The year 2016 began with South Africa sitting atop the ICC Test rankings, before India briefly dethroned them following a home series loss to England in January. The very next month, Australia took over from Virat Kohli's men following their 2-0 win over New Zealand, but a humiliating 3-0 whitewash in Sri Lanka saw India regain the top spot. However, they briefly surrendered the numero uno position to Pakistan, before reclaiming it with a win over New Zealand at Eden Gardens. While India have held onto the No 1 position since then, Test cricket has witnessed some dramatic turnarounds this year.
It all started with an inspiring spell of fast bowling from Stuart Broad (6/17) as he steered England to a comprehensive victory against South Africa in Johannesburg. If that wasn’t enough, New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum, in his farewell Test, slammed the fastest century, albeit in a losing cause. These were just some of the initial glimpses of what was to be an action-packed, exhilarating and a promising year of Test cricket.
Here’s a look at the five best Tests of 2016:
England vs Pakistan, Lord's
Alastair Cook's men had arrived at Lord's with two consecutive series wins – South Africa away and Sri Lanka at home – and were deemed as clear favourites. On the other hand, Misbah-ul-Haq and Co had defeated England 2-0 in their previous encounter at United Arab Emirates in 2015 and were looking to emulate the performance. However, most of the pre-series attention was on Mohammad Amir, who was making a Test comeback at the very venue which saw the derailment of his career in 2010. Pressure was immense on the left-arm pacer, English hostility was expected.
But Misbah won the toss and opted to bat. The start wasn't impressive for the visitors as they were tottering at 77/3 when Misbah came out to bat, for the first time in white clothes at Lord's. Stuart Broad gave Pakistan another scare as he got rid of veteran Younis Khan for 33, before the Pakistan skipper stitched together a stand of 148 with Asad Shafiq to guide his side to a respectable total and safety on Day 1. In the process, he became the sixth-oldest batsman to slam a century, his 10th overall, and celebrated by doing press-ups, a gesture which was ended up being a ritual in the four-match series. The tourists could add only 57 runs to their overnight total as England bundled them out for 339.
The moment for which the whole cricketing world waited for more than five years had arrived – Amir took the new ball. To his dismay though, hardly anything seemed to have changed as Cook was dropped twice off his bowling, sustaining the norm of missed chances by Pakistan. However, the English skipper chopped one onto his stumps on 81 to hand Amir his first wicket on the return. But while all eyeballs were on the 24-year old, it was Yasir Shah who quietly worked his magic, scalping five wickets to dismiss England for 272, thereby handing his side a lead of 67 runs.
England did stage a comeback (Pakistan were bowled out for 215 in the third innings), but it was a tad late as they had to chase 283 against a resolute Pakistani attack. And they faltered quicker than expected. Rahat Ali began the destruction, forcing the top three batsmen take the long walk back to the pavilion for 47. From there on, it was the leggie who lead from the front as he picked up another fifer to power Pakistan to a victory at the Home of Cricket. Icing on the cake, though, was that Amir took the last wicket to complete a memorable win.
England vs Bangladesh, Dhaka
No joy is bigger, be it any sport, than seeing underdogs perform out of their skin with sheer passion and determination to effect an upset. You can't help but appreciate the efforts put together by a team that has defied all the odds. Bangladesh defeating England at Dhaka qualifies to be one of those lovely stories. The rise of Bangladesh in limited-overs cricket is undisputed. They are a formidable side at home and (on their day) have the ability to pose a serious challenge, even in away conditions. However, their progress in the longest format of the game was coming at a snail's pace. But this series against England proved that they are on their way to scale the same heights in Test cricket.
Yes, England had won the first match, but only by a meagre 22 runs. It was Bangladesh's slimmest defeat in Tests. And had it not been for the nerves on Day five, Mushfiqur Rahim and Co could've achieved the unthinkable. But it wasn't to be and Sabbir Rahman, the hero at Chittagong, was left distraught after Ben Stokes trapped Shafiul Islam lbw for 0 to claim the last wicket of the hosts. The visitors emerged victorious, but it was a learning curve for Bangladesh and the momentum was undoubtedly with the hosts, going into the last match, thanks to a spirited performance in the first Test.
Much of the credit for Bangladesh's historic win at Dhaka deservingly goes to the 19-year old Mehedi Hasan for his 12-for. However, opener Tamim Iqbal deserves as much praise for his gritty century in tough batting conditions in the first innings. (Remove the 104 the southpaw scored and hosts' total would've been a insipid 116.) From 171/1 to 220 all-out, the hosts' nine-wicket collapse was hideous. However, they put up a valiant fight as Mehedi took six wickets to bowl England out for 244. A lead of 24 runs was immaterial. Bangladesh scored almost 300 runs (296) and England had to chase 272 to win the Test.
