Here is a quiz question for you: Which was India’s finest year in Test cricket?
If you were asked that 12 months ago, the answer would have been 2010. That year, the team led by MS Dhoni, which had taken over the No 1 ranking in Tests in late 2009, consolidated its position by winning eight of 14 matches. Sachin Tendulkar finished the calendar year with 1,562 runs and seven centuries.
The three reverses they suffered included innings defeats against South Africa in Nagpur and Centurion, and a last-day special from Muttiah Muralitharan in his farewell game. And the gains in the Test arena were offset by the failure to make a dent at the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean.
In 2016, Virat Kohli’s men put the heroes of a previous generation in the shade by winning nine of 12 Tests, and opening up a yawning gap at the top of the Test rankings.
While Kohli did not put up the kind of numbers that his predecessor at No 4 had done in 2010, his excellence with the bat was as central to Indian progress as Ravichandran Ashwin’s heroics with the ball.
Over the last 12 months, Kohli’s batting transcended the mundane to reach a rarefied plane. Whatever the format, and wherever he played, he made runs, lots of them.
India started the year by losing an ODI series in Australia 4-1, but Kohli’s scores were 91, 59, 117, 106 and 8.
At the World Twenty20 on home soil in March, he made three unbeaten half-centuries, against Pakistan, Australia and West Indies, the eventual winners, and was voted man of the tournament for the second time in a format not associated with that kind of consistency.
Then, there was the small matter of an IPL season where he scored 973 runs for Royal Challengers Bangalore — no one else has even tallied 800 in a campaign. And just to prove that his mastery extended to all formats, he closed out the year with Test double-centuries against West Indies, New Zealand and England.
The final run count for the year was 2,595 in international cricket, at an average of 86.5. Apart from a poor start to the home season against New Zealand, he did not even look like failing any time he went out to bat.
The Kohli influence extends far beyond those numbers though. At the conclusion of the 4-0 series win against England last month, Kohli expounded on his leadership philosophy.
“The kind of cricket that we play as a side, we are always playing for results,” he said. “That is something that crowds always want to see.
“They want to see Test matches getting to a conclusion, not ending in boring draws. Even if it is a draw, it has to be a competitive one.”
He has far too much respect for Dhoni for it to have been a jibe at the man he succeeded. But it shouldn’t be forgotten either that the final years of Dhoni’s captaincy were characterised by safety-first tactics and an aversion to risk.
A generation of players brought up with the high-stakes rolling of the IPL seems far more at ease with the Kohli approach.
He is also a ruthless taskmaster when it comes to fitness, as the talented Sarfaraz Khan discovered during the IPL.
As India have stretched their unbeaten run in Tests to 18 games, player after player has spoken about how hard they work on their fitness, and how they take their cue from the captain.
“It is just evolution,” said Kohli. “It is sometimes surprising looking at these youngsters, how quickly they pick things up.”
KL Rahul, 24, finished the year with 199. Karun Nair, a few months older, signed off with an unbeaten 303.
As long as they, and other young talent, continue to play Follow the Leader, Indian cricket will be in a good space for a while yet.
Kohli not the only India star this year
With Kohli’s ascension to Tendulkar-like status among his countrymen on 2016, it would have been all too easy to overlook the achievements of other Indian sportspersons.
Fortunately, this was an Olympic year and while media personality Piers Morgan and former India opener Virender Sehwag kept up the banter about India’s population and lack of success on the global sporting stage, there were enough shards of hope to feel optimistic about 2017.
PV Sindhu’s silver in the women’s badminton in Rio de Janeiro was a big highlight, and she proved that was no fluke by going on to win the China Open later in the year.
With Saina Nehwal getting back to full fitness after the knee injury that derailed her Olympic quest, the coming 12 months should see even more for Indian badminton to celebrate.
Aditi Ashok, 18, was Rookie of the Year in golf’s Ladies European Tour, after first having caught the nation’s attention with her opening round exploits in Rio.
That she faded over the second half of the competition meant that she did not get the recognition of Sindhu, Sakshi Malik (bronze in the wrestling) and Dipa Karmakar (fourth on the vault), but there is every reason to expect that she will add to the titles she won in India and Qatar.
In a year when Kohli and Sindhu were ubiquitous on magazine covers and newspaper front pages, two Paralympic athletes deserved even greater praise.
Devendra Jhajharia, who lost his left arm when he was electrocuted as a boy, shattered the javelin world record he had set in Athens 12 years earlier, having sat out the next two Olympics because the F46 category that he competed in — for athletes with unilateral upper-limb impairment — was not included in the athletics programme.
At least a handful of people had heard of Jhajharia before his Rio gold. Mariyappan Thangavelu, whose left leg was crushed in an accident when he was five, was a surprise.
He won the men’s high jump T42 (athletes with a single above-the-knee amputation or comparable disability) with a leap of 1.89m.
Neither Jhajharia nor Thangavelu is likely to stay in the limelight. But for a few weeks at least, in a country unused to the sight of Olympic gold, they opened some eyes to the vast sporting potential that lies untapped.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport