Revenge served hot

Mitchell Johnson tormented the English batsmen Down Under. Here Ian Bell ducks under a bouncer on the first day of their fourth Ashes Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.-AP

After a setback in England, earlier in 2013, a regrouped Australia regained the Ashes. The well-bonded Aussies played hard and celebrated with passion amidst the English ravages. By S. Dinakar.

The marauding Mitchell Johnson inflicting physical and psychological scars on the shell-shocked English batsmen was among the dominant cricketing images of the year.

The stage was big — it was the Ashes. The comeback was huge too, both from a personal and team perspective. Fortune-swings add a fascinating element to cricketing scripts. Under the scanner was the technique and courage of Alastair Cook and his men. The Englishmen, quite simply, folded up under the relentless barrage of Johnson & Co.

After a setback in England, earlier in 2013, a regrouped Australia regained the Ashes. The well-bonded Aussies played hard and celebrated with passion amidst the English ravages.

George Bailey smashing England spearhead James Anderson for 28 runs in an over in Perth — he equalled the record for most runs in an over in Tests — was another reflection of how things had gone horribly wrong for England.

The back-to-back Ashes were the highlights of the year; England triumphed 3-0 in the first. Most of the cricket played was gripping even as the Decision Review System (DRS) came under increasing scrutiny in England where technology seemed to throw up more questions than answers.

Cricket leaves behind mental and physical wounds as the years roll by. Jacques Kallis, that giant of an all-rounder, retired after the end of the Boxing Day Test between India and South Africa in Durban, signing off with a patient 115 in South Africa’s first innings. What a cricketer!

Despite Australia’s stirring resurgence, South Africa was the dominant team of the year. The World No. 1 in Tests blew away New Zealand 2-0 and Pakistan 3-0 at home. Then, Graeme Smith’s men came back from a Test down to level the series against Pakistan in the UAE.

The South African team, although ageing, displayed resilience. The way it nearly chased down a historic 458 in the first Test against India, only to fall short by eight runs in possibly the greatest draw of all time, oozed character.

South Africa had plenty going for it. In Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, the side possessed a pace pair of fury, incision and skill. Steyn, who crossed the 40-wicket mark for the year, is a complete package. His speed is harnessed by control and two-way movement. Not too many pacemen use the short ball more judiciously.

Complementing Steyn was the tall Morkel with his off-stump line and disconcerting lift. Swing bowler Vernon Philander brought variety to the attack. He, too, is a strike bowler who causes plenty of damage with his fuller length and movement.

The only criticism against the South African attack has been its lack of viable spinning options. Leg-spinner Imran Tahir, at least in the spinner-conducive Dubai, seemed to have addressed this issue with his five for 32, triggering Pakistan’s defeat. Tahir spun his leg-breaks, delivered wrong ‘uns and flippers with fizz, but barged into a truckload of trouble against India at the Wanderers.

Given the quality of its batting, South Africa deserved to be the top side in the world. Southpaw Graeme Smith put fitness concerns behind with a match-winning 234 in Dubai.

This side is not short of heavyweights. The smooth-stroking Hashim Amla carved out several innings of significance. He crossed the 600 runs for the year, with an average above 60! Evident in Amla’s game — he is strong off the back foot — was his judgment of length, his picking of line and his range of shots.

The attack-minded AB de Villiers brought another dimension to South Africa’s batting. He is light on his feet and can sting with his shots. The man can create and innovate; he scored more than 800 runs in the year, at a stunning average of around 80 and whipped up an extraordinary century in that unforgettable Test against India in Johannesburg.

The unflappable Faf du Plessis’ monumental century of patience, technique and mental fortitude, amid mounting tension at the Wanderers, in the same game, will be imprinted in cricket history.

Graeme Swann’s was another high-profile retirement of the year. The England off-spinner’s shock announcement, immediately after Australia regained the Ashes in Perth, brought the ruthless nature of international sport and the toll it takes on the protagonists. Top-flight cricket can be unforgiving.

Back to Johnson! Ahead of the Boxing Day Test, he had taken 34 wickets in just six Tests. This left-armer is a predator with a taste for blood…err wickets!

Yet Johnson was not alone. The lively Ryan Harris had 38 wickets in eight matches; his deceptiveness off the track unlocked many defences. And Peter Siddle, straight and rhythmic, added more venom to the pace pack and scalped 42 wickets.