The start given by Cook and Ben Duckett was brilliant, but what followed after the loss of both openers was absolutely not. Both of them shared a stand of 100 runs before tea was called. England needed 173 runs with more than two days left. Situation seemed to be in their control, but little did they know what was going to happen in the last session. First ball of the third session, Mehedi goes through Duckett's defence to initiate one of England's (in)famous collapses. The way they were batting, it felt as if Cook and Co were hell bent on trying to outdo Bangladesh's first innings collapse. One English batsman followed another and 22 overs or so later, Bangladesh had scripted history. They had defeated one of the biggest cricketing nation, the inventors of the sport. The victory was more about the realisation of their own potential than jubilation. No doubt they were ecstatic, but the win at Dhaka marks the beginning of an enthralling phase of Test cricket for Bangladesh.
India vs England, Chennai
Win the toss - check. Post a mammoth first innings total - check. Try to play mind games - check.
England had tried everything they could to reproduce their 2012 series winning performance in the subcontinent, but India didn't allow the visitors any respite and always kept them on their toes. The hosts, despite being plagued with injuries, generated one of the finest and strongest shows by an Indian team in the last decade or so to decimate an already bruised England at Chennai.
In spite of Cyclone Vardah, the fifth Test was set to begin as scheduled. England won their third consecutive toss and Cook elected to bat first. Initially shaky, Moeen Ali went on to score 146. England made India taste their own medicine, when the visitor's lower-order – Liam Dawson (66) and Adil Rashid (60) – propelled the visitors' total to a substantial 477.
India suffered a further blow when they learnt that Murali Vijay wouldn't be able to open with KL Rahul due to an injury. But it didn't bother the hosts so much as Parthiv Patel stood up, as was the case throughout the series (someone always embraced the extra responsibility when needed), with his aggressive 77. In fact, Vijay's absence wasn't felt at all as the hosts lost their first wicket with the score reading 152. But the visitors curbed India's run flow and dismissed Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli for lowly scores of 16 and 15 respectively. Surely, they had a chance to recuperate. As appalling as it may sound, they didn't. The pitch was benign, agreed, but so were English bowlers and Cook's pale captaincy. The sluggish fielding didn't help as well as they dropped Karun Nair twice on 33 and 218.
Rahul's innings was over after he fell one short of a well-deserved double century. But Karun had no intentions to stop. He was batting in his third innings but showed the maturity of a player who has featured in more than 100 Tests. He scored his maiden 100.... 150......200. And when the need of the hour was upping the ante, he attended to the team’s needs. He attacked almost every ball. If conventional sweep wasn't giving him the desired results, he unleashed the reverse-sweep off deliveries that didn't account for that shot, no matter how atrocious it looked. He was so engrossed that at one moment Ravindra Jadeja, who scored a vital 51, had to calm him down and asked him to take singles as he neared his 300 – a milestone that didn't cross the Karnataka batsman's mind until he reached 280-285.
Kohli declared the moment Karun became the second Indian batsman to score a triple century, the score read 759/7, and they were ahead by 282 runs. But more than anything else, Cook and Co left the field exhausted both, mentally and physically.
Just when it seemed that England would fall like nine pins, they regrouped (well at least their openers did.) Both Cook and Keaton Jennings were eyeing half-centuries, with the score 97/0 at lunch on Day five. The pitch had no demons and their willfulness signalled a message to the dressing room, that we can draw this Test. But India had different plans.
The guile and deception of Ravichandran Ashwin didn't bother the English batsman and that's when an accurate Jadeja stepped up. With his probing and persistent lines, he frustrated and forced Cook to make an error. That was all what this cohesive Indian unit needed, one opening. And Jadeja proved it was enough as he quickly struck three more times to get rid of the dangerous Joe Root, Jennings and Jonny Bairstow before tea.
Moeen Ali and Stokes showed some resistance before the former played a horrid shot and departed for 44. India took the new cherry two balls into the 80th over and England were all-out for 207, ending the tour with an embarrassing defeat and losing the series 4-0.
Australia vs Pakistan, Brisbane
Being a fan of the Pakistan cricket team is probably one of the most difficult tasks, because they are so unpredictable. Batting collapses have become routine for them, there are endless debates on social media about how can they improve their bowling discipline, and dropped catches are (sadly) anticipated. But somehow, every now and then, despite all these flaws, Pakistan puts up a stellar show leaving everyone dumbfounded. The first day-night Test (of the ongoing series against Australia) at Brisbane was one of those matches.
