Unbeaten in Tests, No 1 in ICC Test rankings, champions in both senior and U-19 Asia Cups, and semi-finalists in the World T20. Add to that a runners-up finish in the U-19 World Cup, and you have to admit, it has been a reasonably successful year for Indian men's cricket at the international stage.
The year started on a disappointing note for Team India with a 4-1 loss to Australia in a ODI series Down Under. The results were all the more frustrating because India's batsmen were regularly putting their team in winning positions, delivering 300-plus totals or mounting spirited chases in the face of 300-plus totals. Led by Virat Kohli (scores of 91, 59, 117, 106, 8) and Rohit Sharma (171, 124, 6, 41, 99), with able support from Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane, the Indians put the Australian bowlers under the pump, only for their bowlers to leak runs in torrents and undo all the good work.
It was worrying, especially with the Asia Cup and World T20 coming up. India desperately needed their bowlers to back up the batsmen. A three-match T20 series against Australia provided an opportunity for them to make amends, which they did. The Indian bowlers restricted Australia to moderate scores after the batsmen had piled the runs in the first two T20s, paving the way for big wins in both matches. And in the third match, Rohit and Kohli set a strong foundation and Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh gave the finishing touches, as India registered a thrilling win.
With that, India won the series 3-0. It was the first time that India had blanked Australia in the Kangaroos' own backyard. Kohli (90, 59, 50) and Rohit (31, 60, 52) continued their electric form, and it looked good for the Men in Blue, going into the Asia Cup and World T20. A home T20 series against Sri Lanka was to be played first, though. India rested their talisman Kohli, but won the series pretty easily in the end, though a horrendous batting display in the first match earned Mahendra Singh Dhoni's team considerable brickbat.
The Indian U-19 team, meanwhile, gave a fine account of themselves in the World Cup, reaching the final. The U-19 set-up had given us players like Mohammad Kaif, Yuvraj and Kohli, who have gone on to become big stars for the senior team, and the U-19 World Cup in 2016 gave us a peep into what the future of Indian cricket held. India were bowled out for a mere 145 in the final against the West Indies, but defended the score with all their might, and almost pulled off a memorable win, falling just short in the end. However, the batting of Rishabh Pant, Sarfraz Khan and Mahipal Lomror and the bowling of Mayank Dagar told us that the future of Indian cricket was in safe hands.
The senior team, under Dhoni, on the other hand, waltzed through the Asia Cup without dropping a match, beating hosts Bangladesh pretty convincingly in the final.
The India-Pakistan match, as India-Pakistan matches usually are, was the highlight of tournament.
Mohammad Amir, returning to the Pakistan squad after serving a lengthy ban for spot-fixing, had India tottering at 8/3. And then Kohli produced an innings which would surely go down as one of the best innings of the year. His 49 off 51 balls doesn't look earth-shattering, but it was about much, much more than the number of runs Kohli scored that day. When you consider the stature of the contest, the stage the match was in, the difficulty of the wicket, the quality of the opposition bowling, the batting artistry involved, and the poise and calmness showed under pressure, Kohli's innings that day was worth its weight in gold.
Kohli produced another gem against Pakistan in the World T20 at the Eden Gardens, with India again in a spot of bother, having lost three wickets for 23 runs chasing 119 for victory. Kohli produced a sparkling 55 not out off 37 balls, putting India's campaign back on track after a shock defeat to New Zealand in their opening match. Kohli bowing down to Sachin Tendulkar watching from the stands on reaching his fifty was one of the most endearing cricket moments of 2016.
A thrilling last-ball win over Bangladesh after, India were up against Australia in a do-or-die Super 10 clash. Set a challenging 161 for victory, India lost their openers cheaply. But then, Kohli came up with another superlative display. His 51-ball unbeaten 82 stood out for the disdain with which he treated the bowlers, hardly playing an ugly shot.
The Kohli juggernaut continued in the semi-final against West Indies, which saw him plunder 89 not out off 47 balls, but sadly, squandered chances and some questionable captaincy decisions by Dhoni (for instance, having Kohli bowl the last over with the West Indies needing eight runs to win, while not giving strike bowler Ravichandran Ashwin his full quota), put paid to India's hope of making it to the final.
Slipping at the last stages of the World T20 and U-19 World Cup would indeed be galling and may be portrayed as a 'failures' by some, but that would be a great injustice to both the Indian teams that turned up for those respective tournaments. In both tournaments, India played quality cricket and were primed to win the title, only to be dented by some glaring errors at crucial moments.
Among the big positive for India till then was Kohli's form, who then made a seamless transition to the longer version of the game.
It was not until July that India played their first Test of the year. India had started to flourish in Tests under Kohli's captaincy and had won their last two series against Sri Lanka (2-1) and South Africa (3-0) and were the firm favourites against a West Indies team that was a pale shadow of the past. Kohli played a captain's knock in the first Test in Antigua, hitting 200 off 283 balls – the highest score by an Indian captain in a Test overseas – paving the way for a facile win. Ashwin gave his captain great support with 113 with the bat and seven wickets in West Indies' second innings.