Skipper Michael Clarke crossed 1000 runs for the year, played his 100th Test match, and led with inventiveness and conviction. David Warner punched Joe Root in a pub before the Ashes in England, was disciplined, but returned to bat destructively against Anderson & Co Down Under. The left-hander has fast hands and mean strokes. For the bowlers, he is a destroyer of analysis.

Shane Watson, chastened after `Home-work Gate,’ batted and bowled for the team. With his temperament and technique, Steve Smith impressed in the middle-order that no longer appeared porous. And a rejuvenated Brad Haddin kept wonderfully well and batted with panache to don a major role in the Australian renaissance.

Earlier in the year, England retained the Ashes emphatically. It had some outstanding performers in the year. None more than the lanky pace-man, Stuart Broad who, before the Melbourne Test, had grabbed in excess of 60 wickets in 14 Tests, making him the top scalp-hunter of the year. Broad’s ability to achieve lift from just short of a good length cut several innings short.

Swann delighted in England with his flight and dip, but ran into rough weather in Australia. Gradually, Anderson lost the nip in his bowling.

Ian Bell, fleet-footed and balanced, also showed the heart and had a stupendous Ashes in Old Blighty with 562 runs at 62.44 with three hundreds and broke the 1000-run barrier for the year. The gifted Kevin Pietersen was a mix of sunshine and despair; brilliant one innings and giving his wicket away in the other.

The travails of touring and battling thunderbolts in the middle came to the fore when Jonathan Trott, after a particularly harrowing time against Johnson in Brisbane, decided to leave for home to spend time with his family. Cricket is an emotionally draining game.

All was not doom and gloom for England though. Ben Stokes, an exciting all-round talent, whipped up a fluent fourth innings hundred in Perth.

Sri Lanka entered a new era with Angelo Mathews taking over the captaincy from the wily Mahela Jayawardene. But then, Sri Lanka figured in just three Tests during the year, something that makes a mockery of ICC’s commitment to Test cricket. That Bangladesh drew the first Test of the two-match series in Galle revealed the dipping returns of the Sri Lankan bowlers. Lesser depth notwithstanding, experienced left-arm spinner Rangana Herath continued to grow in stature.

There was some hope for New Zealand as well. Left-arm pace-man Trent Boult scalped a whopping 46 batsmen at 25.08, swinging the ball at a telling pace. Boult and right-arm swing bowler Tim Southee (36 wickets at 24.94) promise to form one of the finest pace-bowling pairs for New Zealand. While the results were not always satisfying, the return to form of Ross Taylor — the batsman with astonishing bat-speed — would please the Kiwis.

Pakistan found a potent left-arm pace combination in Junaid Khan and beanpole Mohammed Irfan to back Saeed Ajmal’s teasing off-spin, but still suffered a shock second Test defeat to Zimbabwe because of its wobbly batting.

Defying age — he is 39 — skipper Misbah-ul-Haq battled hard and strove to keep a volatile unit together. His well-crafted innings of 100 against South Africa in Abu Dhabi was among the high points of the year. It was a Test-clinching knock. Asad Shafiq is a middle-order batsman with possibilities for Pakistan.

The West Indies showed signs of revival in Tests before coming apart in India. The left-handed Darren Bravo’s match-saving double hundred in Dunedin against New Zealand was the moment of the year for the Caribbean’s. There was some bad news, too, when the side’s most successful bowler, off-spinner Shane Shillingford — 36 wickets in six Tests at 22.97 — was suspended by the ICC for an illegal action. The ageless Shivnarine Chanderpaul continued to construct innings of significance, figured in his 150th Test. Not short of ability, the West Indies can so easily implode.

Among the sad tales of the year was Bangladesh’s Mohammad Ashraful being implicated for spot-fixing. It’s a sad, sad, story of how greed can overcome even a simple cricketer with a shy smile.

In the ODIs, age was no bar, Misbah, left the 1200-mark behind with an average well over 50. Another veteran, Sri Lanka’s erudite Kumar Sangakkara raced past 1000 runs at an awesome over-70 average. And Australia’s George Bailey’s strike rate of 100.00 in notching up 1098 runs in 22 matches at 64.58 powered Australia to several victories.

In bowling, Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal, so effective in the middle-overs and at the death, crossed 50 wickets for the year yet again. And South African seamer Ryan McLaren was the surprise packet of the year with a whopping 45 scalps in 27 games at 23.77.

The year was not short in either performances or drama. Reputations were made and shattered. Heroes emerged.