After conceding 429 in the first innings, Pakistan were incompetent against Australia's pace troika of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird, and were bundled out for 142. The hosts didn't enforce follow on and came out to bat. They seemed comfortable (again) and scored declared on 212. Pakistan had to bat more than two days to survive this Test, because even the most optimistic Pakistani fan wouldn't have dreamed that 'Team Misbah' can chase down 490! Experts predicted an Australian win by dinner on Day four, and they weren't wrong (at that time). Pakistan ended the third at 70/2.
However, come the fourth day and this was a different Pakistan altogether. Azhar Ali and Younis Khan put together 91 for the third wicket before Starc broke the partnership, removing Azhar for 71.
"That is ridiculous. That is so irresponsible. A man with so much experience, you don't need to do that. What was the need? Pakistan needed you to be out there and you've played a false shot," said former Pakistan stalwart Waqar Younis in the commentary box after Younis gloved one to Steve Smith at first slip off Nathon Lyon's bowling a few overs after Misbah fell for 5.
It felt as if the match was well and truly over for Misbah's men, until a resilient Asad Shafiq refused to hand it to Australia that easy. Shafiq batted out of his skin, he was not merely surviving but playing strokes confidently, as if Pakistan's first innings never happened. He prospered under lights, where conditions are supposed to be difficult, to guide Pakistan to 382/8 at stumps, thanks to some assistance from Amir (48), Wahab Riaz (30) and a controversial extra half-hour, where runs came comparatively fast, if not easy for the visitors.
Regardless of the result, this was a commendable performance by Pakistan led by Shafiq. But the burgeoning on Day five left all cricket fans asking for more. They wanted Pakistan to chase down 490, and yes it looked possible. One hour into the day's play, the visitors hadn't lost a wicket and they were 53 runs short of an unforgettable win.
Then came Australia's mainstay Starc in the 145th over to deny Pakistan (and Test cricket) a historic feat. He got rid of the unswerving Shafiq for a magnificent 137. Four balls later, Smith ran out Yasir to end what could've been one of the best Test matches of all time had the unimaginable occurred. Australia did win the match by 39 runs, but it was Pakistan that accomplished more. Shafiq, fittingly so, was declared as Man of the Match.
Pakistan vs West Indies, Dubai
Playing against West Indies isn't the same. Any match where they feature, fails to garner any kind of attention. But this was Asia's first day-night Test. Even though both the nations played it in front of empty stands, this match will go down in history books as an important but one-sided fixture. Agreed? Well, everyone did until the last day of the Test.
Pakistan won the toss and made West Indies toil at Dubai International Cricket Stadium for almost two long days. Azhar remained unbeaten on 302, Misbah was batting on 29 when he decided the end the visitors' exasperation as he declared on 579/3. The match was turning out to be just how it had been foreseen.
West Indies replied to the mammoth total with a modest 357, it was a wonderful outing for leggie Yasir who became the fastest Asian to 100 Test wickets as he picked another fifer.
Leading by 222 runs, a distracted or rather careless Pakistan went easy in the third innings. There were mindless shots. At one point, one would've thought better sense prevails in school cricket. There was no method whatsoever. However, taking nothing away from Devendra Bishoo, he scalped eight wickets taking advantage of Pakistan's brain-fade and bowling them out for 123. Was there life in this match? Jason Holder and Co had to chase 345, so no, the match was still in 'Team Misbah's' control, with West Indies' score 95/2 at stumps on Day four.
Wickets tumbled at the other end, but a certain Darren Bravo declined to not bow down. He showed tremendous discipline and patience to thwart Misbah and Co. Roston Chase, who scored a gritty 137 against India at Kingston in July to salvage a draw, stitched together a partnership of 77 with Bravo before Yasir bowled him. Bravo's stubbornness needed support from the other end. And skipper Holder stood by him. However, Yasir provided the relief for Pakistan. The leggie lured Bravo into driving, the southpaw in the process chipped a return catch to Yasir who dived to his left to catch. Bravo was in utmost disbelief as he took the long walk back to the pavilion to a standing ovation from his dressing room. There was still hope lingering with the score at 276/8. But Pakistan didn't let the opportunities slip and they dismissed Holder's men for 289 to win Asia's first day-night Test.
Updated Date: Dec 29, 2016 13:40:50 IST