Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The five best test matches of 2013

With Australia thrashing England in Sydney to win the series 5-0 and reclaim the Ashes, I say goodbye to test cricket’s narratives of 2013, by recalling the five best test matches of the year.

5) South Africa vs. Pakistan, 2nd Test at Newlands

Pakistan came into the second test after being humiliated and single-handedly dismantled by Dale Steyn, the world’s premier fast bowler finishing with match figures of 11 for 60. Few gave Pakistan a prayer for the rest of the series.

The pitch at Newlands however suited Pakistan more than South Africa with its subcontinental conditions conducive to spin bowling. Not that the surface deterred South Africa’s assortment of fast bowlers, as Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel reduced Pakistan to 33 for 4 after 17 overs. After capitulating for 49 in the first innings at Johannesburg, the odds were in favour of Pakistan suffering another collapse at this point in Cape Town.

In stead, Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq came together and batted sensibly in a solid partnership of 219 runs from 71 overs. Both scored centuries, and Pakistan looked on par to score a good first innings total. Vernon Philander had other ideas, as he snared Younis for 111 just before the close of play on the first day, and then removed Asad with his first ball on the second day for the same score. After removing the centurions, Philander got rid of Sarfraz Ahmed and Umar Gul in quick succession, before Tanvir Ahmed and Saeed Ajmal put on 64 valuable runs to ensure Pakistan finished on 338.

With the pitch already taking considerable spin, South Africa were in for a stern test to get close to Pakistan’s total. Saeed Ajmal turned out to be a one-man wrecking machine, as he mesmerized the Proteas top order, dismissing the top five to leave South Africa vulnerable at 109 for 5. AB de Villiers steadied the ship with a composed innings, as he put on 55 with Dean Elgar and a further 46 with Robin Peterson. Once de Villiers departed as the seventh wicket with 210 on the board, Pakistan had realistic hopes of a hundred run lead with only the tail to dismiss. In stead, Robin Peterson went on the attack, hitting 15 boundaries on the way to 84, leading South Africa to a score of 326, only 12 runs behind and in the process demoralizing Pakistan.

In the second innings Pakistan’s top order was reduced to rubble once again thanks to the brilliance of Steyn and Philander. At 45 for 3, Azhar Ali and Misbah-ul-Haq put on 69 runs without looking in trouble, until the captain got out top edging a harmless delivery from Peterson. Pakistan went from 114 for 3 to 169 all out in a matter of 23 overs, and South Africa were left to chase a comfortable target of 182.

After losing Alviro Peterson early, Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis steadied the ship, and set South Africa on course for an easy chase. Ajmal then came on and removed Smith and Kallis in the space of 6 overs, and the home team started to have doubts with the score at 88 for 3. Hashim Amla and de Villiers then took the attack to Pakistan, scoring four runs an over, and the Proteas looked home and dry at 150 for 3. Amla was then bowled by a beautiful looping off break from Ajmal, and there were plenty more scares as de Villiers and Faf du Plessis also got out, before South Africa finally reached the target with four wickets in hand. It was a case of what could have been for Pakistan, if only they had eked out another 40 runs in the second innings, and if only the think tank had selected Abdur Rehman on a spinning pitch in stead of Tanvir Ahmed. South Africa went on to sweep the series 3-0.

4) Zimbabwe vs. Pakistan, 2nd Test at Harare

Pakistan were only saved embarrassment in the first test of the series after a Younis Khan double century changed the course of the game. One would have expected the hosts to wilt after losing a match in which they were the dominant team for three and a half days. In stead Zimbabwe came into the second test with renewed belief and genuine hope that they could cause an upset.

Zimbabwe batted first, and after two quick wickets, their two senior batsmen, Hamilton Masakadza and Brendan Taylor put on 110 runs to consolidate the innings. After Saeed Ajmal removed Masakadza for a well made 75, Zimbabwe lost their way and floundered to 203 for 7, thanks to the crafty bowling of Junaid Khan. However, Zimbabwe’s tail wagged, including the last wicket pair of Tandai Chatara and Brian Vitori, who put on 46 crucial runs together to take the hosts to 294.

In reply, Pakistan looked solid despite losing two early wickets in a test match for the umpteenth time. Younis continued his good form as he put on two good partnerships with Khurram Manzoor and Misbah. With the score on 211 for 4, Pakistan started to have thoughts of dominating the game, and then out of the blue Chatara bowled a gentle delivery outside off only to jag in after pitching to take Asad Shafiq’s off stump. In the very next over Tinashe Panyangara took out Younis and Abdur Rehman in consecutive deliveries, and then Vitori cleaned out the tail to complete a five-wicket haul. Remarkably, Pakistan had lost their last six wickets for 19 runs, providing Zimbabwe with a 64 run lead.

