The three best Tests I watched this year

January 1, 2023

Starring Dean Elgar, Virat Kohli, Jonny Bairstow and an England team playing a fierce and fun brand of the game

The three best Tests I watched this year

As the New Year of 2022 broke in South Africa, one champion team and an opponent up for the fight were locked in the most enthralling three-match battle. To briefly set the scene, we must return to 1991 and the end of South Africa's two decades of isolation. India were the first to invite the South Africans through their door, and across three memorable one-day matches Mohammad Azharuddin and Clive Rice led their players on a groundbreaking mission of friendship and goodwill.

It was to be the only international cricket Rice ever played. A generation of exceptional talent was lost to the apartheid policy pursued by the South African government of the day. Rice was a ferocious cricketer who could do many things but melting hearts was not often among them. His meeting with Mother Teresa made for one of cricket's most remarkable and endearing images.

Soon after, India travelled to South Africa for a series of Test and one-day matches, cementing a relationship that remains strong to this day. In 2009, when the IPL could not be staged in India because of the general elections, South Africa opened their doors to the most glamorous cricket event on earth.

Give and take off the field, nip and tuck on it - these two great countries, whose inherent problems had not been so dissimilar, could not get enough of each other. Late in 2021, Covid-19 lingered rotten in the air but India honoured their commitment to an old friend, albeit under strict pandemic regulations. The first Test of three was delayed until Boxing Day, when the players stepped out in Centurion to an empty stadium but hugely enthusiastic television audiences both at home and away.

India won it, not quite at a canter but with something to spare. Virat Kohli led his men with a demonic eye and an overwhelming passion; Dean Elgar with inner steel and outward calm. There seemed to be only one winner. Not so. Not at all.

At the Wanderers, Elgar played the innings of his life to see his team over the line in the gutsiest of fourth-innings chases. It was the first time that India had lost at the Bullring. The pitch had spite within but the South Africa captain took the blows and jabbed back like a man born to that, or any other, ring. Alongside him, and close to serene in pursuit of 240, were Aiden Markram, Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma, each of whom reaped the seed sown by the fire and craft in an attack led magnificently by Kagiso Rabada and enhanced by the new kid in town, Marco Jansen. Young, gifted and willing, the quietly spoken Jansen mixed it with Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah to bring an edge that South Africans enjoyed almost as much as the victory.

So to Cape Town and the denouement: the first of the three best Test matches I have seen this year, and one that squeaks past the seven-wicket win in Johannesburg for its sealing of the series against the odds. Kohli had missed the second Test with a back spasm but returned for what - and you would never have picked it - was to be his last match as captain of India. Far from in his best form for a long while, he batted as if his life depended upon his time at the crease, and he inspired a very different India from the one that freewheeled at Centurion. It was as if the players were reeling from defeat in the second Test, and to recover, reached for their deepest, most competitive instinct. This had been on view at Lord's the previous summer, when Kohli and Co tore into England's spirit and grabbed victory from the spectre of defeat. In Cape Town, they could not quite muster such effect but they tried their damnedest.

Looking back now, it feels as if South Africa's win was preordained by an external force. Even as Pant took the sword to Rabada's band of bowlers in a thrilling second-innings hundred, the South Africans kept their shape.

In short, it goes like this: India won the toss, batted obdurately against good bowling for 223, which South Africa almost matched. India batted again - the Pant show - but finished short of 200, which left the homesters 212 to win. No problem... for the same fellows who guided the team home at the Wanderers. Result: another seven-wicket win for South Africa, which wrapped up a 2-1 series triumph.

The three best Tests I watched this year

Let's do the people. Kohli faced 201 balls for 79 runs in the first innings. His pride collected most of those, along with his desire to see India consistently win abroad. Kohli is not often shackled, never drawn, but here he was tamed, as much by his own determination as by the tricky pitch and superb bowling. Rabada had him eventually and three others too. The tall, slim and slippery quick Jansen had three of his own. There was press-box talk of South Africa's finest and where KG sat among them; the talk of Jansen brought comparisons in two parts, with Glenn McGrath and Bruce Reid. Those are high bars.

