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SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 31 DECEMBER, 2019

Cricket’s Juggernaut Year of World Cups and Experiments

The year - for cricket


2019 will go down in cricket history as one of the pivotal passages of time when the sport underwent some rather spectacular changes, or was on the cusp of bigger decisions and some game changing consequences in times to come.

Test cricket not only got a broader context but also, found itself on the precipice of another wave of change with India finally getting on board the day and night Test cricket train. However, it was not an express year for a few teams as some found themselves on the odd side of history while others found that success can be a fleeting change.

England would like to look back on 2019 as the year when they were no longer the bridesmaids. After three successful attempts at a World Cup trophy, they lived up to the billing, hosting the ICC Cricket World Cup. Dogged by controversy over the shrinking size of the tournament and the inclement weather that cast aspersions on the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for showing partiality towards the Ashes later in the season, England had their rocky moments before their ship finally set sail towards the destination they had earnestly mapped four years since a rather ignominious end to their campaign down under.

However, Eoin Morgan’s team, riding high on Ben Stokes, would not have victory come easily. Kane Williamson’s New Zealand not only stole the thunder from the hosts but also, walked away with the Spirit of Cricket award for their graciousness in accepting the eventual verdict even if it was an unpopular way to deem the winners and champions of this year’s edition.

Much like the concussion saga that took centre stage this year, particularly with the introduction of the concussion substitute, the headache of having a World Cup decided on the number of boundaries hit after both teams tied the Super Over score in addition to the fifty overs runs total dominated the headlines, wrestling the limelight away from England and putting the spotlight firmly on the International Cricket Council (ICC) to undo the seemingly unfair result thrust upon the team from the Southern Hemisphere who had made their first ever final and like England were looking for a World Cup title.

The ICC did amend the rules. A tied Super Over would lead to another Super Over. But it was too little too late. Once again it appeared that the international cricket arena has been used as the laboratory to bring a fairer, more equitable result that was amenable to all.

In similar fashion, the ICC found its hands tied as the permanent cricket boards around the world resisted the urge to allow the ICC to go ahead with its plan to have a flagship event a la the World Cup every year in the forthcoming cycle. England chose the backdrop of the ICC Cricket World Cup to not only unveil the numbers on the back of the white flannel T-shirts for the forthcoming Ashes but also, showcased an additional format they intend to introduce next year, the Hundred, unimaginably shorter than even the Twenty20 format and certainly one impinging on the domestic cricket’s structure ironically at a time when the men’s limited overs team was on a spectacular rise and badly needed to work on their game to level up in the Test cricket arena.

The ICC’s inaugural ICC World Test championship event became the next talking point even as the debate over the conclusion of the ICC Cricket World Cup continued to rage. However, like most of ICC’s latest introductions to inject more life into the game, the tournament ran into hot waters not only because not every one understood how the points system worked but also, because the system seemed outrightly absurd when the numbers were indeed worked out. But while the obvious was pointed out and the ICC had an opportunity to bring about some amendments in consensus with the cricket captains, it seemed the status quo of locking the stables after the horse had bolted would continue.

At a time when more Test matches should be encouraged, the points system actually made it harder for teams to earn points in a bilateral series that went longer than two Tests. Furthermore, it failed entirely by not taking into account the weightage for winning Test matches abroad. Thereby, it made every team play safe for home much like a game of Ludo rather than take risks and chase record overseas. Even more bizarrely, there was no impetus of a reward for teams that were not one-hit wonders and went on ahead to win the series.

It would explain why a see-saw, nail biting Ashes series saw both teams tied on modest points while one sided affairs saw teams earning handsomely. Ask India who benefitted rather handsomely.

Despite the hiccups, which will need a correction, the concept landed on the ground after nearly a decade, finally giving Test cricket around the world a broader relevance. While it did not address the burning issue of the need to bridge the gap between the teams in the superlative category and those on the fringes of the game making up the numbers, it gave the five day format a goalpost- the final Test at 2021 that would decide the winner after a two year cycle.

Timing is everything and Australia could not have timed the surprising but not so shocking return of disgraced Australian former team mates, Steve Smith and David Warner, to the international scene any better. In many ways even as former Australian cricketers began to speak more openly about the surreptitious cover up by Cricket Australia that did not completely come clean what happened in the famous Newlands Test in South Africa in March of 2018, the sandpaper-gate was already a deeply troubling dressing room scenario simply in the manner in which the team did a quick about-turn. (Smoke, anyone?)

While Warner was unstoppable in the course of the ICC Cricket World Cup, plundering runs at will, and Smith became the anchor for Australia in the eventually drawn Ashes series that saw Australia retain the urn, on the flip side, it became evident that Australia not only had a huge vacuum of players of caliber not coming through the ranks to fill in the spots but also, that there was a dearth of leaders willing to take the mantle on from Tim Paine, who had often appeared more like babysitting the position for Smith’s return post ban.