After losing Prosper Utseya quickly, Tino Mawoyo and Masakadza put on 104 runs together. With a lead of 181 and nine wickets in hand, Zimbabwe were in a position to bat Pakistan out of the match. Rehman then pinned Mawoya lbw, and the opener’s dismissal opened the floodgates. On the back of some inspired bowling from Rahat Ali, Zimbabwe folded for 199, leaving Pakistan a target of 264.

Keeping in mind Pakistan’s brittle batting, 264 would still take some getting. In typical fashion, Pakistan lost 2 early wickets, and after Manzoor and Younis steadied the ship to a certain extent, they lost two wickets again to leave the visitors dangling at 100 for 4. Misbah and Asad Shafiq would have to see Pakistan through, but the latter threw his wicket away with an injudicious cut shot, and Pakistan were on shaky ground at 133 for 5. Adnan Akmal saw out the day in tandem with his captain.

On day 5, Pakistan needed 106 runs, and with Akmal and Misbah at the crease they had a reasonable chance. However, Akmal got out in the fourth over of the morning to another vicious in dipper from Chatara. Abdur Rehman then diligently supported his captain, and the duo had put on 34, before Panyangara dismissed the southpaw. Chatara had Ajmal plumb quickly after, and at 214 for 8, the game tilted sharply in Zimbabwe’s favour. However, Junaid proved to be a dogged batsmen, holding his end by defending staunchly while Misbah calmly accumulated runs at the other end. At 238 for 8, it seemed the momentum was back with Pakistan. However, Chatara struck a vital blow with the first over of the new ball, as the young pacer got his fifth wicket by getting Junaid to nick one behind. Rahat Ali took a single off his first ball, but in an attempt to get Misbah back on strike for the next over, got run out, and Pakistan fell 24 runs short. It was a historic win for Zimbabwe, and the global cricket community was left wondering why there wasn’t a third test to decide the series.

3) New Zealand vs. England, 3rd Test at Eden Park

After rain saved one team each in the first two tests, New Zealand and England headed into the third and deciding test at Eden Park with neither team necessarily in the ascendancy. With a clear forecast for all five days, everyone expected it to be the best match of the series.

Alastair Cook won the toss and put the Black Caps in to bat. It turned out to be a terrible decision as New Zealand piled on the runs. After losing Hamish Rutherford in the first session of the day, Peter Fulton and Kane Williamson batted through the rest of the day. While Williamson missed out on his century by getting dismissed for 91 on the second day, Fulton went on to make 136. Everyone else in the batting line-up contributed with small quick innings, as New Zealand finished on 443, with Steven Finn’s six-wicket haul the only positive for England.

When it was England’s turn to bat, Trent Boult and Tim Southee put on a magnificent display of seam bowling to reduce the visitors to 72 for 5. Matt Prior and Joe Root then put on a crucial 101 run partnership, before Southee came back into the attack and bowled Root. Boult then did a fantastic job of cleaning up the tail to get a six-wicket haul, the first of many in a year that announced his arrival in test cricket.

England were routed for 204, but Brendon McCullum decided not to enforce the follow-on. Remarkably, despite clearly being in the ascendancy, New Zealand were reduced to 8 for 3 after eight overs. If England sensed a chance, the Black Caps slammed the door shot, as Peter Fulton and Dean Brownlie consolidated with a 74 run partnership. The carnage was still to come however, as Fulton and McCullum then put on a 117 run partnership in 17 overs, smashing the ball to all corners of Eden Park. Fulton departed after his second century of the match, and McCullum declared during the second session of day, setting a target of 481, or more realistically leaving England 143 overs to survive.

After losing Nick Compton early, England seemed to have weathered the storm with Cook and Jonathan Trott batting calmly. Trott was then dismissed as he edged a lazy cover drive. Just before the end of play, Kane Williamson’s part-time spin accounted for the captain and nightwatchman Finn leaving England precariously placed at 90 for 4 by the close of the play.

