India’s cricketers stumble into the New Year with a defeat and a valediction. One was predictable; the other, not so. As Australia wrapped up the Border Gavaskar Trophy with a draw at the MCG, M.S. Dhoni stepped down as Test captain.
He may have presided over yet another failed series — India won one and lost six of its 10 Tests in 2014 — but Dhoni retires as the country’s most successful leader, having marshalled the team’s rise to No. 1 and overseen a gilded period.
It was a year, however, that will forever be blotted by an extraordinary tragedy. On November 27, three days short of his 26th birthday, Phillip Hughes died after suffering a blow to the head while at the crease.
It plunged Australia into enormous grief, and cast a long shadow on all cricket in the immediate aftermath.
India’s series was hastily rescheduled, but the results that followed threw up no surprises. The team sank to a 2-0 deficit, failing to wipe away memories of the defeats in New Zealand (1-0) and England (3-1).
Those engagements were not without their bright spots — notably the Ishant Sharma-inspired triumph at Lord’s, India’s first Test victory overseas in three summers — but the disappointment, of at times surrendering the upper hand, will linger. Truth be told, though, this is a young, relatively-inexperienced side with potential.
In coloured clothing, India understandably made a better fist of it, winning 14 of 24 ODIs. The highlight of the home season was undoubtedly Rohit Sharma’s 264 in Kolkata, when he put Sri Lanka to the sword in a lopsided series that was only arranged after West Indies — mired in incessant pay disputes — flew home mid-tournament.
The settled nature of Dhoni’s one-day side augurs well for the World Cup, only six weeks away now.
The competition will represent a formal changing of the guard for India, for only three of the 11 that started the final at the Wankhede Stadium in 2011 remain. The omission of Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh from the list of probables came as no surprise but still a World Cup squad represents a sort of firm dividing line.
Before the embarrassment in India, Sri Lanka enjoyed a memorable year, winning a Test series in England and claiming the World Twenty20 title in Dhaka. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene walked into the T20 sunset in a blaze of glory, borne around the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium on the shoulders of their joyous colleagues.
Elsewhere, Pakistan astounded the way only Pakistan can, comprehensively beating Australia 2-0 in their Test series in the UAE.
More incredible is that Pakistan did it without Saeed Ajmal, the most high-profile casualty of the ICC’s clampdown on chucking. Along the way, Misbah-ul Haq, often ridiculed for being dour with the bat, clobbered the joint-fastest hundred in Test history.
Back on New Year’s Day, New Zealand’s Corey Anderson broke Shahid Afridi’s record for the quickest ODI century, while two months later his captain Brendon McCullum became Test cricket’s 24th triple centurion.
2014 will also be remembered as a year of goodbyes: to Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith, and perhaps Kevin Pietersen, for whose absence international cricket will be poorer. Then there was the saddest farewell of them all, to Hughes, who was felled by a bouncer and never rose again.