The fact that Australia were seeking selectors as they were searching for potential captains – they have already tried as many as five vice-captains to date and none of them have stuck around to cement a place in the team – only adds to the vulnerable chinks story despite Australia’s resurgence which has rested in a large part on the shoulders of the two players who made spectacular returns despite their year in the wilderness.

But not everything about 2019 was upbeat.

Afghanistan cricket threatened to expose more than it rose up the ranks. Pakistan cricket ebbed and flowed in another unremarkable year for them, making Sri Lanka touring Pakistan the momentous event in their calendar, as cricket returned to Pakistan after a ten year hiatus following a series of terrorist-related events that saw the nation isolated on the world map and forced to play on proxy home turfs.

But perhaps no team sunk lower than South Africa did, not only on the field but also, in the corridors of power that reeked of authoritarianism, nepotism and corruption. The final straw came when five prominent journalists had their passes revoked without a valid claim, throwing Cricket South Africa into the spotlight and into damage control mode.

The problems on and off the field mirrored each other. While South Africa plummeted to their lowest point in World Cups, finding the exit door in only the first week of the six-week tournament, their Test cricket plunged from losing to Sri Lanka at home in a rather shocking turn of events to hitting the asphalt on the way down as they were whitewashed by India with back-to-back innings defeat that would make the lowest ranked teams look better.

What was even worse was the open confusion all around as Cricket South Africa promised an innovative leadership approach a la football but found that no captain, coach or support staff could consider their position with tenure. Faf du Plessis was left speaking one language before the uncertain tour of India and pleading for clarity and a steady voice upon their return.

Plagued by the Kolpak contracts that continued to see the exodus of players, the inability of the board to match the wages for the players on contract, the perennial problems of quota system and lack of transparency from the board led to the open fiascos that made South Africa the mocking stuff of news reels around the world.

With barely two weeks to go for England’s tour of South Africa to commence, Cricket South Africa managed to rope in Graeme Smith for the acting director of cricket role. If one had to glimpse how this ‘temporary’ position – hence, the word ‘acting’ – were to work, the former South African captain laid bare on social media only weeks before that not only had he withdrawn his name from the race but also, that the negotiations were far from fruitful. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But with no quick fix on the anvil, South Africa are seeing some rather dark days, not unlike when the turn of the century saw the African nation plunge into a crisis of conscience when the late Hansie Cronje was caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

The year though belonged to India in more ways than one. After successful and rather rueful attempts to change their overseas record, the Indian men’s cricket team was finally able to overcome the hurdles, stay together against a weary and rather depleted Australian team to finally do the unthinkable. Winning the bilateral Test series down under for the first time in seven decades, Virat Kohli was the leading flagbearer for Test cricket and for India’s resurgence as a powerhouse performer.

India continued that Test cricket streak, albeit sometimes against opponents of lesser strength, to completely dominate the Test championship points table at the end of the calendar year. The balance between bat and ball seemed near perfect, India now boasting of a formidable pace line up that has included Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav.

Behind the scenes, Mahendra Singh Dhoni stayed in the headlines for the wrong reasons – why wasn’t he showing up to play when he intends to play the ICC Twenty20 World Cup next year and why is he not mentoring Rishabh Pant while on contract? Ganguly took over the running of the BCCI from the Supreme Court in a case of mixed feelings about the joy of having a former captain at the helm in the administration and the despondency of seeing him as the face heading the previous administrations’ opportunistic agenda in undoing the painstaking reform recommendations of the Supreme Court appointees.

Meanwhile, Virat Kohli surged ahead as both, captain and player, responsibility sitting rather well on his shoulders.

Virat is not only a batsman extraordinaire but also, a shrewd chess player. Australia were seething at the confirmation of that fact after India, under the auspices of Sourav Ganguly, played their first hastily arranged day and night Test under lights with a pink ball against a reticent Bangladesh team that had no say in the matter. In the end, it did not matter all that much given that Bangldesh had enough trouble holding their ground after their world was rocked by Shakib Al Hasan and the charges against him after another Bangladesh Cricket Board and players standoff.

It certainly had Cricket Australia chewing their fingers not only knowing they had been played when they were turned down with a similar request and knowing that their now day and night Test legacy next year depends on India’s willingness to want to commit, strategic or otherwise. The ball is in India’s court and Australia are scrambling.

Virat and Anushka might have found a little storm in a tea cup but apart from the brewing of the tale that Rohit Sharma had an eye on Virat’s chair, there was not too much to tell. It would explain why Ravi Shastri, the Indian coach, was often caught either catching a wink during match proceedings or chilling with a drink in his hand, earning the sarcasm of India’s astute fans who let the former player know exactly what they thought of the charade of the coach in the backdrop of India’s sunny cricket days.

It could be argued that 2019 laid some rather stealthy seeds of forthcoming turning moments that could well define the next decade in the game.
 

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