As I bid adieu to the year 2010, one of my fondest memories of the year will be my memories of cricket, be it Sachin's Double Century against South Africa in an ODI match, creating yet another record and scaling yet another unscaled peak, or be it VVS's brutal yet sublime destruction of the Australians at the PCA Stadium Mohali, winning once again against Kangaroo's where victory seemed improbable.
At the outset, I would like to point out that with respect to the batsmen, the test team I am about to describe, is one based on the position that the particular batsman bats in the batting order, whether he is an opener or a number 6 batsman. I am not listing out the 6 best batsmen of the year, but the best batsman at their designated position. As a consequence of this exercise I may miss out on some of the best performers overall, who were not necessarily the best batsmen at their number in the batting order.
- Virender Sehwag (India)
The man has become one of the most destructive forces in test cricket. These days every team has not one but many plans to dismiss him, and not too many succeed in doing so, without first hemorrhaging runs. He scored 1422 runs in 14 test matches (25 innings) at an average of 61.82. The stats at this point are quite impressive, as is for any test player who scores more than a 1000 runs in a calendar year. However, the fact that he got those 1422 runs in 25 innings at a strike rate of 90.80 is what makes the statistics all the more stunning. The sheer destructive aura that he now exudes, defeats the faint of heart even before they bowl their first delivery. Add to that another stat that, out of those 25 test innings he managed to maintain a 100.00 strike rate or more 10 times, and only one of those 10 times was in a test innings versus Bangladesh tells you that, he has at least once, pummeled each of his test opponents (Bangladesh, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand). He is by many a yard the best test opening batsman for the year 2010
- Alistair Cook (England)
This left handed batsman has finally had his breakthrough year, which the English selectors have been waiting for since his debut in 2006. The most English of the current crop of English players, Alistair Cook seems to have come off age in the Australian conditions and has been eating the Australian bowling attack for breakfast, lunch and tea. In the current ashes series in particular, he has completely lost his habit of wafting outside the off-stump early on his innings, which led to his many low scores in the earlier part of his career. He seems to have passed his bug to Gautam Gambhir who is being now dismissed (whenever he manages to play more than 1 test match in a row) in a very similar fashion to how Cook was being dismissed a year ago when Gambhir was being called 'the indian run machine' by Sehwag. The purist's always believed that Cook has the temperament to succeed at the test level and that he just needed minor technical adjustments but a lot more belief. After this ashes series, technical issues aside, I do not think belief will be a problem. This may be the first of many bumper years from a man who is seen by many as the natural successor to Andrew Strauss.
- Jonathon Trott (England)
The number three spot was pretty hard to decide, the three main contenders were Jonathon Trott, Kumar Sangakarra and Hashim Amla. On pure averages, at 99.28 Kumar Sangakarra was miles ahead of Hashim Amla's 78.06 and Trott's 66.25, even though both those averages are indications of a monster run scoring year for the other two contenders as well. However, the problem with Sangakarra's average lies in the fact that all 9 innings were played in Sri Lanka and granted that 5 of those 9 innings were against India, it was still in Sri Lanka, where batsmen are just not tested, unless they are (i) not Sri-Lankan; and (ii) facing Murali.
Hashim Amla has had a fantastic year, one in which he scored 490 runs in India, being dismissed only once, however his complete loss of form in the West Indies for the duration of the three test match series and the fact that barring his 140 at Centurion in mid-December all his runs came on batsman friendly surfaces, does not allow him to overshadow the achievements of one who is much newer to the game than him, but already gives the dependable feeling of an established campaigner, one Jonathon Trott.
Trott by any standards has had a fantastic year, his first full year in test cricket, he scored 1325 runs, at an average of 66.25 in 24 innings, with a high score of 226. He was a brief though vital component of the ashes success in 2009, however post the euphoria of one of the most brilliant debut centuries ever, he has continued the good work in 2010 and regained his top form for the Australians and his success against Australia in the current ashes series has cemented his place at No. 3 for England's foreseeable future.
