Season Review: 2009-2010
As usual, the brief September respite provides the best chance to reflect on the past year of cricket, and the coming 12 months ahead (certainly better than the year-end when series are on-going). It has been a turgid year of test cricket. Even before match-fixing reared its head again, it felt flat. 39 games were played, but barely ten carried any excitement, and only South Africa vs England the sort of build-up that used to proceed every summer. Teams are all too familiar these days, series are packed together, leaving little time to reflect or anticipate, and the lack of any meaningful context continues to plague the game.
The I-Cup and I-Shield are proving more interesting purely for their contextual slant, but they also show the dangers inherent in a league approach. The past last games are probably meaningless as contests, with only one team playing for anything, and sometimes not even that. The length of the tournament (two years) prevents any sort of build-up, while winning of the final is no guarantee of quality, as in any one-off contest, luck, the toss, and the weather can contrive against a team.
For the same reasons, the ICC's proposed 2013 "championship" is a probable farce, designed to make the smallest change possible to the proposed calendar while supposedly giving games some "context". All played out to a disinterested neutral audience.
But more importantly, the ICC (and the broadcasters) just don't get it when it comes to competition. The problem was much better expressed, in relation to football, at Sport is a TV Show:
"To see each successive phase of a tournament as a step towards its ultimate resolution would not be to miss the point, exactly, but it would be to give it a glancing blow at best. Each stage is more than just an increment. Such is the sense of foreboding in the face of elimination, and such is the prospect of the deep joy of avoiding it, that a match becomes a universe within a universe. It takes on a meaning that, without detaching itself from the "championship" element of the tournament, is self-contained and keener than keen. Thoughts of the sweet hereafter are of limited use. There may be no future after the final whistle. For all you know, this is all you've got. A competition is a series of survivals and demises."
A league competition, playing a series of games, is only interesting insofar as the teams are relatively equal, and if not, that they have their own set of goals (avoiding relegation, alternative competition qualification, etc.). It also rides on the repetition, and seasonal turning of each year to draw on its historical context. An international league, wedded to inequality, haphazardly played across seasons, with disparate numbers of games played by and between the participants cannot possibly be a "league". And must, therefore, focus on the interplay of survival and demise that makes truly memorable contests between even unmemorable sides.
1st: Australia 1220.57 +1.25
Possibly the least interesting year of cricket I can recall. A view seemingly shared by numerous members of the blogosphere expressing a dis-interest in the sport. Australia's record was almost impeccable, losing and drawing only once each, but there was no improvement in their ratings, as they did no better than expected against the three worst "major" test sides, each of whom seem to go further backwards every year. The coming year ought to be better, with both a ridiculously short title bout against India and an Ashes rematch back-to-back. If it isn't better, then the game really is in dire straits.
As for the side, despite an injury ridden bowling attack and a batting lineup with the structural stability of a jenga tower, the easy run of games has consolidated the places of the players who lost the Ashes last year. The "playing group" ideal and Ponting's inherent matey conservatism obviously play a part in this. By Christmas time we'll know if that faith has been justified.
2nd: India 1204.58 +22.08
Up to first, at long last, after thrashing Sri Lanka in the first of the many series they played against them this year. India were unable to consolidate their position, struggling to overcome both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Their batting has been peerless, with the run charts dominated by Sehwag and Tendulkar, and the under-rated Laxman scoring runs at important times as well. The bowling was less emphatic, though perhaps there is something to the criticism labelled at the pitches they've played on. Only Zaheer Khan averaging under 30 or taking over 30 wickets.
3rd: South Africa 1193.34 -23.74
An inconsistent year for South Africa, who would have liked to push on to claim the number one spot permanently, yet ultimately were held back by a lack of bowling depth. Steyn was at his magnificent bets for much of the year, supported well by Morkel, but no other strike-bowler emerged, and they had to rely on Harris, Kallis and Duminy for break-throughs. It was that weakness that ultimately allowed England to twice to force draws with 9 wickets down, though greater intent earlier would also have helped. The batting, led by Amla was good, but noone stood out, and twice it collapsed poorly, leading to losses.
