Well begun, it’s said, is half done. Equally, though, ending something on a good note makes it so much easier to start something else on a fresh note. So, in looking back at 2015, what better place to start with than something oozing positivity?
New Zealand, under the brave leadership of Brendon McCullum, caught the imagination of the cricket world in more ways than one at the beginning of the year. The manner in which they played the game, both the bat and ball aspect and the less obvious but equally important bits involving respect for the opposition and celebrating success without deriding failure, ensured that the fact that they did not go all the way in the World Cup was not held against them. The public in New Zealand embraced the tournament for the mega event that it is, matches were played to excellent crowds and there was a genuinely festive atmosphere almost constantly.
If New Zealand were all about the joy of the game, the more traditional powerhouses, Australia and India, were all about winning. India enjoyed a glorious run, winning all their league matches, bowling out opposition when they were hardly expected to and were finally stopped in their tracks in the semifinal by eventual winners Australia.
The World Cup held powerful meaning for other teams as well, Afghanistan notching up their first win in the tournament and Ireland showing that they were well and truly ready to mix with the big boys. Gone were the days when the Associate nations were merely tolerated at these events, like the plucky boxer who might occasionally give someone a bloody nose but not really challenge for a belt. It was the games involving the Associate nations that were the most riveting in the first half of the tournament, the bigger names playing truly well-matched clashes only later in the party.
But, while a World Cup typically dominates the headlines in the year it is played, it was far from the only significant cricket. The Ashes, in England, held sway, not least because the home team extracted revenge for its defeat in Australia in the previous edition, but because the series allowed the next great English hope, Joe Root, to settle into his role as the backbone around which the batting would be built. Root, who scored more runs in a calendar year than any English batsman previously had, is one of those batting naturals, someone who can play every format without radically altering his game. Happily for England, they managed to turn their limited-overs fortunes around too. Despite not winning a Test series other than the Ashes, and contriving to lose a Test to West Indies, England will count the year as a good one. After all, having been dumped out of the World Cup early after a string of big losses, they shook up not merely the system, but the team, and began to play the kind of free-flowing cricket that other champion limited-overs teams have embraced for years.
England’s happy year ended with a win over South Africa in Durban, bringing us to a team that will look back at 2015 with all the fondness of a patient who spent a year struggling to fight a disease that no doctor could accurately diagnose. Despite having some of the brightest talent in the world, South Africa struggled in Test cricket, winning only one of eight Tests they played in the year, failing to put up a single century partnership, and being crushed 3-0 in India, only rain in Bangalore getting in the way of a blanking out. Hashim Amla, the captain, endured a typically torrid year, runs drying up, captaincy nous deserting him at crucial times and even safe hands turning wobbly as catches went down. Amla’s troubles typified South Africa’s struggle, which is far from over.
One team which did not lack in clarity when it came to what it needed to do to win was Bangladesh. Certainly, they were only masters at home, but for a team that has consistently been every bully’s whipping boy, 2015 was payback time. Bangladesh began their stirring run with their first win against Pakistan in 16 years, but, unlike in times past, they did not rest on the odd win. Instead, they followed it up with a 3-0 series result against Pakistan that left the world stunned, but Bangladesh believing that they could beat anyone, and consistently. Belief, alone, however, is rarely enough. When India came calling soon after, Mustafizur Rahman unlocked his left wrist and unleashed a brand of fast cutters that left India’s finest bemused, befuddled, panicked and finally beaten. With five and six wickets in his first two One-Day Internationals, Rahman gave Bangladesh their maiden series win against India, even the 2-1 scoreline flattering the visitors. To erase all doubt, Bangladesh then fired as a unit, batting and bowling combining tightly to hand South Africa a 2-1 defeat. With three series wins on the trot against major teams, it’s hard to deny the claim that 2015 was the Year of the Tiger.
There was less edifying news from other outposts, West Indies continuing to decline, plagued as they were with internal squabbling and ever-present friction between the cricket board and the players. Some of the biggest names were AWOL when needed, playing in Twenty20 leagues with great success; at other times, the West Indies Cricket Board refused to put their best playing XI on the field. It’s no coincidence that the other badly mismanaged cricket board, Zimbabwe, made no progress in the year. With both these teams, it wasn’t so much a case of the bad times catching up with them, but rather the result of a system so broken that it will take a miracle, and years, for anything to change for the better.
There was struggle in another of the little nations, Sri Lanka having to adjust to life after Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, but this was a team trying its hardest to make the most of a tricky passage. Every team goes through periods of transition, and Sri Lanka are in the early phases of theirs, but there are enough reasons to be optimistic. Angelo Mathews continued to buttress his growing reputation, both as a world-class batsman and as a leader of men, and, at different times, different cricketers put in performances that showed that consistency would eventually bring rewards.
The most watched cricket team in the world, India, endured a transition of its own, Mahendra Singh Dhoni handing over the Test reins to Virat Kohli. While this did not lead to instant success, the results show that India are building a team that will take the fight to any opposition camp. A strong World Cup aside, India won five of the nine Tests they played, losing only once, to Sri Lanka. It may well be argued that this report card received a steroid shot from winning three Tests at home in helpful conditions against a dire South African team, but this would miss the point. Whether the conditions were helpful or not, India played better cricket than the opposition. Winning their first Test series in Sri Lanka in 22 years was no minor milestone. The cornerstone of India’s success was R Ashwin’s journey of self discovery, in which he went from being talented to tormentor. At the top of his skills, in control of his mind, plans perfectly in place, Ashwin ended the year on top of the ICC’s rankings for Test bowlers and allrounders. India as a whole did not do enough to mirror Ashwin’s success in a similar manner, but when the champagne corks pop at midnight, there will be an eagerness with which they look forward to 2016. Surely, that’s the best sign of a year well spent?