Barring the World Cup stutter in London, India hardly put a wrong foot, dismissing every challenger with the crushing authority of world-beaters, seldom as they ever had in the past.
By Sandip G
A year that began triumphantly—with India claiming a Test series in Australia for the first time—unfolded gloriously, and would end with India helming the Test ranking, topping the Test Championship charts by an unblemished margin and establishing themselves as a contemporary cricketing superpower. Barring the World Cup stutter in London, India hardly put a wrong foot, dismissing every challenger with the crushing authority of world-beaters, seldom as they ever had in the past.
Several protagonists stood out, not least Jasprit Bumrah, the wonderment of his unique skills still unabated and Mayank Agarwal, his unreal consistency in domestic cricket seamlessly transitioning into the Test level. Spectacular as their achievements were, and the promise they exude as India firmly eye world domination, the year undoubtedly belonged to Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. A year Kohli immaculately sustained his gold-standards while Sharma came close to matching him, even dimming him in the 50-over version of the game. If it was the year, Sharma intruded into the pedestal of cricketing immortality, Kohli ensured that he remained in his happy space, in the company of the man whose six-hitting abilities he envies the most.
That Sharma is a limited-over beast has been daylight clear for several years. But this year, he vaulted to a level beyond his elevated level. The heap of records he piled up this year captures the story of his consistency. To start with, only Sanath Jayasuriya, among openers, has amassed more runs than Sharma in a calendar year; he needs nine more runs (2379 and 2387) in the season-ending ODI against West Indies to surpass the legendary Sri Lankan. The catalogue of his feats reads on—its the seventh successive season since 2013 that the highest individual score by an Indian in a calendar year is held by Sharma, his seven centuries this year is second to Sachin Tendulkar’s tally of nine in a calendar year, and that no other cricketer has crossed 150-plus runs so often (8 times) in the ODIs. The most glittering (and thrilling) number perhaps is 77, the number of sixes he had struck this year.
At his hands, six-hitting has become a scientific art or artful science, for there’s as much as science in his six-hiting as there is art. Science in his judgement, in his reflexes, in placement, in the exact moment when his velvety bat meets the ball, and in the height and distance he wants the ball to travel. Art in the minimalism of his movements, in the unhurried swing of his bat, in the fluidity of the flourish and in the un-flexed muscles of his forearms. He has become something of a programmable six-hitting machine. The confidence automatically saw his revival in the longest format too, where his performances have been frighteningly erratic. But afforded the last shot at redemption, which was to open the innings, a task several legends of the game have shirked away from, he took the challenge heads on and illustrated his aptitude with a brace of hundreds against South Africa, the kind of tone-setting, match-defining ones. It’s presumptuous to state that India has unearthed a Sehwag-like opener, but like the Delhi batsman, he can influence matches like few of his peers.
Compared to Sharma, and contrasted to his past year, Kohli had a rather average season. But still, Kohli’s mediocre season might be a great season for most other players, for he still averaged 68 from eight Tests, still racked up a double hundred and 612 runs despite not being at his fluent best, still found means to score 1292 ODI runs. It’s the sign of great batsmen that even when’s he struggling, he manages to dig in and come out of the phase. The double hundred (254 not out) against South Africa in Pune was a classic instance. Rickety to start with and redemptive when it ended.
Strangely, but unsurprisingly, he was most destructive in T20Is, which is a dangerous portent for bowlers in the lead-up to the T20 World Cup next year. From 10 games, he ransacked 466 runs, at a staggering average of 77 and strike rate of 148. Not the most instinctive of six-hitters, he struck 23 this year, which’s one-third of his overall tally (71), spread out over a decade.
It was the year Kohli the captain shaded out Kohli the batsman, a coming of age season as a leader when the petulance and penitence of early years gave away to a more worldly-wise and pragmatic leader when he chose himself to be less adventurous and more judicious in decision making when every ploy was calculated than whimsical. A bit of the old theatrical Kohli resurfaced in the limited-overs series against West Indies. But then, what’s Kohli without theatrics. After all, he needs some unwinding after 11 intense months of literally non-stop cricket and eleven months of exhilarating highs, which saw usurping MS Dhoni to become the most successful Indian skipper in Tests and more remarkably, becoming the first captain to inflict four successive innings defeats.
So in a year, Indian cricket brushed unprecedented peaks, the twin towers — Kohli and Sharma towered over the rest.