On the eve of the last month of 2016, as you’d imagine, we’re at the business end of most seasons, while bang in the middle of cricket and football seasons. There’s a long winter ahead for misfiring teams like Australia and England, and there’s a nice month-long rest for the tennis players, who ended their season in London last week. December, also, will be the month of season-ending lists – an exciting prospect for most writers and statisticians licking their lips at the end of a quick year. We have plenty in store ourselves, but first let’s take stock of this last week:
THE INDIAN STREAK
India won the toss and defeated England by a record margin in the second Test at Vizag. Virat Kohli scored his 14th century, Cheteshwar Pujara his 10th, while R. Ashwin took yet another 5-wicket haul in only his 41st Test match.
Not for the first time (in fact the second consecutive time in two series), India lead England 1-0 in a Test series and the Alastair Cook-led team must again find a way to come from behind. This time, with Virat Kohli and his bat at the helm, it may be a bit more difficult. The third Test will begin at chilly Mohali on Saturday morning. India hasn’t been beaten for 15 Tests now, dating back to July 2015.
HUNTING THE KANGAROO
Meanwhile, “stand-in” captain of South Africa, Faf du Plessis, who only two months ago led South Africa to their first ever 5-0 whitewash over Australia in ODIs, was found guilty over ball tampering during their Hobart victory over a disillusioned, panicked Australian side. He was docked his match fee and allowed to play the final Test – a day-night pink-ball test in Adelaide, only the third of its kind in history. Faf let his bat do the talking, led a first-innings charge with an unbeaten century, and cannily declared on 259/9, putting an unprepared Australia – without the services of David Warner as an opener (because he had been too long off the field) – in to bat 12 overs before stumps. It was a ruthless move, one that didn’t pay dividends, but shook up a line-up that had to promote Usman Khwaja to open the innings instead with debutant Matt Renshaw. They survived, and didn’t score a run for the first six overs. Australia will not go down lightly in this Test, looking to avoid a humiliating whitewash at home for the first time in what seems like centuries. Over the weekend, we will have an answer.
THE UNDERDOG SERIES
Perhaps a total of 40 people, including the players and the umpires, may be watching the ongoing tri-series in Zimbabwe between the hosts, Sri Lanka and a new-look (as always) West Indies. But don’t let that fool you. Already, it has had some of the most exciting ODI matches of the year – with Sri Lanka already in the final, waiting for the winner between West Indies and Zimbabwe (each team plays the other twice). There has already been a tie, when West Indies failed to score three off the final over against Zimbabwe, and a 1-run victory, when Sri Lanka dragged the Windies short in their chase of 330. Evin Lewis top-scored with a 146, that went in vain. West Indies again needed seven off the last over and three off the last four balls with two wickets in hand, but managed only one, with Jason Holder failing to get a big hit off the final ball. Somehow, the Windies, who should have won all their three matches – including a comfortable first victory against Sri Lanka – contrived to win just one, and now find themselves in a shootout for the final against Zimbabwe.
THE REAL DOWN UNDER
Pakistan’s test-series streak is under grave threat, after they lost the first Test to New Zealand at Christchurch by eight wickets. They have now been unbeaten for seven series in a row (including England, Australia, Sri Lanka and West Indies), and haven’t lost a series to New Zealand in almost three decades. Their Test defeat to the West Indies in the final match at Abu Dhabi last month may have signaled a few chinks, as they went on to lose their second in a row, though in a different country. They are without Misbah ul-Haq at Hamilton, who was banned for slow over rate in the first Test.
The Champions League group stages have come to an end, with some surprises for the 2016-17 tournament.
Leicester City FC, in their first-ever European Cup, was one of only three teams with four wins out of five (and one draw) in the group stages, storming into the knockouts. They have been close to the relegation zone after their miraculous 2015 EPL victory in the league, but qualified as one of three English teams with Manchester City and Arsenal. Tottenham failed, finishing in third place in their group, while defending champs Real Madrid finished second behind Dortmund in theirs, and Bayern Munich finished second behind Atletico in theirs – which means Real could face one of the group-toppers in the next round: Leicester, or Barcelona, or Atletico, or Juventus, or even Paris SG. As could Bayern, who shockingly lost the final game of their group to Russian club FC Rostov. Atletico Madrid was the only team to finish with a perfect 5-on-5 record, which seems to have cost them in La Liga, given that they are eight points off the pace this year. Notably, there was no Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool in the group stages this year. There could be two of those in the next season, but that’s a long way away. As of now, on form, could Leicester create a new fairytale in 2017 by running deep again – this time in Europe, with the best in the world watching?
We’re down to the final race at Abu Dhabi – and Nico Rosberg has to simply finish fourth or above to guarantee himself his first-ever World title. Lewis Hamilton, his teammate and rival, is 12 points behind, narrowing it down from 30-odd by winning the last three races. However Nico’s consistency by finishing on the podium so often has given him a long-awaited shot at becoming yet another German world champion after Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel. This weekend will be an exciting one – with the F1 championship going down to the final race for the 27th time in its history, and the first time since 2010.