England asserts itself

The year gone by certainly revealed different flavours from Australia, Pakistan, England and South Africa. Two cricketing certainties in 2010 were Australia's diffidence, a marked contrast to its swagger in the earlier years, and a few Pakistani cricketers' perceived lack of immunity against the temptations of tainted money, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

An ageing empire's cracks became even more visible. A self-combusting cricketing nation found newer ways to implode. A country, considered to be the cradle of cricket, displayed spine in the longer format and also showed a new effervescence in the limited overs jousts. And Africa's southern space displayed efficiency and rugged charm.

The year gone by certainly revealed different flavours from Australia, Pakistan, England and South Africa. Besides India's tenure as the number one Test team reiterated by a few Houdini acts in second innings efforts, the other two cricketing certainties in 2010 were Australia's diffidence, a marked contrast to its swagger in the earlier years, and a few Pakistani cricketers' perceived lack of immunity against the temptations of tainted money.

The year began with an intriguing Test match that pointed out Australia's frailties and Pakistan's ability to churn up whispers. The Sydney stumble witnessed Pakistan bowling out Australia for 127 in its first innings with Mohammad Asif scything through with six wickets. Pakistan then scored 333 and watched Australia's resilience surface through Michael Hussey's unbeaten 134 as the host scored 381 in its second innings. Pakistan then fizzled out at 139 during the chase with spinner Nathan Hauritz increasing the damage inflicted by Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger.

Australia had gained an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series and won the next game too, riding on Ricky Ponting's 209 and Michael Clarke's 166. The 3-0 series triumph however was marred much later by the nudge-nudge-wink-wink that surrounded any reference to Sydney, following the spot-fixing meltdown during Pakistan's England tour with bookie Mazhar Majeed being at the centre of a storm. Even Ponting was then left wondering about the truth behind his Sydney triumph.

Australia had a jaunt in New Zealand with a 2-0 Test series victory but paused against Pakistan with a 1-1 score-line in the neutral zone of England during July. However, more than a pointer to Pakistan's talent, the series reflected the self-doubts that assailed Australia's talented batsmen and the 88 they collectively mustered at Headingley will rankle Ponting and company for a long while.

Australia then suffered a 0-2 reverse against India with the familiar looming figures of V. V. S. Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar assuming gigantic proportions. Strangely at Bangalore, Ponting said: “It would be interesting how they cope with that period.” The Australian skipper was pointing to the transitory phase in Indian cricket but it is a fact that right now it is Australia that has yet to recover from the exit of top-notch players like Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden.

Not until the mid-Eighties farewell of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh, has an Australian squad looked so enfeebled. Add to it the injury woes that affected its seamers and the tale gets worse. Among the batsmen, Hussey is slowly coming to terms with the pressure of his Bradmanesque start, Clarke sadly is still a work in progress while Hauritz lost his spin and self-esteem in the Indian tour. Above all, Ponting seems to be a man countering a siege-mentality and even in the batting stakes, Sachin Tendulkar has comfortably pulled away. The final nail was the manner in which England clawed back to a draw at Brisbane and then drove in the sledge-hammer with an innings and 71-run triumph at Adelaide with Kevin Pietersen roaring ahead at 227.

The Ashes is still on the boil but surely Australia has its task cut out. Under Andrew Strauss, England is fast emerging as a team to watch out for, despite its setback in Perth. Earlier, respects were paid for England's cricketing heritage and then the team was swiftly demolished by leading rivals. That is no longer the case.

England fought with South Africa on level terms, swatted aside Bangladesh at home and away, swept past Pakistan at 3-1 in a controversial series that burnt the word ‘spot-fixing' into our collective memory and has found its heroes in the current Ashes. An England team of the past that loses its skipper for a blob in the first over of the first Test of a series, would have turned over and embraced defeat's stupor. But at Brisbane though Strauss fell, amends were made gradually with the captain himself chipping in with a 110 in the second innings while his partner Alastair Cook (235 not out) and Jonathan Trott (135 not out) bloomed.

The Ashes script had changed and coach Andy Flower deserves a lot of credit for the way the team has evolved. Pietersen's sluggish return to form or Andrew Flintoff's premature retirement has had no impact on the team. The seamers led by James Anderson and Stuart Broad have struck repeatedly and in Graeme Swann, England perhaps has the most effective spinner in modern times.

But more than the good start to the Ashes, the high-point for England was the ICC World Twenty20 title triumph in the West Indies during the summer. In the past, England strangely had a diffidence about limited overs cricket and there was always this sneaking suspicion that the Ashes remained the sole focus of its hierarchy. Redemption was at last achieved in a string of islands laced with beach and rum flavours as the Paul Collingwood-led team marched steadfastly and sneaked in the last laugh against an ominous Australia in the final.

Through the tournament players like Craig Kieswetter, Michael Lumb, Eoin Morgan and Luke Wright played their parts and in the summit clash, Ryan Sidebottom and Pietersen also shone and soon England had exorcised the ghosts of its past defeats in limited overs cricket.

The losses in the World Cup finals during 1979, 1987 and 1992, and in tournaments with the conventional 50-over format, can be glossed over for a while but England needs to build on this momentum.

Pakistan did cricket no favour when its seamers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif peddled no-balls for a price at Lords! The sordid deal sadly shifted the focus away from Stuart Broad's battling hundred and England's dominance and though Pakistan's cricket establishment sought refuge in insinuations about the bookie-nexus in Indian markets, the International Cricket Council put its foot down. Amir, Asif and captain Salman Butt were banished but the damage was done. “For those of us who love cricket, it's not a good thing,” said Strauss.

Among the rest South Africa cut a formidable sight with its batsmen dropping anchor, especially Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, skipper Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers, and its pace duo of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel striking telling blows; Sri Lanka stood firm on its home turf and turned misty-eyed when Muttiah Muralitharan retired after a dream Test at Galle while touching the 800-wicket mark; Bangladesh drew heart from opener Tamim Iqbal's hundreds in losing causes; West Indies continued to tease and disappoint though Chris Gayle's 333 against the Sri Lankans at Galle, offered some respite and New Zealand plumbed the depths.