A stubborn Roston Chase denied India a shot at victory in the second Test at Jamaica, but a 237-run victory at Gros Islet catapulted India to the top of the ICC Test rankings. India could not hold on to their position for long, losing the No 1 spot to arch-rivals Pakistan, as the last Test of the Caribbean tour was abandoned.
India, however, snatched the No 1 spot back following a 178-run victory over New Zealand at the Eden Gardens. It was the second Test of the series, India having won the first Test at Kanpur. The third Test at Indore witnessed another virtuoso performance by Kohli. The Indian captain hammered 211 and was ably supported by Ajinkya Rahane (188), setting the foundation for another victory. The Kiwis couldn't put up much of a fight, and were whitewashed 3-0, losing by massive margins in all three Tests. The win at Indore confirmed India as the No 1 Test side as Kohli was handed over the ICC Test Championship mace.
The Kiwis, who are a better side in limited overs cricket, put up some fight in the ODI series that followed, but still went down 3-2 to the hosts. Kohli was again the cynosure of attention, with 85* in the first match at Dharamsala and a delightful 154* in Mohali. A 151-run stand with limited overs captain Dhoni (80) completely shut New Zealand out of the game. The Black Caps won the next match, but with the series at 2-2, they capitulated to Amit Mishra's spin (5/18) in the final match, at Visakhapatnam. They were skittled out for 79 – a turning of tables of sorts, given they had bowled India out for the same score in the World T20.
Next up was a five-match Test series against England, who people feared would be consumed by Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on the turning tracks of India. England, however, batted with spunk in the first innings of the first Test at Rajkot and amassed a 500-plus score – the first time by a touring side in India since England themselves in 2012 – and could sniff victory, before Kohli, once again, emerged as the saviour with an unbeaten 98-ball 49, tailored to the situation. He opened up his shoulders in the next match, at Visakhapatnam, scoring an imperious 167, setting the foundation, along with Cheteshwar Pujara (119), for India's 246-run victory.
After another victory, at Mohali, India came at the historic Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, with a chance to wrap up the series. England, batting first, put up a more than decent 400 on the board, but Kohli exploded in reply, slamming his third double century in three consecutive Test series, and with some help from Murali Vijay (136) and Jayant Yadav (104), took India to a massive 631. England folded up rather easily in the second innings, losing by an innings and 36 runs.
The last Test, at Chennai, would have been an opportunity for England to salvage some pride, and they started in the right earnest, scoring 477. But then they ran into some beating at the hands of KL Rahul and Karun Nair. While Rahul missed his double century by one run, Nair notched up an unbeaten triple ton in only his third innings. India piled on 759, before their bowlers made short work of England. The visitors were humiliated 4-0.
The hunger to win even a 'dead rubber' showed that this team under Kohli was different, a cut above the rest. The level of competition in the Tests against England was not as bland as that against New Zealand. England had put up a good fight, but it was the brilliance of the Indians that made them look ordinary, and condemned them to two consecutive innings defeats even after scoring 400 in the first innings.
Apart from Kohli, who couldn't have put a foot wrong, Ashwin was the big reason for India's Test dominance this year. Appropriately, he has been conferred the ICC Cricketer of the Year and ICC Test Cricketer of the Year awards. With 72 wickets in 23 innings, including eight fifers and three 10-wicket hauls, Ashwin has been a real menace for opposition batsmen this year. And with 612 runs in 14 innings, including four fifties and two hundreds, he has been a real nuisance lower down the order for the opposition bowlers as well.
The Indian middle and lower order, comprising Ashwin, Jadeja, Jayant and wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha, has contributed some very handy runs in Tests this year. Add to this the wickets that the spin trio took and the dismissals Saha effected, and an explanation for India's pre-eminence in Tests in 2016 is close at hand.
Along with Nair, Jayant has been the find of the England series. With 221 runs, including a half-century and a century, and nine wickets, he looks to be the third spinner whom India were on the look out for, who could significantly add to the depth of the batting as well.
The team was also served well by KL Rahul's form across formats. Before his 199 against England at Chennai, he had scored 158 against West Indies at Jamaica. A century on ODI debut versus Zimbabwe was followed by a fifty in the same series. And then he set the stage alight hammering world champions West Indies for a 51-ball unbeaten 110 in a T20 at Lauderhill, though India missed the mammoth 246-run target by one run.
There have been injuries to some of the key players over the year, but those who replaced them – whether it was Rahul, Nair, or Parthiv Patel – gave more than good accounts of themselves, which shows the strength of India's reserve bench, and augurs well for the future.
In the final few days of the year, the U-19 team gave more reason for cheer by winning the Asia Cup.
All in all, 2016 has been a reasonably fruitful year for Indian men's cricket at the international stage. Kohli and Ashwin have headlined India's performances, but the support cast can't be forgotten. India are on a 18-match unbeaten streak in Tests and looks almost invincible at home. With Tests against Bangladesh and Australia coming up early next year, India will be looking to continue their run. The first objective now, however, will be to get the better of England in the ODIs starting on 15 January and the T20s after that.
Updated Date: Dec 28, 2016 18:09:40 IST