Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Sixth Annual OB Innings Of The Year

Can a year's worth of batting have a theme? Probably only one imposed in the individual mind. For me, 2013 was the year of the classical batsman, those with an echo of the past in their often futuristic scoring rates: the year of Michael Clarke, Che Pujara, AB de Villiers, Rohit Sharma, Ian Bell and the player I enjoyed watching the most, the stellar Virat Kohli.

It was also the year that an era of batting like no other at last slipped away. The 2013 IPL gave us Pondulkar. Both halves of that star-crossed partnership are now gone, Sachin amid scenes that will live long in the memory. The speech was a belter, too. Then Jacques Kallis did what neither could, and closed his Test career with a century that left him forever one run ahead of Rahul Dravid on the all-time list. The big four stand on their Olympus now.

If you're new to this significant bauble, the rules are simple: it's awarded to an innings played in the calendar year that I've seen either live or on TV. If you played a cracker and I didn't see it, like the tree that falls in the distant forest it hasn't left its mark - at least not around here. Don't worry, there's no prize to miss out on, and no recognition beyond the glory of the few people that read about it on this page.

The five previous winners, though, have been significant, sometimes even emblematic. The first was Brendan McCullum's 158 in the inaugural game of the IPL. Then came Thilan Samaraweera's 159, made a few months after his recovery from being shot in the legs in the Lahore attacks. Alastair Cook's 235 in Brisbane scooped the pot next (ah how long ago...). 2011's was Kevin Pietersen's double hundred at Lord's as England became the number one Test side, the one innings I feel I got wrong. It should have gone to MS Dhoni's World Cup winning knock in Mumbai. KP won last year, too, for his masterpiece to date - 186, also in Mumbai.

So without further ado... the envelope please. First a hat-tip to a couple of players I didn't see much of. Misbah ul-Haq scored more ODI runs than anyone else this year, and Mohammad Hafeez made the second most, and the second most T20I runs too. Also out of view were Darren Bravo's 218 against New Zealand, Ross Taylor's 217 the other way, Graeme Smith's 234 against Pakistan in the UAE, Corey Anderson's hair-raiser of the other day (save for a few news highlights, which in a strange way probably summed it up) and Jesse Ryder's heartening accompaniment.

By contrast, Ian Bell spent the English summer in almost permanent view, making persuasive hundreds at Trent Bridge, Lord's and Chester Le Street. But Ian old son, it's not you, it's me. There is something about his batting that, like happiness, writes white. His driving is a thing of beauty and those hundreds carried weight, but I find him a curiously affectless player, skimming impassively across the surface of things. Unfair, yes, but then so is cricket and by extension, life...

Sometimes an innings viewed in retrospect can accrue significance, and Brad Haddin's last-ditch 71 at Nottingham might have been the pivot point for his country, certainly more so than Watto's flat-tracking tons, although his Oval assault on Simon Kerrigan demonstrated the innate but essential cruelty of top-level sport. Steve Smith has cult-like qualities: most of the cricketing public will observe his limitations, but somewhere there are kids in the backyard pretending to be him. Any man who goes to a debut Test hundred with a six will inspire that.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Australian side has only one truly great player (I think Mitch may have a case by the time he's done). Michael Clarke is stymied by his back, and yet he continues to defy it. He may be a slightly weird metrosexual from a Bret Easton Ellis novel, but the boy can bat. He made more Test runs than anyone else, and of his four hundreds, the 130 in Chennai and his 187 in Manchester were when he truly stood above his team and the opposition.

Only AB de Villiers could argue that he had a better year. He made four Test hundreds too. I only saw the one against India in the company of Kallis, but there were three ODI tons and some sensational T20 hitting. He is an all-around master, another great.

Faf Du Plessis will never be one of those, but the man is a throwback, a player of freakish rearguards in an age when they are a forgotten art. He matched his 2012 defiance in Adelaide with a six and-a-half hour 134 against India at the Wanderers in a bizarre and compelling draw. His conservatism somehow remains at the heart of the South African psyche.

Hitting is now an art form of its own, and it is an under-rated skill, at least in terms of posterity. Chris Gayle will, I'm sure, come to be regarded as the Bradman of T20 cricket, and he pushed back the possible a little further in Bangalore in April, striking 13 fours and 17 sixes from the 66 balls it took for 175. His strike rate was just the 265.15.

One hundred and seventy five from 11 overs. Say what you like about the bowling, the pitch, any of it, something like that still needs to be done and it takes a rarified talent to do so. Aaron Finch, George Bailey, Jason Faulkner and Quentin De Kock played white ball innings that occupied the new universe that Gayle has mapped, but he remains the avatar.

Which leaves us (well me) with India, the country of the bat in the era of the batsman. Their recent series in South Africa, where it is statistically harder to score than anywhere else and where the world's finest attack resides, was the best Test cricket of the year (that I saw).

Dhoni's double hundred in Chennai against Australia was terrific, as was Che Pujara almost every time he went in. Rohit Sharma clocked up a double ton in an ODI. Rahane's 96 in the second Test against South Africa was a symbol of this new Indian line-up  - they no longer fear the short ball.

Above them all was Kohli. Red ball, white ball, the guy is searing in attack, classical in defence and in love with batting. Twice 350 was chased down like it was nothing, and the ball burned from his blade. He is my batsman of 2013, and he will lay waste to England next summer.

But the innings of the year is necessarily a singular thing. One other giant of modern batting has slipped off the radar, and that is Virender Sehwag, a man who drove the role of the opener forwards conceptually. Shikhar Dhawan, a moustachioed roue, emerged from his wake in Mohali to rip apart the Australian attack with a joy so infectious it's making me smile to think of it now, nine months and two Ashes series later.

He and the estimable Murali Vijay put on 289 for the first wicket, of which Dhawan made 187. Pujara, who'd had his pads on all the while, then got out for one. Such is the mad and inevitable nature of the game. I sat in my living room that morning with the sun pouring in low and thin with its hints of the summer to come, and watched Shikhar hit the ball hard and often for the sheer pleasure it brings. Afterwards his took off his helmet and twirled his tache like Errol Flynn walking up to a girl in a bar.

Shikhar, the innings of the year is yours. Salut, my friend.


Tony Tea said...

Shikky was right to revel in his innings, because he has barely made a run since.

Alex said...

escept for his tons in the champions trophy and tons in the ODIs against Australia?

Brian Carpenter said...

Superb as always, OB, but not sure that Rahane's 96 (good though it was, and at times it was very classy indeed) showed that Indian players no longer fear the short ball. Rahane himself was skulled by Steyn at least once (perhaps twice?) and looked as though his playing of the short ball needs a lot more work.

But then it seems as though barely an innings goes by these days without someone being hit in a way that would have put them in hospital (or a mortuary) before helmets were invented.

Completely agree about Kohli. There's just something about him. Unlike Dhawan, I suspect, Kohli and Pujara will be around for the long haul.

The Old Batsman said...

Thank you Brian - yes I think you're right and have defined it better than me. they're not less bad at the short ball than anyone else (Ballance's sconing by johnson being a case in point...)

Tim Newman said...

I like Kohli as well, has the arrogant swagger which I like to see occasionally in a sportsman. Emphasis on the occasionally.

Anonymous said...

2013 may have been great, but 2014's been something of a let down



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