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2018 – A Year to Savour and to Regret

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Well, let’s not exaggerate. But there was some genuinely enthralling and entertaining Test cricket, much of it demonstrating skill of the highest quality. (There was probably a lot of good ODI and T20I cricket too; it’s just somehow harder to remember.) There was a throwback to a scene many must have thought they would never see again – an Australian captain in tears. Significant records were broken. India’s Ajit Wadekar, captain on the triumphant tour of England in 1971, and Doug Insole, the grand panjandrum of English cricket from the 1960s to the 1980s, passed away. Australia, under Meg Lanning, won the Women’s T20I World Cup. Titans departed the scene and young pretenders made their mark.  Virat Kohli looked excited. Ben Stokes was found not guilty of affray outside a Bristol nightclub. Ireland and Afghanistan each played a Test match; and lost. Shane Warne produced an autobiography – his third(?) but the first he has had any involvement with, save as subject (brilliantly written by Mark Nicholas). Grace Harris made a hundred off 42 balls for Brisbane Heat in the Women’s Big Bash League. Jofra Archer suddenly became English. Alastair Cook received a knighthood. Imran Khan became Prime Minister of Pakistan. Virat Kohli looked damn moody. 

England’s roller-coaster of a year was a metaphor for 2018. It started as bad as bad could be, losing the Ashes 4-0, with struggling captain Joe Root suffering an attack of gastro-enteritis during the fifth Test at the SCG.  

Things actually got worse. On 22 March, in the first Test at Auckland Trent Boult and Tim Southee bowled England out for 58 – they were 27 for nine. England drew the second Test but suffered a humiliating defeat at Lord’s to a young Pakistan side before squaring that series. The showpiece event of the summer was a five-Test series against a resurgent India. England won the series four-one, which was perhaps not a fair reflection of the opposing sides’ merits. The first Test was a very exciting affair, containing many of the classic ingredients of a Test match, particularly a duel of the rarest quality between the series’ two dominant personalities, Virat Kohli and James Anderson. England won that game by 31 runs, and the second at Lord’s by an innings and 159. India fought back to win at Trent Bridge by 223 runs and there was another close encounter at Southampton, England winning by 60 runs. England won at The Oval by 128 runs but there were many passages of play throughout the series when it was difficult to say which was the better side despite the ultimate margin of victory.

If the series was a triumph for anyone it was England’s national selector, the former Kent, Middlesex and England batsman and Times’ leader writer, Ed Smith. Courting controversy from the start, every choice he made – with the exceptions of Dom Bess and, for now (but it is very early days) of Oli Pope – seemed to turn up trumps. Jos Buttler walked straight out of the Indian Premier League and into the Test match against Pakistan at Lord’s and put all the so-called red ball specialists to shame. Adil Rashid was a more contentious choice because, unlike Buttler, he had expressly “retired” from red ball cricket. Without establishing himself as a regular – it will be difficult for a leg spinner to do that in England – Rashid showed himself to be a remarkably useful cricketer, especially in Sri Lanka, of which more shortly. And then there was Sam Curran. Deservedly the man of the match in his second Test, the cliff-hanger against India at Edgbaston, it is likely that England could not have won that game without his contribution.   

But the old boys couldn’t be left out. At The Oval Anderson, who actually seems to get better, in English conditions, as he gets older, overtook Glenn McGrath to become the leading wicket-taker in Test cricket among pace bowlers.

England saved the best until the end of the year when they travelled to Sri Lanka and won three-nil. There were a number of good things about this. There was the emergence of another new star, wicket keeper (England’s third in the current Test side) Ben Foakes, who made a wonderful century in his first Test, at Galle. There was the success of the English spinners, Moeen Ali, Jack Leach and Rashid, who on the whole out-bowled their Sri Lankan counterparts. And perhaps above all there was the feeling that Root was now growing into the job of England captain and that, for the first time this was “his” side.  

England’s main worry is domestic. During the year the administrators announced the launch, in 2020, of a new city-based franchise tournament, to be called The Hundred. This is going to be a new format, intended, apparently, to be more easily understood by kids and their mothers. England is not the only country to be blessed – cursed? – by administrators more interested in money than the welfare of the game.