4th: England 1158.25 +54.44
The second most improved test team of the year. An achievement even better for playing Bangladesh, themselves on an upswing. A hard-fought series draw in South Africa was an excellent follow-up to their Ashes victory, though they will count themselves lucky not to have lost. Bangladesh presented no great challenge, but tested their bowling when conditions were benign, and the patience of patronising English journalists following. The series against Pakistan became more farcical the closer the cricket became.
Swann emerged as a genuine force with the ball, topping the wicket taking charts, though the averages of several English bowlers were inflated by some inconsistent opposition batting. Oddly, the highest scoring batsmen were Trott and Cook, both criticised at various times for poor form, while Bell would have been higher if not for injury. The real worries over the past 12 months are Strauss, Pietersen and Collingwood, but form, class, etc.
5th: Sri Lanka 1109.33 -20.13
Played only India, doing slightly worse than expected against a superior side. Could have topped the ICC's perverse ratings with a home win over India, but slipping backwards on this measure. The retirement of Muralitharan will dent their hopes of moving up the table as only Malinga seems to have the consistency of form (when not injured) to get them to 20 wickets. The Sri Lankan batting has no such worries, and is probably unfairly criticised for the padding flat tracks can offer. Unlike in the bowling, there seems to be a decent, if lesser, future beyond Sangakarra and Jaywardene.
6th: West Indies 919.14 -12.59
Up from 8th, which may be some relief, but more because New Zealand went further backwards, than because the West Indies are moving forward. Showed flashes of brilliance, and a little spunk against Australia, and with a dose of class could have won two tests. Certainly have the talent to bowl sides out more often, but lack any consistency with the bat that might allow them to win games, and that infects their fielding and general demeanour when the chips are down. Like the stars of the past, the West Indies young players need less international cricket, and a few good years in a foreign league to hone their game, and learn the meaning of professionalism. The domestic T20 leagues might offer some semblance of that, or not too, if their polygamous players continue to reap outrageous rewards for a few swings of the bat.
7th: New Zealand 917.91 -28.15
Ahead of Bangladesh, and likely to remain so for a while, but increasingly short of the best teams in world cricket, and seeing increasingly fewer opportunities to prove otherwise. A topsy-turvy series against Pakistan would have been interesting cricket in a championship context, but now looks interesting for other reasons. The other three games were mismatches, any sympathy for Australia only extending their tour to two late summer tests mitigated by New Zealand only hosting Bangladesh for one. Taylor provided some heft with the bat, but the rest of the team were missing; Vettori would feel the same with the ball, particularly now Bond has finally succumbed to injury.
8th: Bangladesh 638.24 +66.23
Don't let the 7 winless games fool you, Bangladesh are the test arena's most improved team, beating expectations on all but one occasion, and importantly, bringing their rating closer to their closest test rivals than they are to the best for the first time. In Tamim Iqbal they have a genuine star (837 runs at 60 and a strike-rate of 81) and even if the rest of the top-order struggled, the lower-middle showed enough spunk to carry games into 5th days and 4th innings. Shakib aside, the bowling remains lamentable, and the decision making in all areas is haphazard. But that doesn't matter, because in a lamentable year of cricket, the keenness with which Bangladesh tried to prove themselves against top-class opposition was one shining light.
10th: Ireland 556.46 +0.76
A disappointing year for Ireland, wins over Canada and the Netherlands not enough to offset a comprehensive loss to Afghanistan in Sri Lanka where they collapsed for 202 on the fourth morning. The continued improvement of Porterfield and O'Brien, not just internationally but for their county sides, puts their future in a bright light, as does the skill with which Eoin Morgan has demonstrated the available talent in their country. That recent decisions by the ICC may be putting their playing future in doubt is a disgrace.