Bumrah then claimed five local scalps, three of which were in the top four of the batting list. Mohammed Shami hustled around him, a cricketer blessed with the smarts. There has not been one like Bumrah, though Jeff Thomson had a short-step approach, long levers and a whiplash release too. Imagine one at either end on a bouncy pitch.

Kohli then batted 143 balls for 29 and Pant 139 balls for his unbeaten hundred. That was it, really, along with 28 extras. The match was ongoingly tense, the teams understandably less matey than their administrators, the head-to-heads raw. Rabada and Jansen took seven more between them and Lungi Ngidi three, which included Kohli. He picks up wickets that matter, does that Ngidi. Each session had its sound and vision locked in: it was cricket for the strong of heart and mind.

Bumrah and Shami threw themselves at the SA order; Shardul Thakur tucked in behind them; Kohli exhorted; Pant encouraged; Ajinkya Rahane advised. Markram sweetly timed four boundaries in his 22-ball 16; Elgar just three in his 96-ball 30. Such is cricket, a game for all men and women.

KP was the one what done it. Petersen made scores of 72 and 82, to go with 62 and 28 in Johannesburg. There is a beauty in his play that derives from grace in movement and minimal exertion in strokeplay. He appears first at the crease as a shrinking violet but blossoms as a rose, a man armed with thorns to remind the careless of his power. Small in stature, narrow of shoulder and gait, he is David over Goliath. Help came again from Bavuma, who has worked long hours on his forward play to the extent that, once troubled in his footwork by the full-pitched ball, he is now able to take advantage. Bavuma, a man at once both humbled and haunted by the single Test match hundred he made in 2016 and that he has not been able to improve upon, played tight and hard in this series. More hundreds will surely come.

There was a squabble on the second-last afternoon, when India got stroppy about Hawk-Eye's interpretation of an lbw shout by R Ashwin and then fired some shrapnel at the TV coverage in general. These matches are draining affairs and as India felt their grip slip, so their minds searched for reasons outside of the cruel bubble in which they had lived for so long. The overarching spirit of the series was good, the respect between the players evident. India remain the game's greatest asset.

The 111 required on the last day came easily enough; the eight wickets in hand providing a soft cushion as, increasingly, India looked spent. Kohli was generous in summary and quick to recognise that the batters had been below par. South Africa's unbridled joy in beating such a strong opponent was no more celebrated than it should have been. It is a proud land, especially so when sport is the stake. After Centurion, little hope was given by even the keenest supporters. At the end of Cape Town, a new expectation was born.

On the subject of expectation, we now sail across oceans to England; to Ben Stokes, Brendon McCullum and to Jonny Bairstow. On the afternoon of 14th June, I was at home in front of the telly. Sky were showing highlights of the day's play during the tea break. Much had happened since, for various reasons, I had checked out of Nottingham the night before. Not least, New Zealand bowled out for 284, which left England 299 to win in 72 overs. Thirty-six for one at lunch and 139 for 4 at tea left it seeming unlikely, but a mug of Yorkshire Gold and chicken sandwich to hand, I settled into the sofa.

Sixteen overs later it was all over. The match, that is; the sandwich remained untouched by its wide-eyed maker. Bairstow flayed the most disciplined attack in the world. He hooked and cut and drove and thrashed any ball, everywhere. He went to a hundred in 77 of them, just two measly deliveries short of England's fastest ever - if only he had known that Gilbert Jessop needed just 76 balls at The Oval back in 1902! At the other end, his captain looked on in astonishment. They hugged at the end, Bairstow one of the boys at last.

I remember that afternoon for the innings, of course, and for the texts that pinged in on top of one another. "Are you watching?" "Can you believe this?" "What's the fastest hundred ever?" (McCullum - 54 balls against Australia, seven years ago in Christchurch.) "This really is a New England." "What a difference a captain makes!" "Have you ever seen a more brilliant innings?" "Told you, JB should never have been left out." "They won't mess Bairstow around anymore now!" "If only we'd played like this in Australia" "...Or the West Indies." "Are Stokes' England the real deal?"

Yes is the answer. Not that Trent Bridge conclusively proved as much by itself, just that consistent messaging from the moment the new captain and coach took over has been backed up by the amazing results - talk the talk, walk the walk. Trent Bridge was an assault on the senses. A match fought with mind every bit as much as muscle. Five hundred and fifty-three (after Stokes had put New Zealand in to bat) played 539 on the first-innings tally. That's more often than not a dead end. But England's score had come in under 129 overs, and thus, time remained in the match for the bowlers to chip away at third innings wickets, and for Bairstow. In all he blazed 14 fours and seven sixes. "It was do or die," said JB, "So you've got to do."

England won six of seven home Tests this past summer and based the template on bowling first, scoring quickly and knocking off whatever was required. The bowlers were encouraged to search for wickets rather than to bowl "dry"; everyone else was encouraged to break free of whatever constrained them. The fear of failure was banished: a wasted emotion. There was to be no recrimination in this adventure, only fun. It went better than even the Stokes-McCullum axis might have hoped.

But Rawalpindi was something else again. Rawalpindi was perhaps England's greatest Test match win ever. In the modern era, there is ridiculous Headingley 1981; Karachi in the dark, 2000; Edgbaston's chewed fingernails in 2005; dazzling Mumbai in 2012. There were some good'uns in the 1950s and 1960s, of course there are. There is the Golden Age. But Rawalpindi in 2022, well...

To understand and appreciate we must go back to Rawalpindi in early March, when Pakistan and Australia slugged it out for five days, during which time a total of 14 wickets fell: four belonging to the hosts and ten to the visitors. Some pitch, huh? A bowler's graveyard. Nine months later, England's players turned the accepted reality of playing on that pitch into something almost fictional of their own.

For a start, Stokes picked a couple of T20 ball-strikers and bit-part spinners. Then he won the toss and chose to bat. But you have to hear what happened next! England attacked 64% of the balls they faced - a T20 attack-dog rate - and left only 13 balls alone. By amassing 506 for 4 they broke the record score for the opening day of a Test. In the two innings they scorched the turf and peppered the stands for a total of 921 runs in 136.5 overs - about four and half sessions of play. That leaves a lot of time to take wickets, like ten and a half sessions.

Except it doesn't, because bad light almost always intervenes after 75-80 overs each day. For all the glory of the batters, England's bowlers had found ways to take 20 wickets in every one of their victories since Stokes took the reins. Rawalpindi, the graveyard, was to be no exception. Will Jacks - heard of him? - claimed six in the first innings; Ollie Robinson and Jimmy Anderson four each in the second. Stokes rotated his bowlers like the ringmaster brings out his acts. Neither the opponent nor the audience were allowed to settle. Fielders were positioned in funny places, boundaries were left unprotected, bouncers were bowled to bodyline fields, spinners looped to tease with the field up and the space behind them vacant. The mind of the viewer boggled and rejoiced. Stokes declared England's second innings with a lead of 342 at tea on the fourth day. That's four sessions in which to get 343 on the flattest deck in the hemispheres. With minutes to go Jack Leach trapped Naseem Shah lbw. Got 'im! Pakistan all out 268.

"A win for the ages," wrote Michael Atherton in the Times of London. No kidding.

Remember, the match might not have started, so unsure were England about raising 11 fit men. A virus shook them about and led Stokes to tour the rooms at the hotel, urging guys like Leach from their sick bed. See, it's all fiction. Except it isn't. It was all conceived by the best captain you will ever see, leading a team full of optimism and ambition.

Stokes can change Test match cricket, not necessarily for all those who simply want to copy him, but by opening the eyes of the world to what is possible. Malcolm Marshall used to say "Don't worry about the pitch, just find a way to play well on it." Stokes has that short sentence set deep in his philosophies, which are further enhanced by his license to thrill. The accepted ways have been discarded for the adventurous ways. He will lose and he will win some more. From here, the next fascination will centre around the adaptability of the players when the novelty wears off and the chips are down. But he doesn't care about that. He cares that we care and that tickets sell and that cricket is a part of the national conversation and that cricket delights young people and old people in equal measure. He has stripped the game back to its origins: a ball, a bat and some fun. It is enough. --Cricinfo

The three best Tests I watched this year