On a dank Chelmsford night back in July, Owais Shah played the shot of the season. Under lights, from the bowling of Charl Langeveld, he picked up his bat, pushed forward and sent an 85mph outswinger over the field, over the boundary, over the stand and out of the ground. It was a shot that was emblematic of the game in 2011, the forward defensive push supercharged by technology and ambition into something extraordinary. It was a shot that said this: anything is possible.
Shah's little masterpiece sat above all of the blasts, flips, scoops, glides and switch-hits; it was simple and beautiful in its way. Batsmanship, though, is more complex than ever, what with its extended repertoire and its multiple formats, with all of its choice. Selecting a single innings that somehow represents the year, or at least more than just the match it was played in, is the task at hand, and as with the three previous editions of this entirely arbitrary and little-known award [2008, 2009 and 2010 here] the criteria for the shimmering gong are as ever: an innings that I've seen, either in the flesh, on the box or down that handy ask-no-questions live stream via India, that upholds the principal that a great knock somehow transcends the numbers in the book. The winner need not trouble themselves with the rented tux and trip to the sponsored green room, because there isn't one: honour is all. And with that, the envelope please...
Jacques Kallis began the year with a hundred in each innings, and ended it with a pair - that's the batsman's life right there in miniature. The second of those tons, compiled in the great tradition of the walking wounded, was a feat of technical endurance and experience that at last, after a statistically epic career, proved Jacques had that more mortal attribute of heart to go with his glorious new head of hair. The Test though will resonate for one epic passage of play between Steyn and Tendulkar. An exquisite exchange of skills that will live forever in the memory was won - just - by Tendulkar, who made a 51st Test century.
Sachin had two more tons in him, both World Cuppers, that would for the 98th and 99th time belie the weight of expectation that has shadowed his life. Amusingly, he was outbatted in the first of those games by Andrew Strauss, whose 158 confirmed England as the 50-over side to follow if you wanted shit and giggles. They greatly enlivened a competition staffed by central casting and scripted by Spielberg. In losing to Ireland, they bowed to the endeavours of Kevin O'Brien, who produced an innings that, come the IPL auction, might yet change his life, and in the tie with India in Bangalore, engaged in the match of the tournament.
When the stage cleared for the big boys in Mumbai, Mahela Jayawardene made an 88-ball hundred silkier than a George Clooney chat-up line, but the force of destiny was ranged against him and Sri Lanka. Enter MS Dhoni, a man whose implacably sunny attitude to cricket deflects pressure of mercurial weight, for a rousing chase that finished with the ball burning through the night skies. It was a Bollywood ending for a tournament that dispelled much of the darkness and farce of the West Indies four years before.
The comedown for India was long and hard, but on what must have seemed like an endless traipse through England's damp green lands, Dhoni's spirits never dipped, and come some limpid one dayers he was once more undismissable. But just one man stood up to England's high summer onslaught, reiterating his quiet greatness. The Wall made three hundreds in four games, carrying his bat at the Oval and then going straight back in again. It was valedictory batting characterised by Ruler's ruthless judgment. To watch him leave the ball remains, in Gideon Haigh's phrase, 'an exchange of advantage so small as to be immeasurable'. You can be sure, though, that Rahul knows its value.
Sehwag was sold badly short by his rushed return to the side after shoulder surgery, but his day lay ahead and what a deathless day it was, a white hot morning in Indore when he made a world record 219 in an ODI against West Indies. The adjective that captures it best is joyous. Sehwag's ability has been eulogised enough. What was really memorable was his spirit. He was reveling in his moment. Who among us would not surrender a fair portion of out worldy goods just to be able to bat for an hour like Viru?
Australia's new role as the comedy entertainers of Test cricket required moments of excellence to set up their punchlines, and Michael Clarke produced two centuries of high class, his 151 at Newlands against the moving ball being the pick for some immaculate driving. 'It'll mean nothing if we don't win the game,' he said afterwards. If you believe that, you'll believe anything. Amla's hundred did win the game, and was just as good.
Before we reach the sharp end of this year's shindig, a word on Chris Gayle's explorations of T20 possibilities. He and David Warner have set the blueprint for scoring hundreds regularly in the format. Gayle's hitting is freakish - no-one strikes the ball harder - but his real value is in the amount of games he wins for his teams, and he does it by judging perfectly the tempo of his innings.
Aside from that electric, anachronistic month or so of the World Cup [50 over cricket remains on death watch], the year belonged to England. Bowlers - those poor saps - win Tests, but England's method is based on the relentless accumulation of runs for them to shy at. It has been a golden time. Cook and Trott had their sessions in the sun and Matt Prior remains the hammer of the declaration, but two players merited further consideration.
Ian Bell evokes rapturous notices for his timing and elegance but to me remains a pond-skater, sliding across the surface tension, afloat on the calm created by other forces. Unfair? Maybe, but that icy chip of indefinable greatness is still not obvious. You would though need a heart of stone not to enjoy his double at the Oval, when, on a glowing August afternoon, England iced their cake.
Kevin Pietersen made 175 that day, an innings that took his Test average back over 50 and ended a lengthy rehabilitation from a slump complex in its nature. Had it happened in an England side of the 1990s it might have been terminal, but both KP and the set-up deserve credit for coming through. His most human innings of the year came at Southampton against Sri Lanka, a knock of 85 in which he employed that huge stride to play massively straight, a homage to orthodoxy that even the wildest players must sometimes make. It was an innings of penance, an acknowledgement that the gods of the game must be respected.
He deserved a hundred that day, but it went to Bell. A month later, at Lord's in the 2000th Test, those gods relented. In return he grafted against the swinging ball, his first 22 runs taking 73 balls, his first fifty 134. But then, the next took 82, the third 75 and his final 50 just 25. He went to his double hundred by smoking Suresh Raina for 4, 6, 2 and 4 from consecutive deliveries as Lord's vibrated with the strange magic that he only can impart. The occasion, the venue and the moment had aligned, and England's best player had stepped up. The series was shaped, and England's upward curve confirmed. KP, the innings of the year is yours.
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