It's finally time to choose who captains the Test Team of 2016!
If this was an award for best beard of the year, Misbah would have won it at a canter. If this was an award for best century celebration this decade, Misbah would still win it for the sheer surprise and delight of his push-ups at Lord’s. If this was an award for Most Hollywood Story of the year, Misbah taking a once spotfixing-ravaged side to world no. 1 would have been a shoo-in. But when it comes to choosing the award for best no. 5 in the world, things get a bit tougher.
Each of the nominees for this award had flawed years, but Misbah’s year ended with a series of low scores against Australia. Having had to fly out to attend his father-in-law’s funeral mid-tour certainly can’t have helped. It certainly ended a lucrative run for Misbah, whose duck (after a century) at Lord’s was followed by nine consecutive double-figure scores, including three 50s. Since he flew out and returned to the cricket he’s scored 4; 31; 13; 4; 5 and 11. It’s ruined his numbers a bit, but Misbah won’t mind as long as he’s got his big picture sorted.
What more can be said of Virat Kohli in 2016? There isn’t a format left in which he hasn’t showcased his greatness, but this year he elevated his test stature to a new level. Four centuries, including three doubles are definitive enough, but what was most impressive was how Kohli stamped his image on the team he has built around himself. As captain, Kohli’s India has been defined by his aggression and desire to dominate, and he’s used his home advantage to tremendous effect. As a batsman, Kohli left the critics with nothing to argue with. When Jimmy Anderson tried to bring up Kohli’s one bad tour of England as a major weakness, it felt a lot like the Messi-at-Stoke meme - a tired, stupid excuse to deny a player at the top of his craft. That being said, it almost feels like a waste to see Kohli exclusively facing teams at home for the foreseeable future. The weak quality of opposition attacks almost feels an affront to his batting. At this point, Kohli will only really be tested by assorted world XIs trying to take him on. Anything else just feels futile at the moment.
The role of the Australian captain is of huge significance not just in the country, but in the cricket world at large. For most of the game’s history, the person in that role leads one of the best teams in the world, and more often than not is a fine player himself. Steve Smith’s record in 2016 was stellar, but he seemed to be leading a rather sorry side. The year started well as Smith scored heavily in the dispatching of the Kiwis. But then, the July tour saw him oversee one of Australia’s most humiliating defeats ever. Granted they had been thrashed by both India and Pakistan in Asia, but to lose 3-0 to a Sri Lankan side full of novices was beyond shocking. Smith himself average 41 in the series, with a hundred and a fifty. But he looked helpless as Herath in particular left him at sea, dismissing him five times in six innings. Smith then ended the South Africa series averaging 42, but again was unable to prevent a crushing series loss. Perhaps his most poignant innings was at Hobart, where his unbeaten 48 made up more than half of his team’s total of 85. Thankfully for Smith, the arrival of Pakistan helped him fill up his boots, and his win tally, but even there he almost saw a shocking defeat. Faced with all these pressures, Smith’s response spoke volumes of his character. Indeed, Kohli’s supremacy in Tests were not in lone stand roles, but Smith’s runs all came under far more pressure.
A decidedly odd year for Alastair Cook, whose high profile ensured that he made every year-end list even when he had a pretty ordinary year by his standards. Much of it was marred by his troubles as captain, as England lost seven tests to three Asian sides, including two to Pakistan at home. More worryingly though, Cook ended up with these numbers without ever looking out of form. Only six of his 32 innings were in single digits, and he crossed 40 no less than 14 times. However, his conversion was not quite where we have come to expect. He was dismissed in the 40s and the 80s twice each, suggesting a tapering off of his general ability to make his scores count. The fact that England’s selectors kept insisting on trying out all sorts of untested players in the top order also increased the pressure on Cook, and perhaps that was why he couldn’t break free.