Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The best of 2011: whitewashes, embarrassing losses and a new number one

Top 5 moments of 2011

5. Leicestershire Foxes win the Friends Life T20 competition
There's nothing quite like a surprising victory to warm the cockles of any pessimistic cricket fan. Finals Day arrived with all its pomp and glory, but the final game between Somerset and Leicestershire offered everything that a cricket fan could want. There was superb bowling, a batting capitulation, brilliant fielding and Somerset were left as the bridesmaids once again as the Foxes lifted the trophy. Equally heart-warming was Paul Nixon's post-match speech. Nixon gave his all to the club for eighteen years, pulled off a stunning catch to remove dangerman Kieron Pollard and spark Somerset's collapse. To see the Foxes win was unexpected, to say the least, but the reaction from Nixon, the rest of the team and the faithful followers was a genuinely touching moment.

4. South Africa v. Australia at Newlands
If there is one thing that joins cricket fans together, it's the delight of watching an Australian defeat - and a heavy one at that. After bowling South Africa out for 96, thanks to an inspired five-for for Shane Watson, Australia came out to bat as the firm favourites. A combination of poor shot selection (the best example of this, or worst depending on your allegiances, was Haddin's wild slashes at everything outside the off-stump. Haddin later went on to say that criticism "wouldn't stop him playing his aggressive, natural game", which is a shame, as his natural game looks more 'mad axeman' than 'world class keeper-batsman'), excellent swing bowling from debutant Vernon Philander and South Africa clinging on to their catches meant the Aussies slumped to 47 all out, only reaching the forties thanks to the efforts of the tale enders. The whole episode made for incredibly satisfying viewing; unless, of course, you're an Australian.

3. England beat India 4-0 and become the number one test team
There was plenty to enjoy in the India series. The crowds came to see Tendulkar make his hundredth hundred (a new drinking game was developed - every time a commentator referenced this, down the nearest available liquid) and saw a calm, composed and elegant Rahul Dravid stand up to the English bowlers. Although Dravid's three centuries were a joy to watch, they failed to compensate for the dismal showing from India. Zaheer Khan was out from the first test, and whilst Praveen Kumar and his amazing array of facial expressions, did an excellent replacement job, India struggled against England. There were the typical big scores from Cook, Pietersen and Bell, an outrageously good hattrick from Stuart Broad at Trent Bridge that had Henry Blofeld squealing with delight, strong bowling from Bresnan and Anderson and England emerged from the series a strong, confident, world class cricket unit.

2. Australia v. New Zealand at Hobart
Maybe I'm a sucker for an underdog. Or maybe I just like to see Australia lose. Either way, the final day at Hobart brought about a result that nobody saw coming. After an indifferent batting performance from the Kiwis, the injured Vettori's performance aside, Australia looked all set to cruise to victory. However only David Warner withstood the Black Caps counter-attack, making an admittedly scratchy 123 as Australia fell at the final hurdle. Once again, the Aussie's shot choice was bizzare - Phil Hughes' horrible problems outside the off-stump continued as he chipped Chris Martin to the slips for the fourth consecutive time, Haddin's determination to make each shot uglier than the last continued and Australia's middle order once again folded, with Hussey and Ponting's careers discussed in terms reminiscent of two old dogs been taken outside to be delivered "to a better place". Martin had been the pick of the New Zealand attack until this point, and he was ably supported by a superb Doug Bracewell. Australia so nearly got away with the middle order collapse; they lost by seven runs as a gutted Nathan Lyon was bowled by Bracewell.

1. England retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years
It couldn't be anything else, really. For the first time in what felt like years, England put in strong team performance after strong performance. Bresnan and Tremlett proved the doubters wrong; Anderson and Swann were better than ever. There were runs galore for Cook, Trott and Pietersen - England's ability to keep their heads under pressure reminded everyone that this was a team that had grown and grown over the past four years, and was now beginning to show its potential. There was humour - one wonders if any England fan can look back on this series without humming "he bowls to the left, he bowls to the right..." to themselves - there was agony as England stumbled at Perth, but above all, there was an immense sense of pride as Tremlett took that final wicket to end the series 3-1. All journalistic cliches aside, it was impossible to not look at this England side and feel proud; proud at how they'd grown, how far they'd come together as a team and more importantly, excitement at what the future held for this side. England have all the potential in the world - 2012 will see if they can utilise it against the rivals for their new title.

There are many other moments that I've enjoyed over 2011; Rahul Dravid's debut, and then retirement, in international T20's, Australia's victory over South Africa at Jo'burg, Jonny Bairstow's Cardiff debut, Brendan Taylor's stunning performances against New Zealand and MS Dhoni's fireworks during the ODI series in India. While we've seen the worst of cricket during the spot fixing trials, it's been a thumping year for the game; and there's plenty more to come.