- Sachin Tendulkar (India)
Sachin Tendulkar has had an outstanding 2010 even by his own lofty standards. I would be amiss in referring to him in 2010 without mentioning the 200 not out against South Africa in an ODI, considering such an astonishing feat, if he hadn't achieved his 50th Test Century this year, the year 2010 would still have gone down has one of his most memorable years. However, the 1562 test runs he managed to accumulate in 23 innings at an average of 78.10 has made this year, his 21st full year playing test cricket, his finest year yet. He has never before in his 21 years of playing cricket, managed to accumulate over 1500 runs in a calendar year. To top it all, this has been a fantastically consistent year, where in his 23 test innings, 7 were centuries (2 double centuries), 5 were half centuries (one of them a 98 against Australia), only thrice in the entire 23 innings he batted was he dismissed on a single digit score and not a single duck all year long. What this basically means, not only did he pile on the runs this year, he did it all year long and against each of his opponents. None were spared, not the Australians at home and not the South Africans at home and away.
To put into perspective as to why 2010 has to be ranked as Sachin's best year in test cricket, you would have to look at his previous stats, which are at first glance tough to top. His best year prior to this one was in 2002 where he scored 1392 runs at an average of 55.68 scoring 4 centuries and 5 half centuries in 26 test innings. The only year which can arguably top his 2010 performances was in 2004 when he scored 915 runs at an average of 91.50 scoring 3 centuries and 2 half centuries in only 15 test innings.
The only other serious contender for this spot was Jacques Kallis, who scored 1198 runs at an average of 79.86 scoring 6 centuries and 2 half centuries, however, Sachin's consistency and complete domination of the bowling attacks, with riskless cricket, was beyond compare this year. Which is why, even though Kallis may have had his best year in test cricket, he would, the way Sachin has been playing, lose out as the best 2 down batsman in the year 2010.
- VVS Laxman (India)
There were only two other batsmen I had considered for this spot before I decided on Laxman and they were Mike Hussey and AB de Villiers. Hussey had an extremely good start to the year where he scored a 134 not out against Pakistan, in a second innings when Australia were dismissed for 127 in their first innings. Aided by the 134 not out and an inspired spell of bowling from Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Hauritz as well as an implosion from the Pakistani batting line up, Australia managed to come away victorious from the game. However, everything went south from here on in and Mike Hussey did not score another test century till the first Ashes test over 10 months later. So even though Mike Hussey scored 967 runs at an average of 50.89 he could not make the cut as the best number three batsman. Neither could AB de Villiers, even though a snapshot of his performance this year can been seen from the fact that he scored 996 runs at an average of 76.61 with 3 centuries (including a mammoth 278 not out against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi), but could not be as much of an impact player as either Michael Hussey or our very own VVS Laxman.
VVS Laxman, is indeed a very special batsman, anyone who has ever seen him bat would say the same. Laxman has also had a very very special year, where he has amassed 939 runs, at an average of 67.07, scoring 2 centuries and 7 half centuries. However it is not just the number of runs that makes this year special for this batsman, it is the circumstances under which 70% of his runs were scored. If ever any batsman can be said to have had an impact year, this is one of those years for Laxman. His 103 not out at the P Sara Oval in Colombo guided India home in a 257 run chase on a day 5 pitch, in Sri Lanka where the home side are notoriously difficult to defeat, with a bad back and a troublesome Ajantha Mendis who he had fallen prey to consistently in the previous series. His 73 not out in 79 deliveries at the PCA Stadium in Mohali guiding India home with one wicket to spare, battling back spasms and a resurgent Australian unit, is going to be the stuff of legends, spoken off immediately after speaking off his second innings 281 against Australia at the Eden Gardens following on. Finally his 96 in Durban against an incisive and fast paced bowling attack consisting of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, where the rest of the batsmen in both innings seemed completely at sea, will go down as one of the finest exhibitions of batting against good pace bowling seen over the past few years. A year such as this goes down easily as a memorable and special one.
- Ian Bell (England)
This position was easily the toughest to decide. There was not one player who consistently played at this position and claimed it as his own, as Laxman did till 2008, when Saurav was still in the team. Suresh Raina had a wonderful start to his test career in Colombo where he flayed the Sri Lankan attack on a placid SSC pitch and thereby notching up a century and a half century on debut. However, after a well-made 86 against Australia at Mohali, Suresh Raina has faded away in his performances and has found to be wanting once again, against quality short pitched bowling and had currently been dropped in favour of Cheteshwar Pujara. Marcus North maintained his position in the Australian batting line-up at number 6 and had an average year where he scored two centuries, however he has been unbearably inconsistent and has since been dropped in favour of Steven Smith.
