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Misbah-ul-Haq: The highest impact batsman and not even in the ICC team.

 

The International Cricket Council announced its “Test Team of the Year”  for the period between September 14, 2015 and September 20, 2016. It is somewhat bizarre that they chose to announce it three months later as, given his purple patch in the last two months, the exclusion of Virat Kohli is even harder to swallow, as the uproar on social media suggests.

Unfortunately, there are so many howlers in the Test squad ICC selected (including, as it happens, Kohli’s exclusion), that it makes one wonder if rewarding cricketing prowess is even the point of these selections. They did something equally ludicrous last year.

There seem to be other agendas at play, and an unkind observer can even wonder if there is some colonial bias in the mix. It is difficult to explain the exclusion of Misbah ul Haq, Dinesh Chandimal and well, Virat Kohli this year.

This is what ICC presented as their team of the year:

ICC Test Team of the Year 2016 (in batting order):

1. David Warner (Australia)
2. Alastair Cook (England) (captain)
3. Kane Williamson (New Zealand)
4. Joe Root (England)
5. Adam Voges (Australia)
6. Jonny Bairstow (England) (wicketkeeper)
7. Ben Stokes (England)
8. R. Ashwin (India)
9. Rangana Herath (Sri Lanka)
10. Mitchell Starc (Australia)
11. Dale Steyn (South Africa)

Even though ICC mentions that the list is in terms of the batting order, there is no way they have accounted for the actual positions the batsmen batted in. Ben Stokes, for example, played just two innings from the number 7 position in this period. If a comprehensive list is to be made for the Team of the Year, isn’t it more logical to at least have it according to the batting positions the batsmen batted in? These are not individual awards; different batting roles have different sensibilities and they should have been accounted for.

According to Impact Index, this is what the Test Team of the Year should have been with a minimum qualification of 5 Tests for each position:

Impact Test Team of the Year 2016 (in batting order):

1. Alastair Cook (England)
2. Mohammad Hafeez (Pakistan)
3. Kane Williamson (New Zealand)
4. Virat Kohli (India)
5. Misbah-ul-Haq (Pakistan)
6. Dinesh Chandimal (Sri Lanka) (wicketkeeper)
7. Moeen Ali (England)
8. R Ashwin (India)
9. Rangana Herath (Sri Lanka)
10. Mitchell Starc (Australia)
11. Neil Wagner (New Zealand)

This is not a subjective exercise. At least, should not be, by any means. There is no justification for the choices made by the ICC here; you do not need any special tools to figure this out. These are common sense blunders from quarters that should strive to be thought-leaders for its media.

Here are the howlers, in descending order of mirth.

1) Inclusion of Adam Voges over Misbah-ul-Haq.

Conventionally, Voges scored more runs (606 runs at an average of 101) and had a higher average than Misbah (529 runs at an average of 52.90) from the number 5 position but the context of the performances were entirely lost on the panel, or not even examined. Voges scored heavily against West Indies (weak opposition, especially away from home) and then against New Zealand (where most of the Australian batsmen made merry). In the only true test for Australia, Voges failed in Sri Lanka where they were whitewashed.

In comparison, Misbah played two series in this time-frame, both against England (home and away). He played a defining role in Pakistan winning the series over England in the UAE (scoring 314 runs in 5 innings from this position) and then led his team to a historic series draw away from home with an unforgettable century at Lord’s to help give Pakistan a 1-0 lead. Misbah failed in only one of the seven Tests as a batsman and was the highest impact Test batsman in the world in this period. His absence from the ICC list is, frankly, blasphemy.

2)  Inclusion of Ben Stokes over Moeen Ali.

For starters, Ben Stokes played only two innings from the number 7 position but even if we were to account for his other performances, he shouldn’t be donning the all-rounder’s role. The decision on Stokes seems to be swayed by his knock of 258 runs off 198 balls against South Africa at Cape Town. It was the second-fastest double century in Test history, but the context? Even after scoring 629 runs in their innings, England only managed a two-run lead. The match, as expected, ended in a draw. There were nine scores in excess of 50 in the match, out of which two were converted into double centuries and two into centuries. Stokes made hay on a featherbed; ICC seem to have been enthused by it.

Comparatively, Ali scored much tougher runs from the number 7 position. His Pressure Impact with the bat was much higher than Stokes’. Even conventionally, Ali scored the second-most number of runs and had the second-highest average for a number 7 batsman in the world in this period (after Bairstow). Ali though was a higher impact batsman from the number 7 position than Bairstow because of his ability to absorb the pressure of falling wickets.

3) Inclusion of Dale Steyn over Neil Wagner.

In this time-period, Dale Steyn effectively played in just three Tests (the fourth one against New Zealand was washed out in only 100 overs). He gave a stunning performance to seal the series 1-0 against New Zealand, but three Tests is barely a cut-off for these kinds of lists. It is not that South Africa didn’t play Test cricket in this period; unfortunately, Steyn was injured for a long period and hence missed out, including the hammering South Africa received in the hands of India.

Neil Wagner, on the other hand, played in six completed Tests in this time-frame and stunningly, didn’t fail in any of them. Even when his team was beaten in South Africa, he was their highest wicket-taker. Conventionally, Wagner had the third-best bowling average for a pacer in this time-period (after Starc and James Anderson) but was higher impact than Anderson because of his consistency and his higher proportion of top/middle order wickets.

