2018, a buoyant year for five-day cricket
Cricket’s never been richer in content, money or popularity than in 2018. In Test cricket, the focus of this piece ball dominated bat. This shows a shift in the nature of pitches, but more importantly, also how captains and players are changing the pace, ethos and outcomes in this format. As always, there were some memorable performances. Inevitably, there was some grisliness in the underbelly too. Here’s my quick run down on the year that was:
Player of the year: Virat Kohli. A burgeoning bank balance has pitchforked him into the upper echelons of highest earning sportspersons in the world. But that is not the reason that puts Kohli apart. His batting, across all formats, was outstanding: 1,322 runs in Tests, 1202 in ODIs, the most by any batsman. His combustible personality has riled some critics, but Kohli is by no means the worst behaved cricketer as alleged. The owner of that (dis)honour comes up next.
Shame of the year: Australians trying to cheat against South Africa, in what is now called ‘Sandpaper Gate’, brought the game into ignominy. Captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner using rookie Cameron Bancroft as fall guy threw Australian cricket into deep turmoil. Initially, I thought the bans on these players were severe, but as more facts tumbled out, Smith’s role, particularly, becomes more insidious. He’s also a repeat offender. Remember his ‘Brain Fade’ moment in 2016-17 in India?
Captain and team of the year: India are ranked number 1, but Kohli & Co couldn’t live up to expectations in South Africa and England. New Zealand, who recorded their fourth successive series win after beating Sri Lanka 1-0 in the recently concluded Test series, are my choice for best team. The highlight was beating Pakistan, otherwise considered impregnable in UAE, and despite Yasir Shah taking 29 wickets! England impressed with a resounding 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka but had lost the Ashes and struggled at home against Pakistan. The Kiwis, with Williamson leading the way as batsman and tactician, were most consistent.
Young guns, big future: Kagiso Rabada, Jasprit Bumrah, Pat Cummins and Sam Curran made rapid strides to become stellar players. Rabada has become spearhead for South Africa, Bumrah in his first year in Tests, has done the same for India, Curran’s all-round prowess helped England emerge frequently out of crises and win, Cummins is getting to be the classy all-rounder Australia needs.
India in fast lane: A surfeit of quality fast bowlers has seen the emphasis in Indian cricket shift from spin to pace. So much so that in two Tests, the playing XI did not include a spinner! Unthinkable even a few years back. With 134 wickets between them so far in 2018, Shami, Ishant and Bumrah now form arguably the best pace unit in the world.
Farewells: The retirements of AB de Villiers and Alistair Cook, both only 34, were unexpected. De Villiers’ abrupt decision after returning from a one-year lay-off, revived debate about T20 leagues diminishing Test cricket. Cook’s retirement, however, did not leave any misgivings. He went out on a high, scoring a memorable century in his final innings and finishing the year with a knighthood.
The good news: Ireland and Afghanistan making their Test debut. Despite defeats, both teams showed chutzpah and ambition. What’s pertinent now is how often they will be engaged in Test matches by major teams. Mere tokenism will not help in expanding the global footprint of Test cricket.
The bad news: High decibel ego clash between Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur left a sour taste in the mouth. The controversy began with a series of leaked emails, claimed a victim in hapless coach Ramesh Powar, and also showed up serious fissures in the Committee Of Administrators members Diana Edulji and Vinod Rai.
Saga everyone wishes would end: The Justice Lodha panel recommendations to improve Indian cricket were to have been implemented in six-eight months. Almost two years later the tug-of-war between the BCCI old guard and COA continues. In recent weeks it’s taken a dramatic twist with Edulji and Rai squabbling on several issues. The BCCI, going by the adage that ‘enemy’s enemy is a friend’ has deviously sided with one or the other at different times. About time the Supreme Court forced a closure before it becomes a total farce.
Match-fixing threat still looms: The sting operation by Al Jazeera Television, which suggested players/groundsmen from England, Australia and Sri Lanka could be involved in match-fixing, is a wake-up call. While no conclusive evidence was provided, there is no doubt the game could still be under threat, with so many T20 leagues proliferating. A robust inquiry is needed.
All told, Test cricket’s alive! : 48 Tests have been played in 2018 including the two which finished on Sunday, and 43 – a whopping 89.58 % - have produced results! The 5-day format’s never had it so good. The game’s minders have no excuse in not making it better. And India has a big role in this. How about agreeing to day/night Tests for a start?
(The author is a senior sports analyst. Views are personal)