IT IS already a year since Mahendra Singh Dhoni made that surprising announcement that he was done with Test cricket. Sometimes the wind brings with it a message, sometimes the body decides for you and Dhoni, as perceptive a player as any, took the right decision.
2015 was therefore about coming to terms with not having him around in Tests and, while India produced good results, life without him is still a work in progress. India's new captain Virat Kohli wants to play five bowlers and Dhoni batting at No. 6 would have been ideal. Wriddhiman Saha's keeping has grown very pleasantly but someone else needs to step up as batsman if five bowlers is the plan.
If 2015 was about Dhoni's absence, 2016 will be about his presence given the amount of limited overs cricket India play in the first three months. His replacement as Test captain is as respectful towards the game but is a very different person who seeks to play the game with a different air. Dhoni's calm, once such a feature of Indian cricket, will now stand out a bit. And more than ever before, Dhoni will need to produce results; for the team and for himself.
It is never easy when you are away from the intensity of international cricket, especially when you are fighting to retain your powers. Dhoni has been magnificent for Indian cricket, he has played it the right way, but he will be the player to keep your eyes on in the first part of the new year.
2015 saw an Indian team with players of about the same experience playing around each other and it became apparent that, unless someone stands up strongly in 2016, India's batting will revolve around Kohli, who had a subdued year in Test cricket (he averaged 42 and that was boosted by a strong finish in Delhi) and Ajinkya Rahane who made 593 runs @45.61. But away from the limelight, quietly, Murali Vijay was a critical part of the line-up.
He made 522 runs at 47 in a position that sets things up for the blue-eyed boys in the middle order. I won't be surprised if someone breaks in this year given the inconsistency that has plagued Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma in Test cricket. Cheteshwar Pujara will be on the watchlist too and I will be delighted if 2016 is his year because there is so much to like about him. His tendency to give it away completely against the run of play was baffling and I will be very surprised if, given the studious person he is, he hasn't already started working on it.
Happily, it was also a breakout year for Rahane in limited overs cricket. An average of 40.11 should give him a regular spot in the batting order and I won't be surprised if he emerges as a candidate for Dhawan's opening spot unless the gifted left-hander can remind himself that he is a match winner for India. Sharma played some memorable innings as opener and you have to believe that job is his for 2016.
Outplaying South Africa, making an outstanding team look limited, was an amazing result for India and was the highlight of the year as indeed was the wonderful run to the semi-final of the World Cup. I don't think enough credit was given to the team for that largely because perspectives in the media shrank further, if they indeed could.
The World Cup provided four other memories for me. Kohli's century against Pakistan, for the sheer intent shown was one but the opening spell from Mohd Shami and Umesh Yadav which had the West Indies openers hopping on account of pace was, for my generation, a sight to behold. Equally heartwarming, and in one era equally improbable, was the comment from Jonty Rhodes that India outfielded South Africa at the MCG. And to see 60,000 people sing the Indian national anthem there was to witness an outpouring of emotion that will perhaps stay unparalleled.
As the year unfolded, we saw Ravindra Jadeja come back strongly and Kohli relish his role as leader and in 2016, I will watch Kohli very closely to see how the fast bowlers develop under him. And in the last match of the year we saw twin hundreds from the humble Rahane that marked him out as a potentially special player.
There were setbacks too, most notably in limited overs cricket. The inability to compete against Australia in Australia was worrisome. 2015 started there and now 2016 will too. Already something to watch out for.
Losing to Bangladesh should have hurt and while it was a breakout year for our eastern neighbours, India must put that down as something not to be repeated. Death bowling remains an issue and till that is sorted, opponents will be able to play easy risk free cricket in the first 30 overs aware that they can step on it in the next 20. And the search for an all-rounder in away conditions remains. Amid the outstanding cricket India played against South Africa, the surface at Nagpur was a disappointment because it wasn't needed and the quality of surfaces in domestic cricket is an issue too. Indeed, I believe all of domestic cricket remains an issue.
My player of the year though was Ravichandran Ashwin. Not just for taking 62 Test wickets @17.20 with seven five-wicket hauls but for rediscovering himself and his bowling and for easing into the role of the leader of the attack.
Sometimes you need to play with your skill and your mind to discover what works best and Ashwin found that in 2015. He made you look for him, you wondered what he would come up with next and he rose to the challenge of taking on the best of the opposition. He has set the bar for himself in 2016 and that is what champions do.
Now a new year arrives and in the first week Justice Lodha will present his view on Indian cricket. I cannot wait to see what the pages contain. And T20 cricket will entrench itself further with no other form being played in India from February to May. Watch out for viewership numbers too for, at some level, that impacts where the game is going.
Wish you all a wonderful, peaceful 2016.
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