4) Inclusion of David Warner over Mohammad Hafeez.

There is no way Hafeez is making this list on the back of his conventional numbers (482 runs at an average of 40) vis-à-vis Warner’s (1020 runs at 57). What the numbers need is context. Warner’s best patches came when other batsmen also scored heavily around him. He started off this period with a bang against New Zealand at home, by scoring 163 and 116 in the first Test. Even then, he wasn’t the top scorer in either innings (Khawaja and Burns were). In the next Test, he scored 253 runs in the first innings but wasn’t even the top scorer of the match (Ross Taylor scored 290), the match ended in a tame draw. The only other century he hit came against West Indies in a rain-abandoned match where even the first innings of both teams couldn’t be completed. He failed comprehensively away from home against New Zealand and failed to deliver decisive performances in Sri Lanka where Australia lost.

Hafeez, on the other hand, played just six Tests and comprehensively failed in three, especially against England away from home. The home series against England was different though. In the first Test, he narrowly missed out on a hundred as other batsmen scored heavily around him and the match resulted in a draw. His decisive role came after Pakistan had managed to take a 1-0 lead and were struggling to hold it in the final Test of the series against England. Trailing England’s first innings score by 72 runs, Hafeez scored 151 runs out of a team total of 355. No other batsman crossed 50 for Pakistan. England, in reply, collapsed for 156. Hafeez was the differentiator between a series draw and a series victory for Pakistan. The amount of pressure he absorbed makes him go above Warner as a higher impact opening batsman.

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David Warner: Lots of easy runs in this time-frame.

5) Inclusion of Joe Root over Virat Kohli.

From the number 4 position, Joe Root scored 638 runs at an average of 46 whereas Kohli scored 356 runs at an average of 51. The interesting part though is the fact that in the two countries Kohli played in, i.e. West Indies and India (against South Africa), have been the least productive countries for batsmen in this period. In both the countries combined, batsmen averaged around 25, whereas Kohli averaged around 51. Apart from his big 200 against West Indies, even his lesser knocks of 44 (twice) and match tallies of 38 and 30 had a bearing in the match because of the context. No batsman from number 4 scored a higher proportion of runs or built more partnerships than Kohli in this period. To top it off, India were the only team to stay unbeaten in this period.

Root had a decent run and the high point for him and England was a series win against South Africa away from home. Even though Root was the highest impact batsman for England in that series, it was actually the English pace attack that dictated the major changes of fortune in the series. So, Root was not the decisive leading act for England’s series win. Furthermore, his highest match tally of 159 runs from this position came in a loss against Pakistan.

 

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Virat Kohli: Even for the time-frame, the best choice at No. 4.

6) Inclusion of Jonny Bairstow over Dinesh Chandimal.

Jonny Bairstow had a stellar season from both the number 6 and 7 positions and in any other year would have found a place in the team as a wicket-keeper batsman. But not this year.

Conventionally, Chandimal’s average is the third-best (56) from the number 6 position after Bairstow’s (57) and Tenda Bavuma’s (57), but the impact he has had on a weak team like Sri Lanka is massive. Sri Lanka had disastrous tours of England and New Zealand where they lost all but one of their Tests. Even as people were expecting another series loss in the hands of Australia (number one ranked Test team then) at home, it was the Sri Lankan batting which stood up unexpectedly and Dinesh Chandimal was the lynchpin of that. In fact, no batsman in the world absorbed the pressure of falling wickets as much as Chandimal did in this time-period. His ability to absorb pressure is best epitomized in his highest impact performance in this period – 132 runs off 356 balls in the third Test against Australia after Sri Lanka were 26 for 5. Sri Lanka went on to whitewash Australia 3-0. Both Bairstow and Bavuma were good, but their team’s fortunes did not depend on them as much as Sri Lanka’s did on Chandimal.

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Dinesh Chandimal: Made more tough runs than anyone this year.

Year after year though, the ICC’s choices make a mockery of cricketing merit. And they are not even comprehensively called out for it as much as they should by the cricket media, similarly besotted by personality cult and Neanderthal conventional numbers.

What is harder to swallow is the political angle to these; a white-skinned bias that is harder to hide. Last year, the Test cricketer of the year award went to Steve Smith, when it should have really gone to Younis Khan. Even this year, according to Impact Index at least, four more sub-continental players should have featured in ICC’s Test team of the Year that is otherwise dominated by nine white-skinned players.

When it comes to limited overs cricket though, those biases may not apply. After all, The ODI Team of the Year 2016 has Virat Kohli as captain. Of course, it is an utterly bizarre choice given that Kohli does not even captain his country.  We are not going to waste any more time dissecting the ODI selections; our point has been made above.

Without context, the ICC Awards, year after year, make a mockery of what is supposed to be a team game over and above everything else. In an age of Hawkeye, Hotspot and stump cameras, this is tantamount to insisting on going back to handwritten score sheets, sola hats and sticky wickets.

The ICC Test selection of 2016 is really set in 1955 when it comes to mindset.

 

Soham Sarkhel
Illustrations: Vasim Maner