, bowler) came close to matching Anderson during that game, in which, over the last three days, just 13 wickets fell. It showed why - if occasionally to some derision - he is often mentioned in same breath as Dale Steyn. Anderson transcended the conditions and nobody in the current era could have produced a better spell.

Worst: Graeme Swann being left out at Headingley
This was a sign of scrambled minds. Their side having conceded 637 for 2 in the previous Test, at The Oval, the England selectors felt a strong response was needed. Their reaction was to drop Graeme Swann for the first time since early 2009. Despite the tough time he had had at The Oval, where Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis had milked him for fun, and he finished with figures of 0 for 151, he remained one of premier spinners in the world. But Headingley does weird things to selectors - remember Darren Pattinson? So England went in with a full hand of quicks, who toiled through much of the first day until a few late wickets evened the scales. However, the biggest kick in the teeth was still to come. On the second day, with another South Africa partnership forming, Kevin Pietersen was thrown the ball and his second delivery spun past Jacques Rudolph's outside edge to have the left hander stumped. Pietersen, albeit with varying degrees of quality, added three more in the second innings, but he was soon being talked about for very different reasons. This was England's nadir of 2012.

Sharda Ugra

senior editor

Best: West Indies winning the World Twenty20
There was a time when West Indies was the world's cricket team. Like Brazil for football. Or the All Blacks for rugby. Affection for them surged around planet cricket, detached from national loyalties, immune to jingoism. When West Indies faded everything - the legends, their aura, what the team meant to millions - greyed into nostalgia.

Then suddenly, for a few evenings last September, everything returned. Not legends nor aura but the memory of what the West Indies cricket team stood for - as much to the Caribbean as the world outside it. A team bursting with fun, style and flashes of excellence (apologies to David Gower for stealing from his trophy cabinet). West Indies hit their stride at the tail-end of the World Twenty20, entering the knockout from the corner of the eye. On finals night, they became the team that hung on to the most meagre of totals, and in the background somewhere, surely, was the haunting echo of their history.

It was their first world title since the Prudential Cup of 1979. Darren Sammy's team turned that silly Gangnam dance into an ebullient, memorable celebration. And tunelessly, tonelessly, we sang over and over the only line we knew of the song that had been tagged onto one team from many countries. "Rall-ay-ayyy-ayyy, Rally round the West Indies." Once again, West Indies rallied us all.

Worst: India's 1-2 loss to England
The outlines of India's 2012 home series against England. Post 8-0, eight months of "Come to India and we'll see ya" asides. A "strategic" instruction to the selectors to pick zero spinners in the India A team for England's first practice match. Post-Ahmedabad, "I don't want to see that wicket" from MS Dhoni, because the bowlers, poor lambs, had had to work too hard. The demand for a Wankhede insta-turner, and with it, a microwavable match. Pitch in popcorn bag, crackle, snap, pop and ping - victory! Oops. Tedious work and silly skill are also required for batsmen to survive and bowlers to succeed. 1-1. Momentum shift to England. No admissions of errors, please. A bicicletta instead at the umpires after a botch-up: for earning handsome payments and not taking decisions. Onward to Eden Gardens, home of miracles. Except, the sweat-drenched miracle is England's. The toss won, again. The match lost, again. The batting imploded, the bowlers faded. The game's long-lasting proverb becomes the moral of the story: you take the piss out of cricket, cricket takes the piss out of you.

Andrew Fernando

Sri Lanka correspondent

Best: New Zealand fans' joy at the P Sara Test win
As dusk darkened to night at the P Sara Oval on November 29, two men emerged from the stands wielding a New Zealand flag, and a banner bearing the silver fern. They bellowed their joy, whooped their ecstasy, and stood euphorically astride the pitch that had delivered their catharsis. It had arrived about two hours before, when Martin Guptill held an edge off Angelo Mathews' bat to complete one of the most stirring series comebacks of the year.

The men at the P Sara had travelled to Sri Lanka during the monsoon rains, and watched their team lose three ODIs, and match their worst Test losing streak in 67 years, when they imploded on the third day in Galle to serve Sri Lanka a walkover ten-wicket victory.

By any usual marker, be it the weather or New Zealand's rate of success, this was a poor vacation. But the pair, whose hijinks enlivened the work of the ground staff finishing up, certainly didn't seem to think their money would have been better spent elsewhere. 

It was a striking reminder of the love that sustains the game. Without fans like these and millions more at home, there would be no tour of Sri Lanka for New Zealand, no sponsored uniforms, no trophies, no business-class flights, no Test averages or TV interviews - not even the odd captaincy fiasco.

There was no mistaking the two men's passion for cricket in the Colombo twilight. Perhaps one day, New Zealand's cricketers and its administration will be worthy of such support. 

Worst: The removal of Tests from Sri Lanka's 2013 schedule

As some of Sri Lanka's greatest-ever cricketers prepare to wind down their careers, Sri Lanka Cricket has moved to deprive them of a home series against arguably the best team in the world. When South Africa last visited, in 2006, they were defeated 2-0, and the two men who have shouldered Sri Lanka's burden for much of the last decade composed an unforgettable 624-run association that delivered an innings win.

In addition to the postponement of the South Africa series to some vaguely defined period in 2015, SLC have also agreed to cull the two Tests they were scheduled to play in the West Indies in 2013, and have replaced that series with an ODI triangular involving India. It is also worth noting that three Tests were cut from 2012's schedule - one of which was almost certainly a casualty of the IPL. 

The cancellations and postponements of Test matches are perhaps understandable from a financial perspective, as the struggling board faces a year of lean revenue. But if SLC had not been politically manoeuvred to construct a world-class stadium in the wilderness while a functioning ground in Dambulla was neglected, the board would not have found itself in such distress. 

Sri Lanka has never been counted among Test cricket's elite, and by removing Tests the administration has not only hurt Sri Lanka's chances of forming a serious challenge to the best Test teams, it has risked the side's regression in the game's most critical format.