Reverting to the series in Sri Lanka, there was a fair amount of comment about how poor the hosts were. This seemed a little harsh and also served somehow to devalue England’s achievement. Although the margin of victory at Galle was substantial England had to fight hard throughout the series. And Sri Lanka had a pretty good 2018 themselves. At the beginning of the year they went to Bangladesh and won 1-0. In June they went to the Caribbean and drew a tightly fought series 1-1. In July they demolished South Africa at home. Then came the defeat to England. In the Boxing Day Test at Wellington though they put up heroic resistance to earn a draw, Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews batting throughout the fourth day. There was, however a crushing defeat at Christchurch. Still, given that they spent a fair bit of time without their first-choice captain, Dinesh Chandimal (banned for ball-tampering and/or bringing the game into disrepute, then injured) Sri Lanka could be reasonably satisfied with their year.

New Zealand could well claim to be the best Test team of 2018. They are shabbily treated by the games administrators and hardly ever seem to play but when they do they are immensely resourceful as well as entertaining. Kane Williamson has a strong claim to be the best batsman in the world at the moment and he, Ross Taylor and the improving Henry Nicholls make up a formidable middle order.  At Wellington against Sri Lanka opener Tom Latham broke a record set only last year by Cook in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, carrying his bat for a mountainous 264.

Boult and Southee finished the year as they had started it, demolishing Sri Lanka’s first innings in the second Test at Christchurch, Boult having a spell of six for three as the visitors collapsed from 94 for four to 104 all out. Southee top scored in New Zealand’s first innings. There were three sixes in his innings of 68, taking his total of sixes in Tests to (oddly enough) 68, more than any other current player.

Earlier in December New Zealand achieved the rare feat of winning a series in the UAE, beating Pakistan 2-1, including a victory by 4 runs in the first Test in Abu Dhabi. In the third Test in Dubai – which the visitors also won – the Pakistani leg spinner Yasir Shah became the fastest bowler, in terms of Tests played, to take 209 wickets. it was a record that had stood for over 60 years, the previous holder also being a leg spinner, the Australian (in fact born in New Zealand) Clarrie Grimmett, who took 200 wickets in 36 Tests; Yasir managed it in 33.

Even so Yasir Shah was probably not Pakistan’s leading bowler of the last twelve months. That accolade must go to the remarkable medium pacer, Mohammad Abbas who, at the time of writing has a career Test bowling average of 16.62 and an economy rate of 2.34. These are not twenty-first or even twentieth century numbers; that was how things were when W G Grace was playing. It was usually Pakistan’s batting that caused them problems, as in the Boxing Day Test in Centurion.

South Africa remain fairly impregnable at home, like most of the leading nations – even West Indies did not lose either of their home series in 2018, though they lost all the games they played away, to India and Bangladesh. In January the Proteas took on India. This was Kohli’s new India, number one in the Test rankings by virtue of beating everyone at home. 2018 brought the real challenge – tours of South Africa, England and Australia, to showcase their unprecedentedly powerful pace attack.

Anyway, South Africa won the first two Tests of a Three-match series, India picking up a consolation win at The Wanderers with the phenomenal Jasprit Bumrah taking five wickets in the first innings and Mohammed Shami five in the second. Kohli made the only century in the series, 153 in the second Test at Centurion.

In March it was the turn of Steve Smith’s Australians to tour South Africa. A vitriol-fuelled contest was poised at one-all when the teams moved to Cape Town for the third Test.

It’s a crying shame (sorry) but notwithstanding all the fantastic cricket played all over the world in 2018, the abiding memory of the year for many people will be an apparently uneventful passage of play during the third day at Newlands and the almost surreal press conference involving Smith and the hapless Cameron Bancroft that followed. The repercussions of “Sandpapergate” went well beyond the series itself, which South Africa proceeded to win three-one. The bans imposed (by Cricket Australia) on Smith, his insufferable sidekick David Warner and the actual perpetrator, Bancroft, were so out of keeping with previous penalties for ball-tampering that it was clear that they were directed at a wider malaise within Australian cricket; the subsequent holding of an inquiry into the “culture” of Australian cricket confirmed this 

Tim Paine’s re-designed Australia has had a rough ride since. For a couple of years now it has been obvious that Australia’s batting was being carried by Smith and Warner; remove them from the equation and the cupboard looks bare indeed, remarkably so given the plaudits customarily handed out to the Sheffield Shield as a breeder of Test cricketers. Usman Khawaja made a heroic 141, in five hours, to earn a draw against Pakistan in the first Test in Dubai in October (Paine also did his bit) the Indian pace attack proved too much for Australia at the end of the year. As the sides prepare for Sydney at the start of January, it is two-one to India, and history may be in the making.

