© AFP and Getty Images
© AFP and Getty Images

It has been a most memorable year for sport worldwide, and cricket has been no exception. India have had a tremendous run, especially in Test cricket, and it is no coincidence given the brand of cricket they have played that they are currently comfortably perched atop the ICC rankings.

As the old gives way to the new, I am sure we will all have moments to cherish, memories to treasure. Here are my six personal highlights of 2016.

1. Sunrisers Hyderabad’s IPL triumph

For obvious reasons, this accomplishment occupies pride of place as far as I am concerned. Our success in season nine of the IPL was further proof, if proof was ever needed, that hard work and commitment without necessarily focussing on the results will bear fruit sooner rather than later. At Sunrisers, we made a conscious effort to concentrate on the process and let the outcome take care of itself. What we achieved this year was the coming to a fruition of the efforts of three years. Like the Indian team’s successes, our run to the title was no accident.

One of the things we stressed in our team was that there were no superstars, that everyone was an equal member of the squad. The idea was to make everyone feel wanted, and even if the magnitude of the performance was not massive in quantum, players knew that a crucial 20, a vital save or a key breakthrough were as well appreciated as a blistering half-century or a three-wicket haul.

To achieve the success we did, not merely in terms of the title but in terms of getting the team to buy into our thinking, is something that makes me particularly proud. As all teams, we have players from all parts of the globe. For them to come together for those two months, to move forward as a family, to meet the ups and downs with equanimity, that was a wonderful experience that I will savour for the rest of my life.

It was wonderful to see our bowlers stand up and make a name for themselves in a format that is universally acknowledged as a batsman’s game. Ashish Nehra, Mustafizur Rahman, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Barinder Sran were exceptional, and the support from men of the calibre of Trent Boult who struggled to get a game was great.

David Warner led the batting with enterprise and the team with aplomb, setting standards that hauled the rest of the unit along, while we created leadership pockets beyond the captain alone, with Yuvraj, Nehra, Shikhar, Kane, Morgan and Moises Henriques all sharing the workload around and giving Davey the support and the encouragement on the park that Tom Moody provided off it.

All in all, it was a journey most enjoyable; like every team, we did set out to win the title but didn’t obsess over it, and the manner in which the team held its nerve in the final when Chris Gayle was going hammer and tongs was a tribute to its character and self-belief.

2. The phenom called Kohli:

The second half of the year saw the best of Virat Kohli the Test player. However, long before that, he had already taken the limited-overs stage by storm, especially in the T20 format where he looked a couple of leagues above the best of the rest. That he managed to score as consistently and as quickly as he did without abandoning the conventional was a wonderful lesson for aspiring youngsters — if your basics are strong and you are aware of your strengths, you do not need to veer from the orthodox to be successful even in limited-overs cricket.

The Virat T20 show began on the tour of Australia in January, spilled over to the Asia Cup in Bangladesh in February, continued on to the World T20 at home in March and then came to a heady climax during the IPL when, almost single-handedly, he rescued what appeared to be a lost cause and hauled Royal Challengers Bangalore to the final. As was inevitable, there were a clutch of extraordinary innings along the way, none more impressive than his knock against Pakistan in the Asia Cup on a seaming track in Mirpur, and half-centuries against Pakistan and Australia in the World T20.

Virat has every shot in the book, so he does not feel the need to go cute and play the lap shot or the switch-hit. Whereas in Test cricket he has made a conscious effort not to hit the ball in the air, he can clear the ropes effortlessly in limited-overs cricket. He is the acknowledged master of the chase, the computer that is his brain ticking over furiously as he soaks in field placements, scoring rates, which bowlers to target, which parts of the field to target, and which fielders to put pressure on so that a tight 1.5 run  can be converted into an easy two.

When you have as brilliant a T20 year as Virat did, it is impossible to single out one innings that took one’s breath away. As much as his excellent all-round strokeplay, I was also thrilled at the manner in which he ran between the wickets. Alongside MS, he put on a running display against Australia and then West Indies in the World T20, the present and the future coming together in a glorious spectacle. Virat has set the standards high through all of 2016; here’s expecting more from him in the 365 days to follow.

