Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 July 2019

UAE taking centre stage, Virat Kohli's behaviour and ball-tampering: Good, bad and ugly of cricket in 2018

We list out why the gentleman's game found itself in the news for the right, and sometimes the wrong, reasons this year

Australia's cricket establishment was mired in a crisis this year after Steve Smith, left, David Warner, right, and Cameron Bancroft admitted to being involved in a ball-tampering episode during the Cape Town Test against South Africa. The trio was suspended and some of Cricket Australia's top office-bearers resigned. Justin Langer was appointed coach in place of Darren Lehmann, and it was decided that the team had to weed out their hyper-competitiveness and a win-at-all-cost mentality that had made them successful but unlikeable. It also meant having a relook at sledging. Dave Hunt / EPA
Australia's cricket establishment was mired in a crisis this year after Steve Smith, left, David Warner, right, and Cameron Bancroft admitted to being involved in a ball-tampering episode during the Cape Town Test against South Africa. The trio was suspended and some of Cricket Australia's top office-bearers resigned. Justin Langer was appointed coach in place of Darren Lehmann, and it was decided that the team had to weed out their hyper-competitiveness and a win-at-all-cost mentality that had made them successful but unlikeable. It also meant having a relook at sledging. Dave Hunt / EPA

Cricket showed its good, bad and ugly sides this year. In other words, 2018 was not terribly different from the years past and it won’t be all that different from the years ahead – such is the nature of not just sport but most things in life.

That being said, out of 2018 emerged many fascinating narratives – an overused word these days but also relevant – and they deserve reminding before those of us who love the sport take fresh guard for the new year.

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Australia hit reset button

Australia’s ‘Sandpapergate’ scandal has to be the most important cricket-related development of 2018.

Not only did the illegal tampering of the ball during the Cape Town Test against South Africa by Australia opening batsman Cameron Bancroft lead to his suspension and those of captain Steve Smith and vice captain David Warner, it also forced a rethink by those who run Australian cricket about how the game should be played by the ‘Baggygreens’.

The result of an inquest into the controversy forced a clean-out of the top executives from Cricket Australia. It also led to the appointment of an inexperienced player as captain in Tim Paine and the replacement of coach Darren Lehmann with his former teammate, but someone with a strikingly different personality Justin Langer.

The new-look team were instructed to henceforth play the game with decorum and resist pushing the boundaries of civility in the name of gamesmanship and competitiveness – the problem that supposedly culminated in three players conspiring to cheat.

England captain Joe Root, second left, led an imperfect Test side in 2018 and yet found ways to win. Reuters
England captain Joe Root, second left, led an imperfect Test side in 2018 and yet found ways to win. Reuters

England somehow make it work

England in 2018 proved that Greek philosopher Aristotle’s line “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” indeed worked in practice.

Despite facing issues with their batting and bowling in Tests, England were competitive throughout the year. It is difficult to say how much impact the limited-overs teams’ successes had on the morale of the Test side. After all, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler form the core of England’s line up in all three formats.

While that may have been a factor, one cannot take lightly the frailties in England’s set-up: an unsettled top order, the absence of a world-class spinner (although Adil Rashid's game evolved in 2018), and the inability to find long-term replacements for ageing fast bowlers James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Yet, England succeeded thanks in large part to a surfeit of all-rounders (Stokes, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran) and a generous supply of high-quality wicketkeeper-batsmen (Bairstow, Buttler and Ben Foakes).

Root’s captaincy and his pre-eminence as England’s No 1 batsman helped his side register unlikely Test series wins at home against India and away to Sri Lanka.

It made for a memorable year, even though – incredibly – they are no closer to finding long-term solutions to their niggling problems.

All-rounder Ben Stokes can continue to build on his England career after his acquittal. AFP
All-rounder Ben Stokes can continue to build on his England career after his acquittal. AFP

Stokes gets second chance

The England all-rounder was arrested last year after a street brawl near a nightclub. It also led to his suspension from the team and, worse, a court case that very nearly ended his budding career.

The 27 year old was later acquitted of a charge of affray even though in the intervening period, he missed out on the crucial Ashes tour of Australia at the turn of the year and some action in 2018.

English cricket will benefit immensely if Stokes focuses on his game, which he happens to be very, very good at. After all, this is the man being tipped to be as great as, if not greater than, Ian Botham.

In any case, 2018 will be remembered as the year he got a second chance.

South Africa's AB De Villiers has retired from all forms of international cricket. James Oatway / Reuters
South Africa's AB de Villiers has retired from all forms of international cricket. James Oatway / Reuters

Star players bid adieu

The year was marked by a slew of international retirements, most notably of South African wicketkeeper-batsman AB de Villiers, English opener Alastair Cook and Indian opener Gautam Gambhir.

The trio brought with them varying styles of batsmanship: De Villiers was aggressive and innovative, Cook was defensive and conventional, Gambhir was somewhere in between.

De Villiers never won a World Cup and neither did Cook, although the latter would at least hold pleasant memories of England’s Ashes victories both at home and abroad. Gambhir was the match-winner in the finals of the 2007 World Twenty20 and 2011 World Cup. He also led Kolkata Knight Riders to two Indian Premier League titles.