The choice was made in favour of Ian Bell on the basis of the fact that a team would want its number 6 batsman, to be an impact player, someone who can bat for long periods with the top order or quicken up the pace when batting with the tail enders. Ian Bell, a former top order batsman, has all these qualities. His position has been consistently between 5 and 6 during the year 2010, where he has scored 786 test runs in 14 innings at an average of 65.50. His impact has been felt throughout the current Ashes series where he has consistently counter attacked the Australian bowlers and managed to throw them of their game. He has batted well in trying circumstances and deserves to be called the best number 6 batsman in 2010.
- Mahendra Singh Dhoni (India)
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has a had a fantastic start as the Indian test captain, his batting on the other hand as per me, has taken a hit in the past one year in all forms of the game. His captaincy, though now copping a little criticism for being too defensive with respect to field placings, has been getting the job done and he seems to be able to lift the team when required while still staying in control of the situation. As a wicketkeeper he effected 48 dismissals with 41 catches and 7 stumpings, he has seldom made too many glaring mistakes behind the wicket and a well-known saying in test cricket is that, "if you're not noticing the wicket-keeper, he's doing a good job" rings true for Dhoni's glove work. Matt Prior gave Dhoni good competition with more dismissals and a similar batting average, but where Dhoni scores over Matt Prior is that he seems to be a little more consistent than prior behind the stumps, as Prior is vulnerable to some shocking drops and misses especially when it comes to stumpings. With the bat as well, Dhoni seems a little less prone to single digit scores as Prior is and therefore, beats Matt Prior to the slot of Wicket-Keeper Batsman at No. 7.
- Graeme Swann (England)
Graeme Swann walks into the best team for 2010, because on the basis of current form he is by leaps and bounds the best spinner in the world. Swann has an inherent advantage of not taking the game and life too seriously. As is displayed from the Swanny's Ashes Diary, he is a complete prankster with no regard for anyone's sensitivities including his own. His confidence that he will succeed at anything he does, as long as he does it his way, is refreshing and the exact burst of life that this English team needed. His record in 2010 speaks for itself; he was the highest wicket taker in 2010 taking 64 wickets at an average of 25.96 and a strike rate of 54.0. He took 5 wickets in an innings 6 times and 10 wickets in a match once. The next closest spinner to him was Harbhajan Singh of India, who took 43 wickets at 40.69 and a strike rate of 80.3. Such a large difference in the two spinners can be attributed to one simple character trait and that is aggression. Graeme Swann is an aggressive spinner, and not aggressive in the manner of snarling at the batsmen or mouthing off for no apparent reason, which Harbhajan is prone to do from time to time. Swann is aggressive in his outlook to the game, he loops the ball a lot more than the spinners around these days, this greater loop allows the ball the chance the grip, turn and bounce, which is more likely to pick up a wicket. He is forever attacking the batsmen and trying to get them out, which does not seem apparent from Harbhajan's bowling in 2010 (with maybe the exception of the Durban test). His never say die attitude and his successful wicket taking knack make him easily the best spin bowler in test cricket at the moment.
- Dale Steyn (South Africa)
Dale Steyn is fast, he is unrelenting and is extremely aggressive. These are the required character traits of a wicket-taking strike bowler, and Dale Steyn does the job perfectly. It is quite an intimidating sight to see Dale Steyn charging in, off his long run-up, with a brand new red cricket ball in his hand and a lively pitch to support the back bending effort he is ready to put in. Neither is he a one dimensional bowler who can only bowl a certain kind of length with skill. His short ball, is as deadly as the one that dips in at pace, and it is usually the short ball which puts the fear of the front foot in the batsmen, which allows the full length in-dipper to do the job of getting the LBW or bowled. He is a seasoned operator who spearheads the South African bowling attack and with Morne Morkel forms one of the most intimidating opening bowling line-ups in world cricket today. His record in 2010 is exemplary; he took 60 wickets (with a best of 7/51 against India at Nagpur) at an average of 21.41 and a strike rate of 39. With his success in India at the start of the year, he displayed that he can be deadly on non-responsive pitches as well.