Ian Bell and Root were then clearly instructed to play it by the session, and they stayed together for 28 overs, before Root was caught plumb to a vicious in swinger from Boult a few overs before the conclusion of the morning session. Jonny Bairstow went quickly, after which Bell and Prior put on a valuable 78 run partnership. Unfortunately for England, Bell got out on the last ball before tea.
With a whole session to bat with the tail, England’s hopes now rested on Prior. Stuart Broad who was woefully out of form with the bat, decided to drop anchor. Broad dead-batted everything, only scoring his first runs of the 62nd delivery he faced. At the opposite end Matt Prior proved that temperament doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning one’s attacking instincts, as he cut and pulled his way to a magnificent century.

Prior and Broad were at the crease with four overs left to survive, when McCullum used the last throw of his dice by giving the ball to Williamson. Broad smacked the first ball for four, before edging the third ball to slip, to give New Zealand renewed hope. James Anderson was dismissed in identical fashion two balls later to make the Black Caps favourites. Monty Panesar almost dragged back his first ball onto the stumps but just about survived.

Three overs to go and one wicket needed, Prior played out Boult’s over, leaving Panesar to face Williamson’s penultimate over. Panesar went for a risky single of the first ball and was nearly run out, before Prior played out the rest of the over. It came down to the final over with Boult bowling to Panesar. After having his outside edge beaten on the first ball, Panesar managed to escape with a single off the third ball. Prior completed his match saving effort by blocking the last three balls, and England escaped with a draw, while McCullum and his mates were left to rue missed opportunities in a match and series they should have won. It was to be Prior’s last successful outing before enduring a miserable run of form in back-to-back Ashes.

2) South Africa vs. India, 1st Test at the Wanderers

The series didn’t have the friendliest of build ups, as the cricket boards of both nations were at loggerheads about the tour itinerary. Ultimately, a shortened two-test series was finalized, with cricket fans all over feeling robbed even before the series began. Once the dust settled, everyone was treated to a cracker of a test match.

Coming into the match, the momentum was with South Africa’s fast bowlers who had brutally exposed the Indian batsmen in the ODI’s. The early wickets of Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay suggested the South Africans would roll through India again. However, Virat Kohli and Cheteswar Pujara came together to settle India’s nerves. Kohli mixed solid defence with some brilliant shots, while Pujara was calmness personified until he got run out to end an 89-run partnership. Kohli shook off the disappointment to score a splendid century, and even though he got out before the end of play, India ended the first day on a healthy 255 for 5 with MS Dhoni and Ajinkya Rahane looking comfortable at the crease. The South African bowlers came out with a different mindset on the second morning, as Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel removed both settled batsmen within four balls of each other, and then ruthlessly polished the tail to end India’s innings at 280.

In reply South Africa were motoring along at 130 for 1, with both Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla looking extremely confident. Amla then shouldered arms to an Ishant Sharma delivery that pegged back his off stump, and Jacques Kallis was caught plumb the very next ball. Zaheer Khan trapped Smith lbw, before Mohammed Shami removed JP Duminy and AB de Villiers with two beautiful deliveries in the same over. The complexion of the game changed with the hosts now 146 for 6, before Philander and Faf du Plessis brought South Africa back into the match with a crucial 80 run partnership.

Like their South African counterparts, the Indian fast bowlers came out focused the next morning, removing the Proteas last four wickets for just 18 runs. With a 36 run lead, India batted with more purpose in the second innings. Once again Pujara and Kohli played supreme innings to blunt South Africa’s attack. The pair put on 222 runs for the third wicket, with Pujara scoring a majestic 153 and Kohli just missing out on his second century of the match by getting out on 96. India finished their innings on 421, setting South Africa a target of 458, or more realistically 136 overs to survive.

Smith and Alviro Peterson put on a fantastic opening partnership of 108 before the captain was run out to a brilliant throw from Ajinkya Rahane. Amla remarkably got out to another ball he left, as South Africa finished the fourth day on 145 for 2, with Peterson and du Plessis at the crease.
Peterson got out early on the last day, and Kallis lost his wicket to Zaheer after hitting a breezy 34. South Africa were 197 for 4, when AB de Villiers came to the crease. The duo then put on a partnership for the ages, as they dismantled the Indian bowling. Without taking any undue risks, de Villiers and du Plessis motored along at 3.5 runs an over, both compiling fantastic centuries in the process.