11th: Scotland 461.60 +16.95
Much like Ireland, the Scots have overcome being under-strength for some key cup clashes to post solid victories, but lost badly to Afghanistan at home to put their place in the final in jeopardy. Have also seen the blossoming of several quality players at county level, notably Coetzer, which will hold them in good stead. Youngsters, Parker and Berrington have made important contributions, and they too will hope to move south in the near future.
12th: Afghanistan 404.44 +99.06
The most improved team overall, though in part that is because I had no idea where to rate them previously. Nonetheless, Afghanistan continue to defy expectations, from an incredible 494/4 fourth innings chase against Canada, to comprehensive victories over Ireland and Scotland, the latter in unfamiliar conditions. The depth of squad isn't quite there, but in Shahzad, Noor Ali and Mohammad Nabi they have some batting potential, and in Nabi and the irresistable Hamid Hassan a bowling line-up worthy of a test squad. While no world cup can expect to entertain all the day's stars, the absence of Afghanistan next year is an embarrassment to an insular cricketing world.
13th: Namibia +18.93
After suffering a close loss to the U.A.E. Namibia blew away a struggling Bermuda in their other game to maintain their rating. Cricket's rigid divisions must be particularly galling for Namibia who were finalists in the last I-Cup. Their best performing players - Steenkamp, van Schoor and Klazinga - are in their early 20s and need proper goals and harder tests than the I-Shield if they are to remain in the game. In the short term at least, a final against the U.A.E. in Dubai awaits.
14th: Kenya 351.46 -12.06
Another chaotic year for Kenyan cricket, marked by a miserable showing at the division one championships, but reasonable performances in the I-Cup. They remain very dependent on their older brigade, particularly Tikolo now almost 40, but also the Obuya brothers who are entering their 30s, and the bowling lacks bite. Nevertheless, their results were reasonable, pushing Zimbabwe all the way but ultimately undone by twin Sibanda centuries, and making a contest of the game with Scotland despite being bowled out for 91 in the first innings.
16th: Uganda 280.48 -0.57
Many facets of Ugandan life seem to be improving rapidly these days, and their cricket is clearly benefiting. It is a little hard to judge how well they are going in the longer game as they only played one game, a draw against the U.A.E. though it had its share of ups - a first innings lead - and downs - being 6/79 when the game ended.
18th: Netherlands 195.69 -33.69
Clearly ranked too low, but with so few games played a more accurate measure is difficult. What is obvious is that the Netherlands struggle to consistently score runs, particularly with both Alex "soon to qualify for England" Kervezee and Ryan "would rather play for South Africa" ten Doeschate often missing. Four losses, two of them, to Ireland and Zimbabwe, comprehensive, a bizarre almost collapse from Scotland, and an impressive run-chase from Kenya, tell their own story though. Netherlands just haven't performed well enough to justify a better rating.
Appear to be returning to the sort of level that gained them entry to the 1996 World Cup. They lack the star players of some of the other associates, but have been in a winning position in all three of their games this year. Will be playing at home in the I-Shield final against Namibia, who they earlier defeated in Windhoek giving them a good chance of further improving their rating.
Even more poorly ranked than the Netherlands, but still going backwards with two losses. The first was surprising not just because Afghanistan managed to chase down a declaration target of 494, but because they did it so easily. The second against Ireland almost saw them turn the tables having conceded the advantage with an early collapse. Canada might consider themselves slightly unlucky to be bottom of the table given how close they came to wins, but half their batting efforts ended with less than 200 runs on the board in this competition and you can't expect to win many games when that happens.
As clear a demonstration as you'd need that smaller teams are subject to the whims of luck when it comes to fielding a quality side. Bermuda's period at the top of the associate tree attracted considerable development funds, but it takes more than money to make a decent side. Thrashed, repeatedly, Bermuda look out of their depth at I-Shield level, but what goes around, comes around, and they'll be back eventually.
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22nd September, 2010 19:21:16