My original plan for this post was a month-by-month review of all sports. I got halfway through May before realising that I was even boring myself and that there was no way anyone else was going to read past the end of the Sydney Test.
I’m not sure if it was the biggest surprise this year, but I don’t think anyone expected England to do as well as we did. England finished 2010 well by beating Australia by an innings at the MCG, but even after the Sydney Test it was not clear if England were very good or Australia very poor. Strauss and Flower’s stated ambition to become number one in the world was clearly possible, but if it was going to happen it looked like it would be a long climb to the summit. Instead it took eight months. India did not play well, but the extent of England’s dominance over the course of the 4-0 whitewash was incredible. There are no weak links in the side; even though Trott finally started to look mortal Ian Bell picked up the slack. He averaged 118 this year, 23 runs more than the next best batsman. Cook was as brilliantly obdurate as ever, KP had a resurgence and Morgan started to look comfortable at Test level. Prior is easily the best wicket-keeper in the world, both with the gloves and with the bat. Broad stopped trying to be an ‘enforcer’ (though I still haven’t stopped making jokes about it) and instead took a shedload of wickets. Bresnan and Tremlett would share the new ball in probably every other country bar South Africa, but right now they can’t both even get into the team unless someone else is injured. Graeme Swann is still the best spinner in the world and Anderson is second only to Dale Steyn. The calm leadership of Andrew Strauss has ensured that no one has got carried away. In eight Tests in 2011 England won six and lost none. They averaged 59.16 with the bat (and that’s the entire XI, not just the top order) and 28.45 with the ball. With Prior, Broad, Bresnan and Swann in the side England could reasonably be said to bat down to number ten. No other side came close to playing better than England in 2011, and the question is no longer if England are the best side in the world but if they can turn their current success into the kind of dominance that the West Indies and Australia did.
Australia did not play for several months after the Ashes, but have made a good effort to rebuild their side. They’re batting is yet to really come around, though Shaun Marsh is talented and the dropping of Phil Hughes for Ed Cowan was long overdue. Ponting and Hussey are still in the side though, and although they made some runs at the MCG they cannot be allowed to stay much longer. They both have had poor years and are in the twilight of their careers. The real improvement for Australia has been their bowling. In Nathan Lyon they finally seem to have found a long term spinner and the injury to Mitchell Johnson was probably the best thing that could have happened. The introduction of Pat Cummins and James Pattinson in particular are major improvements. They still have some way to go, but the strides they have made since the Ashes were clear when they were playing an Indian side who did not adjust at all to being beaten by England. Australia have become a side very difficult to predict, collapsing to 47 all out against South Africa and losing at home to New Zealand, but also recording big wins over South Africa and India. It might be some time before we know how good they are, however; after what should be an easy tour to the Windies next March they do not play again until November.
There was cricket amongst the non-Ashes sides too, although not very much. (It’s not just this year either. If you want to despair look at the number of Test matches in the Future Tours Programme.) The West Indies lost twice to India, and barely avoided losing a Test against Bangladesh. They beat Pakistan in a Test at the beginning of the year though and they made India work for their victories. (Though that’s not too impressive, see below.) All things considered it was probably a positive year, albeit not by much. South Africa didn’t play for nine months after the New Year’s Test, but looked quite good when they did. Then in the Boxing Day Test they looked dreadful and lost to Sri Lanka. It could simply be another attack of their well known mental problems, they’ve lost four Boxing Day Tests on the trot, but their batsmen are starting to age and they will find themselves in a similar position to Australia before too much longer. Pakistan were overshadowed by the spot fixing judgements, but played very well against weak opposition. Statistically they were the second best team in 2011, after England. Sri Lanka had a bad year, but they ended the year on a high with their first victory in South Africa. They need to find more consistent bowling however, over the course of the year only Bangladesh were worse. No one really expected Sri Lanka to play well after the loss of Murali though. Zimbabwe returned to Test cricket and beat Bangladesh and almost beat New Zealand, neither of whom played enough cricket this year to make an impact.
The worst team in 2011 was surely India. They started the year as the number one Test side, but never looked interested. They did not try to force victories in Tests in South Africa or the West Indies, although the former was to win the series. They never bothered to turn up in England and then used their (self-inflicted) lack of preparedness as an excuse. They didn’t try to improve and looked just as bad at the MCG. That match was only close because Australia are not as good as England and collapsed themselves. As bad as India’s performances were, the fact that they do not seem to care is probably worse. Their batsmen are massively overrated, especially Sehwag, and all of the possible replacements are limited overs specialists. They were the worst team this year and unless there is a massive change in attitude they will be next year as well.
Twenty-eleven also featured the 2000th Test of all time. Officially it was a close encounter at Lord’s in which 20,000 people queued for a mile to get into the ground on the last day and England finished off India in the last session. The actual 2000th Test was a week later at Trent Bridge and saw Stuart Broad and Ian Bell turn a close game into a blowout. Outside of the performances of the individual teams, the year was most notable for the resurgence of bowling and some very close finishes. England twice won a Test in the last session, India drew with the West Indies with nine down and the scores level and Australia won by two wickets and lost by seven runs in fairly quick succession. I lost count of how many debutants took five-fers this year, but I can remember at least four, plus Doug Bracewell’s match winning performance in his third Test. It was a year of fascinating and absorbing Test cricket which highlighted the short-sightedness of the administrators who had been increasingly marginalising the longest form of the game. Hopefully next year we’ll see more good performances and those in charge will give Test cricket the respect it deserves.