Some might say all three players ended their careers prematurely, but at least De Villiers and Cook retired on their terms. Gambhir, unfortunately, was a Test discard long before he called it quits.

India captain Virat Kohli is respected as a player the world over, but is he as loved? Trevor Collens / AP Photo
India captain Virat Kohli is respected as a player the world over, but is he as loved? Trevor Collens / AP Photo

Kohli becomes the news

Few players have polarised public opinion as has Virat Kohli.

The India captain had long been considered one of the great batsmen of his generation – along with Root, Smith and New Zealand’s Kane Williamson. But in 2018, he proved peerless as he dominated all three formats of the game.

Yet, 2018 has also been a poor year for Kohli’s image as a role model. His run-ins with the media on the tours of South Africa and England, his rant against an Indian fan who criticised his batting, and a recent fight with Paine in the ongoing series in Australia have not endeared him to many of the game’s lovers across the world.

He does not seem to care. And why should he when he is scoring runs, leading a fairly successful team, making tons of money and continuing to attract followers on social media?

Well, he must know that he is not as loved by fellow Indians as his own role model Sachin Tendulkar still is – even though he might end up smashing most of his batting records. Point to ponder for 2019?

UAE cricket has seen its stock rise even further, with the Emirates being chosen as the venue to stage high-profile tournaments, such as the Asia Cup, as well as the ever growing number of franchise competitions, including the Afghanistan Premier League, the Abu Dhabi T20 and the T10 League. The national team have performed well, too, while their players are attracting attention from leagues around the world - such as the ones in Nepal and Canada. Chris Whiteoak / The National
UAE cricket has seen its stock rise even further, with the Emirates being chosen as the venue to stage high-profile tournaments, such as the Asia Cup, as well as the ever growing number of franchise competitions, including the Afghanistan Premier League, the Abu Dhabi T20 and the T10 League. The national team have performed well, too, while their players are attracting attention from leagues around the world - such as the ones in Nepal and Canada. Chris Whiteoak / The National

UAE takes centre stage

For almost a decade, the UAE has been a home away from home for the Pakistan national team and, to a lesser extent, the Afghanistan side. It has also provided the stage for the Pakistan Super League and a part of the Indian Premier League to be held here.

But 2018 will be remembered as the year in which the UAE became the centre of the cricket world. The Emirates hosted the Asia Cup, as well as the first season of the Afghanistan Premier League. Abu Dhabi Cricket organised for the first time a one-of-its-kind competition called the Abu Dhabi T20.

And who can forget the roaring success of Season 2 of the first and only T10 tournament – called the T10 League – in Sharjah.

The national team have also performed reasonably well this year. They beat Zimbabwe, a Test side, in their backyard as they came close to qualifying for the 2019 World Cup.

The International Cricket Council – housed in Dubai – also opened up the process for teams from Associate Nations, such as the UAE, to qualify for the 2023 World Cup.

And while Amjad Javed and Adnan Mufti announced their retirements this year, they are optimistic about the state of the game in the country. Onward and upward in 2019 then.

Afghanistan's Mohammad Nabi, right, plays a shot on Day 2 of their one-off Test against India in Bangalore. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo
Afghanistan's Mohammed Nabi, right, plays a shot on Day 2 of their one-off Test against India in Bangalore. Aijaz Rahi / AP

Test club gets bigger

While the UAE have some way to go to become a Test side, the elite club officially expanded by two in 2018.

Ireland played their first Test, at home to Pakistan, as did Afghanistan, away to India. Ireland got beaten by five wickets while the Afghans got crushed by an innings and 262 runs in a game that lasted just two days.

Despite the results, both Ireland and Afghanistan are expected to improve. They have the talent and the structure to keep doing so. What they need in greater supply, however, are playing opportunities.

With television money being crucial to the game, there is a concern they will not get a lot of chances to play against the big Test sides. But 2018 will have filled supporters of both teams with hope that the only way is up in the years to come.

Bangladesh were among the best sides in Asia Cup. They are also among the best sides in Asia. Ishara S Kodikara / AFP
Bangladesh were among the best sides in Asia Cup. They are also among the best sides in the continent. Ishara Kodikara / AFP

Bangladesh step it up

The rankings may not reflect this entirely, but there is a feeling Bangladesh have overtaken Sri Lanka as the third-best Asian team below India and Pakistan.

Sri Lanka are marginally ahead of Bangladesh in the ICC’s Test and T20 ranking tables but not in the ODI list.

The Sri Lankans, though, have suffered morale-inflicting defeats this year – most notably at home to England. Meanwhile, Bangladesh won a tri-series at home also featuring Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. They also reached the finals of the Nidahas Trophy T20 tournament in Sri Lanka and the Asia Cup in the UAE before losing to India in both thrillers.

Even though they got crushed by Afghanistan in a T20 series held in India, they beat the West Indies in both the Test and ODI series at home.

What is worth noting is while Bangladesh have made steady improvement over the years, the more established Sri Lanka find themselves struggling, thanks mostly to player inexperience on the pitch and political interference off it.

Updated: December 26, 2018 03:33 PM

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