At 402 for 4, South Africa were looking well set to complete a world record chase, before de Villiers chopped an innocuous delivery from Ishant Sharma on to his stumps. JP Duminy followed quickly after, and it seemed to hand India the ascendancy again. However, Philander joined du Plessis again, and the pair managed to score a boundary in every over. With 16 runs needed off 20 balls, du Plessis was run out thanks to another remarkable throw from Rahane. The match was on a knife-edge, with all three results possible. Unfortunately for the neutral, neither team decided to take the initiative as Steyn and Philander refused singles, while Dhoni kept all his fielders on the boundary. The match ended in a draw and those last three overs kept this match from taking top spot on this list. Nonetheless, the Wanderers was witness to five days of quality test cricket from both teams that captured the attention of all lovers of the sport.

1) England vs. Australia, 1st Test at Trent Bridge

The first of ten consecutive Ashes tests between England and Australia was also the best match between the two teams. Going into the series, not many gave Australia a chance, and many in the English punditocracy were predicting a 10-0 rout across the two legs of the Ashes. However, the first test at Trent Bridge provided signs that Australia were not as inferior as many in England assumed they were.

Despite losing their captain early, England looked fairly comfortable at 78 for 1 with Joe Root and Jonathan Trott at the crease. Peter Siddle then bowled Root with a beauty, before snapping up Kevin Pietersen and Trott in quick succession to leave England at 124 for 4. Ian Bell and Jonny Bairstow put on a 54 run partnership before Siddle completed his five-wicket haul by having Bell and Prior out in the space of four deliveries. Remarkably England collapsed to 215 all out in 59 overs.

Jimmy Anderson and Steven Finn then removed Australia’s top order, with the visitors ending a surreal first day at 75 for 4. Steve Smith and Phil Hughes put on 55, before Anderson had the former caught behind. Anderson and Graeme Swann then quickly snaffled two wickets apiece, with Australia down to 117 for 9.

19-year old debutant Ashton Agar then joined Phil Hughes at the crease. After crunching a straight drive for four off Anderson, Agar should have been out stumped off Swann, but Marais Erasmus gave the teenager the benefit of the doubt. What followed was as unexpected, as it was joyful. Agar played some glorious shots and gained confidence, even overtaking Hughes on his way to a half century. England were clearly rattled, mixing short pitched deliveries with over pitched gifts for Agar to pull and drive boundaries galore. On 98 and a century there for the taking, the number 11 miscued a pull shot to be caught in the deep, and Australia ended up with a scarcely believable lead of 65 thanks to Agar’s exploits.

With the wind in their sails, Australia came roaring on to the field. A psyched up Mitchell Starc had Root and Trott out quickly to leave England struggling at 11 for 2. Cook and Pietersen steadied the ship with half centuries, before both got out in close proximity. Australia were now favourites with England only leading by 66 runs with six wickets in hand. Ian Bell then hit a masterful century and put on a crucial 138 run partnership with Stuart Broad who himself hit 65. There was a major talking point when Broad clearly edged to slip on 37, only for Aleem Dar to give it not out with Australia having used all their reviews.

Shane Watson and Chris Rogers started really well chasing Australia’s target of 311. With Australia on 84, Watson was dismissed lbw — the first of several lbw’s that Watson suffered in the series — for 46 by Broad. Ed Cowan struggled before he and Rogers were dismissed in quick succession. Michael Clarke and Steve Smith tried to steady the ship, before Broad had the Australian caught behind. Swann then had Smith and Hughes out lbw in consecutive overs, and Australia ended day 4 on 174 for 6 with Brad Haddin and Agar at the crease.

Under pressure, Agar played a different innings this time as he dropped anchor in support of Haddin. The pair put on 43 runs before Anderson ended Agar’s defiance by getting him to edge to Cook at slip, with Mitchell Starc departing in the same fashion in the next over. When Anderson repeated the trick again on Siddle, Australia were 231 for 9, with victory seemingly assured for England.

However, Haddin and James Pattinson had other ideas. The wicketkeeper went on the attack, aggressively going after the English bowlers. Pattinson was batting sensibly and was rarely troubled, himself hitting a glorious six off Swann. Haddin hit Steven Finn for 16 runs in an over, and to add insult to injury, Finn dropped Haddin in the deep when Australia still needed 30 to win. With the visitors 15 runs away from a remarkable victory, Anderson got Haddin to nick a delivery behind. The drama hadn’t come to an end, as the umpire ruled not out, and Cook actually reviewed out of hope rather than certainty. DRS showed that Haddin did indeed edge the ball, and England won an enthralling test to start the Ashes. Anderson ended up with ten wickets in the match, which was to be his last significant contribution of the marathon Ashes campaign. Haddin made England pay for his near miss with a series of match turning knocks in all five tests played down under, which helped Australia regain the Ashes.
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