2017: Year of Virat Kohli, Steve Smith
India stayed at No. 1 in Tests thanks to a string of series wins at home, while the debate over the world’s best batsman narrowed to two
Five days into 2017, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) dropped a bombshell: M.S. Dhoni had relinquished captaincy in limited-overs formats. As 2016 ended, this had been the hot debate: Would he continue to lead into the new year, until the Champions Trophy or even until the next One Day International (ODI) World Cup in 2019 (both in England)? As 2017 began, Dhoni provided the answer himself by stepping down and playing on as keeper-batsman. The rest of the year would belong to Virat Kohli.
Continued test dominance
India began the year with a low-key solitary Test against Bangladesh—the Tigers’ first-ever five-day game on Indian soil. India next beat Australia 2-1 and gained the No.1 pedestal in International Cricket Council (ICC) Test rankings. But that is a mild way to describe a bitterly fought home series. With the pitch turning square in Pune, India suffered an embarrassing loss within three days in the first Test. After the series was squared 1-1 in Bengaluru, Australia ran out of steam. That India won the fourth Test in Dharamsala (after drawing the third) without an injured Kohli (Ajinkya Rahane led the team) underlined how they had perfected the formula for winning in familiar subcontinental conditions.
Six Tests against Sri Lanka (away in July-August and then at home in November-December) further highlighted their strengths across the spectrum. Never mind that these two series were so dull that combined with the Australian encounter, they shone a light on how Test cricket is suffering from a lack of context.
India won seven out of 11 Tests played in 2017 (lost 1, drew 3). More than statistics, though, they gained from a definitive structure in their team composition: a plethora of batting options, three spinners covering all bases (off spin, left-arm orthodox and left-arm leg-spin), and a pace battery fit, raring to go in 2018 when the overseas cycle gets under way.
Experimentation in ODIs
Throughout 2017, ODIs and Twenty20 internationals (T20Is) were marked by one trait for the Indian team—experimentation. The Champions Trophy threw up a couple of interesting pointers: Yuvraj Singh didn’t cut it at No.4 any longer, forcing the team management to look elsewhere. The world’s best Test spinners—R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja—flopped in batting-friendly conditions. Immediately afterwards, Kohli turned towards leg-spin. While Ashwin and Jadeja have played five matches since the Champions Trophy, leg-spin was a common feature in 16 ODIs against the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
Leg-spinners Yuzvendra Chahal (21 wickets at an average of 28.57) and Kuldeep Yadav (22 wickets at 24.77) have featured in 14 matches each, while left-arm spinner Axar Patel (10 wickets in eight matches at 35.20) has also been afforded opportunities as long-term back-up to Jadeja. The fact that India won every bilateral ODI series they played in 2017 helped the experimentation process.
The BCCI’s administrative troubles flowed over from 2016. The Supreme Court removed president Anurag Thakur and secretary Ajay Shirke from their posts. The committee of administrators (CoA) took over shortly thereafter, but not without some real politicking mess. So much so that the ODI/T20I series against England in January was under threat at one stage.
Things have calmed down since, as the CoA now governs with help from CEO Rahul Johri. There is the odd boil-up whenever there is a special general meeting, but there is continuous behind-the-scenes work for a fresh BCCI election. It should have happened by now, and this is perhaps the only demerit of the CoA thus far.
As the administrative situation cooled down a bit towards mid-year, there was a raging storm over Anil Kumble’s position as head coach of the Indian team. And even as the players—led by Kohli—expressed their reservations, Kumble withdrew from the re-selection process. Ravi Shastri took charge from the tour of Sri Lanka in July.
Pakistan turned out victors in the 2017 Champions Trophy, avenging a first-game loss to India in the final. More surprising was South Africa’s 1-3 capitulation to England later in the summer, underlined by the fact that three out of those four Tests ended within four days. It led to a heightened call for four-day Tests, and the ICC bought into the idea as it went about reshaping the international cricket calendar. A Test league has been mooted, starting 2019, with each country playing 12 series on a home and away basis.
Ireland and Afghanistan have been granted Test status, and will fit into a mini league with Zimbabwe. Ireland will play their inaugural Test at home against Pakistan in May, while India will host Afghanistan for their five-day initiation next year.
An ODI league will come into being from 2020-21—it will involve 13 teams playing for two years and form the basis for World Cup qualification. In essence, it will reduce meaningless series, while the number of bilateral T20Is is set to rise in the new Future Tours Program (post-2019).
The ICC gave its consent to a trial four-day Test between South Africa and Zimbabwe, which is currently under way.
Kohli vs Smith
In his last three Tests, Kohli notched up an unbeaten 104, 213 and 243 against Sri Lanka. He became the first Indian to score hundreds in all matches of a three-Test series. In 2017, he scored 2,818 runs in 52 innings at an average of 68.73 across Tests, ODIs and T20Is. Does this make him the best batsman in the world now?
While drubbing England 3-0 in the ongoing Ashes series, Australian skipper Steve Smith has so far made an unbeaten 141, 40, 6, 239 and 76. In 2017, across formats, he scored 1,652 runs in 32 innings at 61.18. The highlight was a 109 in the second innings at Pune, when he defied Ashwin-Jadeja on a rampaging turner and triggered an embarrassing defeat for India at home. Smith scored 499 runs, including two hundreds, in that series. Kohli suffered a rare failure at home and managed only 46 runs in three Tests.
How do you pick between the two batsmen then? “Steve Smith is the best Test batsman in the world. Virat Kohli is the best across all three formats of the game, but across five days, Steve Smith is the man,” Shane Warne wrote recently in his News Corp column. “The hole in Kohli’s CV on the Test match stage is in England...”
In 2018, Kohli will have a chance to make amends for his 2014 failure when India tour England. The prospect of this battle—personal as well as for team India—already makes cricket in the New Year sound exciting.
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