Very eventful, but sad in the end

As 2014 ebbs away, our thoughts will be with Phillip Hughes. A life snatched away in its prime lends perspective to a sport, which we often take a touch too seriously. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

The cricket ball at times is referred to as the red cherry. The euphemism might sound edible but the reference masks a grim reality — hurled at great speed, the ball can kill.

2014 was largely a year of the bouncer despite the great wins, individual milestones, fond farewells and the stigma of suspect actions. It started with Michael Clarke’s men defeating England by 281 runs in Sydney on January 5 to sweep the Ashes 5-0. A triumph in which Mitchell Johnson’s incessant short-pitched bowling yielded him 37 wickets during the one-sided series.

And much before December 31 arrived, the year ended for many on November 25 when Sean Abbott’s bouncer struck Phillip Hughes in a first-class match.

The venue was again Sydney and Hughes was rushed to a hospital. Tragically, he passed away on November 27 and the sudden occurrence of death in the sport, punctured all our utopian notions. Amidst the extremes of tumbling English wickets and Hughes becoming a poignant memory, it is time to look at the other defining moments.

THE ASHES

Though the year witnessed only one Ashes Test, the fifth and final one in Sydney, it still did enough to leave a lingering aura of Australian dominance. David Warner (523 runs) and Johnson led the batting and bowling charts respectively but it was more about a collective unit sinking Alastair Cook’s men. The Aussies scored 10 hundreds and in contrast England had just one thanks to Ben Stokes.

When it came to the fast men, Australia dominated that too while England’s James Anderson and Stuart Broad were mute. Australia under Clarke and coach Darren Lehmann, had turned a corner while England stumbled, axed Kevin Pietersen, who then vented his ire through a much-awaited book.

THE SRI LANKAN WAY

When Sri Lanka broke through its images of green vistas, civil war and Dilmah tea, thanks to the World Cup triumph in Lahore in 1996, it proved a fact in cricket — squads perceived as minnows can punch above their weight in the limited overs arena. The Emerald Isle subsequently excelled primarily in ODIs while remaining a strong force at home across all formats.

Cut to 2014, Sri Lanka defeated England 1-0 in Tests at the latter’s backyard, suffered a blip at home by losing 0-1 to South Africa and then papered over the blemish with a 2-0 verdict against Pakistan. And as always, the shorter versions found Sri Lanka in its elements as the Asia Cup and World Twenty20 was claimed in Dhaka. Yes, Angelo Mathews’ men were whipped when they toured India for an ODI series but overall the Sri Lankans can look back at a satisfactory year.

OLD WARRIOR’S ROAR

At 40, Misbah-ul-Haq wouldn’t be blamed if he retires to a life of domestic bliss in Pakistani Punjab. But true to his resilient spirit, the veteran batsman has lent dignity and steel to the Pakistan team.

The highpoint was the 2-0 Test victory over Australia in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Misbah added his own icing on the cake, with a blistering 56-ball hundred to equal Sir Vivian Richards’ record of fastest Test century.

If Misbah is all about age, performance and the quiet word, at the other end of the spectrum, a comparatively young Brendon McCullum at 33, helmed New Zealand well, guiding it to victories over India and the West Indies while also drawing level 1-1 with Pakistan in the UAE. McCullum’s daddy hundreds — 224 and 302 against India; and 202 against Pakistan in Sharjah, proved that he can construct enduring knocks.

When it comes to massive hundreds, Kumar Sangakkara cannot be left far behind and in another consistent year, he coasted to 319 against Bangladesh and 221 against Pakistan. Add to it a century at Lord’s and the Sri Lankan ace again proved that he is one among the batting greats.

MAVERICKS’ DESCENT

Pietersen and Jesse Ryder are supremely talented players but both have their tragic flaws. If Pietersen lets his ego get the better of him at times, then Ryder does much worse due to indiscipline and alcohol-indulgences. Pietersen has at least played 100-plus Tests but Ryder has only 18 to his credit. The New Zealander has only himself to blame and his latest exit from the national squad is a tragedy.

ADIEU LEGENDS

Last December when India toured South Africa, Jacques Kallis bowed out of Tests after a gritty century in Durban. But then he made it clear that he would love to play in the 2015 World Cup. However, his form deserted him in the ODIs and in September, he announced his retirement from international cricket. The game will be poorer without Kallis, inarguably one of the greatest cricketers ever. If Kallis kissed his World Cup hopes goodbye, Mahela Jayawardene still retains his. The classy Sri Lankan batsman retired from Tests but is very much part of his nation’s ODI squad. The World Cup should be his full stop, though his fans would want him to bat forever.

Another South African, a legend in his own right, caught everyone by surprise when he bowed out after losing the home series 1-2 against the visiting Aussies. Graeme Smith was a fine batsman and more than that, an astute skipper, who revitalised his men right through his stint at the top. He will be missed.

CHUCKERS BEWARE

The International Cricket Council at last woke up to the scourge of suspect actions and banned Saeed Ajmal from bowling. The Pakistan off-spinner has to correct his action and he wasn’t alone as others too were called and punished. Hopefully Ajmal and company will get back with a rectified action.

EXTRAS

Among other developments, South Africa guided by a pace attack and a new Test skipper Hashim Amla, is coping with transition. Zimbabwe is slowly finding its feet and got a wake-up call while losing 0-3 to Bangladesh. West Indies continues to be a pale shadow of its glorious past and is mired in a pay dispute. And as for the home of cricket — England — Cook’s men did well to beat India 3-1 but the bruises suffered in the Ashes still linger!

As 2014 ebbs away, our thoughts will be with Hughes. A life snatched away in its prime lends perspective to a sport, which we often take a touch too seriously.