That series between South Africa and Australia, apart from the temporary withdrawals of the three Australian miscreants, saw two more regrettable departures, as A B de Villiers and Morne Morkel announced their retirements from international cricket, each citing scheduling demands. De Villiers could make a valid claim to be the most talented batsman of his generation in all formats. His retirement so soon before the 2019 World Cup is a bitter blow to his country. Morkel, exceptionally tall, was the ideal foil to Dale Steyn.

The first Test between Sri Lanka and England at Galle saw Rangana Herath’s final appearance. He returns straightaway to his job at the bank. For a little while now Herath has looked as though he might have wandered accidentally on to the playing area from an executive box. But don’t laugh at his figures; no left arm bowler has taken more Test wickets.

And at The Oval, in the fifth Test against India, Alastair Cook played the last of his 161 Tests. He seemed to have been around for so long it was difficult to believe he was only 33. Nothing became Cook’s career like his leaving of it. As in his first Test (also against India, in Nagpur) he made a century and a half century. And although the media and the exultant, affectionate and congratulatory crowd made a huge deal of his final appearance Cook himself was as dignified and low key as ever.

Five Cricketers of The Year

Tim Paine is the Theresa May of Australia. Handed a poisoned chalice in almost impossible circumstances it must surely be said that he has handled the situation as well as anyone could have done. There was some consternation when he suddenly returned to the national side, after a lengthy absence, for The Ashes. (He had apparently been thinking of giving up the game altogether.) He did not put a foot wrong during that series. Whether it was a case of Last Man Standing, or whatever, he has personified the cultural transformation which Australian cricket is apparently going through. He has kept wicket very well and is also having to shore up the batting which he – often in the company of Pat Cummins has managed to do if only up to a point.

Love him or hate him it is impossible to ignore Virat Kohli. A sublimely talented batsman he scored centuries in challengingly different circumstances at Edgbaston, Centurion and Perth – all losing causes. On his ability as a captain the jury is still out. Part of the problem is that his heart is not so much on his sleeve as in a large banner flowing out behind him. He is also a dangerously unreliable and skittish selector – one has to assume that all important decisions are effectively made by Kohli – though dropping both openers for the Boxing Day Test, which seemed crazy at the time, worked out pretty well.  If India can hang on to their lead in Sydney his job will be safe for the time being.

Jos Buttler is emerging as the most significant player in English men’s cricket. In terms of pure skill, he has it in him to be the next A B de Villiers. (Apparently there was widespread relief in the England dressing room during the one-day series in Sri Lanka – perfectly timed to coincide with monsoon season – when it was discovered that he was not a chess grand master). Above all though he is a smart cricketer. Never ignore Warne. Buttler should be captain; let Root catch up with Kohli, Williamson and Smith in the battle to be the world’s best batsman.

India – rather astonishingly – now have arguably the best pace attack in world cricket since the days of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. There are five to choose from. But the leader of the pack – Kohli’s go to guy – is the youngest of them all, Jasprit Bumrah. Generating exceptional rapidity despite a short, almost rambling run up, he is accurate as well as threatening. He made his debut against South Africa and already has 45 wickets at an average of 21.

With so many impressive fast bowlers around it is a very difficult time to be an opening batsman.  Ask Murali Vijay and K L Rahul. In that context South Africa’s Dean Elgar really stands out. Twice this year he carried his bat, against India and Australia. He batted bravely against Pakistan to see his side to victory in the Boxing Day Test at Centurion.  Never pretty, if you want the proverbial player to bat for your life, you could do a lot worse than Elgar.

Finally, a couple of posers for 2019.

England seem to be favourites for the World Cup to be staged there for the first time since 1999. Can they really pull it off?

Will Australia’s cultural realignment survive the availability of Warner after his ban expires?

Happy New Year!!

Bill Ricquier

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