3. India’s return to the top of the Test rankings

Seldom has Indian cricket had it so good. Going unbeaten in a Test match throughout an entire year was a spectacular credit to Virat and his men, who won 9 of their 12 Tests this year. Virat and Ashwin were the obvious batting and bowling lynchpins, but what was most heartening was the emergence of more and more performers as the year gathered steam and as commanding series wins in the Caribbean, and at home against good, competitive Test teams such as New Zealand and England were stacked up.

Virat was head and shoulders above the others, with double-centuries in all these three series, batting with an authority and purpose that was awe-inspiring. Fortunately for India, while the captain was blazing away, he wasn’t a one-man army. There were numerous other wonderful performers — Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Parthiv Patel and the young Karun Nair — while the lower order was no slouch either.

Ashwin was not just brilliant with the ball: he was the one that set the standards batting at Nos. 6 and 7. He made two hundreds in the West Indies while inspiring Wriddhiman Saha to a series-deciding hundred and a double-century stand in St Lucia.

Taking a cue from the top all-rounder in the world, Ravindra Jadeja and Jayant Yadav came into their own in the two home series, so that India had the balance that allowed them to consistently play five bowlers without losing any of their batting might. That all of India’s wins at home were achieved on good cricket pitches and not on square turners is another tick in the box of the Virat-Anil Kumble management group that has stressed on and been rewarded with improved fitness levels.

I was also delighted at the intensity and the pace with which Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav bowled throughout the year. They never lost heart or purpose, bowling as quickly during the last spell of a hot day as they did at the start, and while the spinners might have had the returns to show, the value these two quicks bring can never be exaggerated. Virat led the team with intent and will only get better. So will his batsmen, who have already played so much Test cricket overseas that their education and progress has been fast-tracked far beyond the ambit of mere words.

India did have reasonable success in limited-overs cricket too, especially with the Asia Cup T20 title and a T20 series sweep in Australia, only somewhat deflated by the semi-final loss in the World T20. But not even that can take the gloss away from what has been an exciting, fruitful year of Test cricket with the promise of more to come.

4. The women’s cricket revolution

India Women have seldom had it so good. With greater exposure and a vibrant calendar, they are playing more and more games, and also breaking into the consciousness of the Indian cricket-loving public who have hitherto largely satisfied themselves with the wonderful exploits of the men’s team.

The year began on a high with a first ever victory over Australia in a T20I series, and that too on Australian soil. It was exactly the fillip the team needed, especially because the Indian men were also in Australia at the same time for a limited-overs tour and therefore an awareness and an interest had already been created.

As the year progressed, India maintained their excellent form to win the Asia Cup and also defeat West Indies at home in a one-day international tournament, though they will have been disappointed at not progressing beyond the first stage at the World T20.

For me personally, it is a matter of great pride that the coach, Purnima Rau, and the captain of the ODI team, Mithali Raj, are both from Hyderabad. I have followed Mithali’s career with great interest, and it comes as no surprise to me that she ended the year as the most prolific and consistent Indian batter, with an average of 63 in ODIs and 45 in T20Is.

It is also heartening to see two of our ladies, Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana, not just make their maiden forays into the Women’s Big Bash League but also make an instant impact. I am sure this is just the start of greater things to come, and it won’t be long before more Indians are an integral part of the WBBL.

I would, of course, be delighted to see a similar T20 league in India during the IPL — not during the entire tournament to start with, but to have women’s matches perhaps over the weekend, matches starting at 4 pm ahead of the IPL games from 8. It will mean the fans will be able to watch and appreciate our best women’s talents from close quarters, and it will also inspire the players even more, to play regularly in front of big and excitable crowds. With the World Cup slated for next year — I am sure India will qualify for the tournament — I look forward to more good cricket from Mithali and her mates.

5. The Kumble and Dravid show

One of the toughest assignments for me this year was as part of the Cricket Advisory Committee that was to choose the next head coach of the Indian team. Ravi Shastri had done a stellar job as the team director after taking charge at a particularly low ebb in England in 2014. Not only did he infuse tremendous positivity and purpose into the team, he also turned the fortunes around with ample backing from the support staff of B Arun, R Sridhar and Sanjay Bangar.