- Zaheer Khan (India)Zaheer has easily had the best year off his career, it may not be in terms of number of wickets, but considering the fact that he has been plagued with injuries which have made him miss many a match, he has maintained his form without looking rusty even after a lay-off due to injury. Zaheer hasn't played an injury free year since 2003, so as fans we should stop expecting him to do so. It is a well-known fact, that since his coming of age tour in 2007 to England, Zaheer has been a different bowler. He now gets in the face of batsmen, and not unnecessarily or after getting hit for a four like Sreesanth does from time to time, he gets in their face after he bounces them, or beats them with an away swinger. He gets in their face to let them know that life is not going to easy for the next 4-5 overs while he bowls, and he more often than not gets his man. In 2010 Zaheer took 47 wickets from 17 innings at an astonishing average of 21.97 which is second only to Dale Steyn. He is one of the few bowlers in the world who has mastered the SG, Kookaburra and the Duke ball. He has proven time and time again that you don't need pace alone to be a good fast bowler. What you need is a plan, the skill to execute the plan, and most importantly the heart to keep trying if the plan does not succeed at first, and heart Zaheer has displayed in ample amounts while toiling away on unresponsive Indian pitches.
- James Anderson (England)
James Anderson took lots of wickets this year, and he took them cheaply and at important junctures. He has emerged as the English attack leader and has proven a further point by getting wickets down in Australia, where people felt that on the basis of his 2007 ashes performance he did not possess the skill to swing the Kookaburra ball. Well he proved them wrong and did so in emphatic style. He has been consistent all year round, without a single below par series. He took 57 wickets at an average of 22.96 and a strike rate of 48.7. He has taken wickets in heaps against both the South Africans and Australians and was near unplayable when he bowled against the Pakistani's. His ability to pull out a special delivery when needed, puts him ahead of the others and has finally become a world class bowler, who will go down, I am sure, as one of England's modern day great fast bowlers.
So 2010 was a memorable year in test cricket. It was a year where we said goodbye to one of the most loved personalities of the game, Muttiah Muralitharan. Muttiah had decided to retire after the first test of the home series against India in July, he was on 792 wickets. He produced a memorable swan song, where he bowled Sri Lanka to victory and picked up his required eight wickets and retired at exactly 800 wickets against his name. He was a bowler with exemplary skill and a fierce competitive nature. Murali loved bowling, you could tell from his delivery stride, the eyes wide upon release of the ball, in complete concentration. He was a bowler par excellence, some may so he was not better than Shane Warne, but who cares, he was Murali and everyone loved him, well maybe not Darrel Hair. He was the last great spinner to retire and with the exit of Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and now Murali, three spin bowlers who I have grown up watching and at different times, have attempted to copy their bowling actions (attempting to copy Murali's action resulted in disaster where a neighbors window was sacrificed and my friends didn't let me bowl for a week and I had to keep instead), there seems to be a lacunae in the quality of spin bowling in test cricket presently. Spin is an essential aspect of test cricket, which in my opinion seems to be diminishing. Whether it is limited overs cricket which is killing spin as a weapon of choice or other factors, your guess is as good as mine.
Another aspect which has come to light over the past one year is that, with the decline of the Australian Cricket team, there seems to have been a certain restoration of parity in the world of test cricket. Where earlier the difference between the best team and the second best team was miles and sometimes contests became boring and one-sided, there are currently 4 teams which on their best day could beat any of the other three teams. Between Australia, England, South Africa and India, we have a healthy four horse race, where predicting a winner amongst the four could be fraught with peril. Some may say the quality of cricket has gone down from the 80's and 90's. I tend to agree, but it does make for better viewing. Further, it is inevitable that if these teams continue competing against each other at their best, the quality is bound to rise as each team is going to attempt to find new ways of getting the edge over the other, as there is little to separate the two. These are all good signs for the game of test cricket and as a consequence of close competitive test cricket I feel that the game per se will be healthier over the coming few years.