When we sat down to pick the next coach, it was a difficult task to pick between Ravi, so brilliant in his stint with the team, and Anil, clearly India’s greatest match-winner with a fire and an attitude that have not dimmed even eight years after his international retirement.

Anil has slipped straightaway into the role of the benevolent older brother whose greatest advantage is his wonderful record for India, but who is also in sync with the nuances of modern-day cricket. Having had vast experience of playing all three formats, he has put his thoughts and ideas across with customary confidence and ease of communication, and the team has responded to him in kind. Anil has triggered the fitness revolution whose rewards the team is reaping in plenty, and he and Virat, similar of mind and spirit, have formed a partnership for the ages that is certain to take Indian cricket forward.

Anil played his cricket with utmost commitment, integrity and honesty, and these are values that are quickly being transferred to Indian cricket. Of course, his knowledge and understanding of the game are second to none, and the fact that even after all these years, he is happy and willing to get his hands dirty and bowl frequently in the nets is indicative of the fact that he is less of a talker and more of a doer.

Where Anil is harnessing and nurturing the skills of an older lot, another good friend of mine, Rahul Dravid, is doing a stellar job as the coach of the India Under-19 and India A sides. Like Anil, Rahul has the stature that commands rather than demands respect, and India’s young aspirants could not have asked for better hands to mould them. At 18 and 19, you can be beset by self-doubt and a certain lack of confidence. You can tend to put undue pressure on yourself, and that can often prevent you from giving your best. It is an impressionable age where you are most vulnerable. Rahul has a wonderful handle on things, is a great mentor, advisor, coach and guru. His impact on the likes of Jayant and Karun is already obvious, and I am waiting eagerly to see how many more from the Dravid stables will break into the national consciousness, and how quickly!

6. Woman power to the fore

This was the year of the Olympic Games, and as any sports-loving Indian, I too followed the progress of our athletes with great interest and hope. Admittedly, from a medals’ perspective, it was not the greatest of Games for us, but I couldn’t but be not impressed by the performances of our women athletes, not least PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar.

Sindhu is the classic example of what you can achieve if you do not cut corners, if you do not compromise on work ethic, and if you do not look for short-cuts to success. She stood out like a shining light in Rio, her silver medal a deserved reward for great skills, a never-say-die attitude and the determination to keep battling, no matter the odds. She has a great coach and mentor in P Gopichand, himself a champion player in his halcyon days.

As someone who has gone through the vicissitudes of fate, my heart went out to Saina Nehwal. She picked up a bad and most untimely knee injury which severely hampered her movements and therefore her progress. Alongside Sindhu, Saina stands as the role model for aspiring badminton players, and I am fairly confident she too would have won a medal had she not got injured.

Sindhu and Saina have access to top-of-the-draw facilities, which doesn’t take anything away from their achievements of course because if you want to be the best, you must have the best in your corner. I am not completely sure what kind of facilities Sakshi and Dipa had. It is even greater credit to them if they have reached where they have if they haven’t had the best of infrastructure in which to practice. It is also a tribute to the single-mindedness of Kuldeep Malik and Bishweshwar Nandi, their respective coaches, that they never lost faith in their wards or in the system, and that they put their heart and soul into making their wards the best they can be. Sakshi’s bronze was a sterling effort; Dipa might have narrowly missed out on a medal, but she captured the hearts of gymnastic fans the world over with her daring Produnova manoeuvre, and is a champion in her own right, podium finish or not.

And how can one forget Sania Mirza, for so long the torch-bearer of Indian women’s tennis? She has finished as the number one player in the world in doubles for the second year in a row, and has occupied that position for 80 weeks now, which is a staggering performance. Again, that shows how much she has invested in her pursuit for excellence.

And then, there is Aditi Ashok, the teenaged golfer who is making waves in her first year on the professional circuit. Effortlessly, these women have set the benchmark for young Indians. At my academy in Hyderabad, I see more and more young girls turning up to hone their cricketing skills. That is absolutely encouraging as we look to take strides towards becoming a truly sporting nation.

On that note, here’s wishing everyone a very happy New Year! And may there be glad tidings for all in 2017!