Cultural revolution of the year - Australia
With most pundits, at the start of the year, predicting that “sandpaper and Cameron Bancroft’s underpants” would be the two defining things of 2018, the cricketing year turned out pretty much as expected. Nevertheless, the news the Australian batsman had been concealing, with a commendable degree of bravery, the material in his jocks during Australia’s tour of South Africa still provided plenty of fallout. Caught red-handed by one of the famously anatomically obsessed home cameramen, Bancroft, his captain Steve Smith and, alleged criminal mastermind and vice-captain, David Warner were then left with a simple choice whether to lie or tell the truth.
In the end, Bancroft did both, admitting ball tampering but claiming he had, in fact, been using “sticky tape” on the ball rather than sandpaper. It was a near heroic display of fibbing, but one which sent Australia, and even its prime minister, into a tailspin of moral bed-wetting. A new captain, two new vice-captains and a new coach were installed and a cultural review undertaken. The rest of the world tried to stop sniggering.
The results of this outpouring of moral self-shaming have, however, been astonishing. New skipper Tim Paine’s weird chuntering behind the stumps is, it is said by domestic media, “comedy gold”; commentator Kerry O’Keefe’s claim that Ranji Trophy bowlers are “chefs” and “kitchen hands” must be regarded, judging from the giggles of Shane Warne and Mark Waugh who sat next to him, as splendid joshing; Bay 13’s chant of “Show us your visa!” to Indian players can surely be nothing more than good-natured, knockabout stuff, coming as it does from the same cricketing public who so vigilantly rushed to defend the game’s honour from Smith and Warner’s treachery; Bancroft writing an open letter to himself in which he graciously “forgives” those who think him a cheat is, clearly, an act of clemency to make even a samaritan look mean-spirited. It has been truly humbling to watch Australian cricket so successfully restore its ethical values to elite levels.
Selector of the year - Ed Smith
Ed Smith, the ex-England and Middlesex batsman, faced controversy a couple of years ago when he was sacked from his ESPNCricinfo column after a plagiarism scandal. He got to keep his Test Match Special commentary gig, though, and in April this year was made, rather nicely for him, his nation’s new chief selector. Many thought the appointment reeked of old boy network privilege, but Smith has, much like Virat Kohli, now proved himself to millions of once cynical England fans. First, he brought Jos Buttler back into the Test side as a specialist batsman and saw him flourish. Then leg spinner, Adil Rashid, who had actually given up playing first-class cricket, was also successfully reintegrated into the team. The move caused harrumphings of betrayal across the county game, but with England becoming one of the most fluid and adaptable sides on the planet, it might be Smith himself who finds his work being copied.
ICC Clampdown of the year - Pakistan wristwear
Although the ICC continued to devote large portions of time trying to get Kagiso Rabada cast as the next Bond villain, their most notable disciplinary intervention came at Lord’s in May during England’s first Test against Pakistan. Mobile phones have long been banned from changing rooms, let alone the pitch, but the ICC’s anti-corruption team had hitherto failed to take into account the problem of smart watches, which could potentially be used to send messages to players. When both Asad Shafiq and Babar Azam were seen wearing them in the field, the world’s governing body moved swiftly to both slap and unclutter their wrists, demanding the players remove the devices immediately. No charges were brought, however, and Azam himself now negates the need for any watch at all by making time stand still whenever he hits a cover drive.
Quote of the year - Ravi Shastri
Sanjay Manjrekar trying to compare Ben Stokes’s bowling to a bit of “salad garnish” was a strong contender here, but Ravi Shastri takes the plaudits for his description of the tension in his side’s changing room as they moved towards victory during the tight first Test in Adelaide in December. “We almost had our b***s in our mouth,” he said in hindi in his post-match interview, drawing a slightly shocked look from Sony Six's panelist Sunil Gavaskar and a bemused one from fellow pundit Michael Clarke. Shastri, of course, is famous for his body’s intuitive nature. When as a commentator he often used to “just get that feeling” about things on a regular basis. Hopefully this one subsided relatively quickly.
Test debut delivery of the year - Tim Murtagh
Back in 2012, Bangladesh off spinner Sohag Gazi had his first ball in Test cricket, the first ball of the match, dispatched over long on by Chris Gayle. Ireland managed an even more spectacular introduction to the longest form in May, when they entertained Pakistan at Malahide. Stepping up to Test cricket alongside Afghanistan, the scheduled first day was washed out, but on the second day, Middlesex’s Tim Murtagh had the honour of opening the bowling on his nation’s debut. Azhar Ali was facing and called for a tight single which led to his opening partner, the bespectacled Imam ul-Haq, crashing into Niall O'Brien as he tried to make his ground. O’Brien has the sort of build many hippos would think twice about colliding with and so Imam-ul-Haq was unsurprisingly left writhing on the floor. Pakistan went on to win a competitive Test but Ireland, from first ball to last, were the ones to make a crunching impact.
Catch of the year - Marnus Labuschagne
Trent Boult’s meteor-like swoop to dismiss Virat Kohli in the IPL in April was probably the most spectacular. Keaton Jennings repeatedly turning himself into a giant, precognitive velcro spider at short leg and possibly the most astute. Yet for sheer instinct alone, Australian all-rounder Marnus Labuschagne’s snaffle of Pakistan’s Mohammad Hafeez during the Second Test in Abu Dhabi in October was the most notable. Labuschagne reacted swiftly to a well-timed clip from the Pakistan opener and, refusing to use mundane body parts such as hands, instead smothered the ball with what was euphemistically termed his “upper inner thigh” before holding it up in triumph. Unconventional and a little lucky perhaps, but in a year where groins proved such a headache for Australia, Labuschagne’s clever use of his was a cathartic triumph.
Spat of the year - Mithali Raj and Ramesh Powar
England and Kevin Pietersen are the past masters of messy divorces with ex-captains, but in 2018 new challengers emerged as Indian women’s coach Ramesh Powar and batting legend Mithali Raj clashed over her strike rate and position in India’s order at the Women’s World T20. The upshot was a bitter war of words that saw Raj getting dropped from the semi-final defeat against England despite two previous knock-out stage half-centuries. The row also drew in present captain, Harmanpreet Kaur, and saw Raj described by Powar as someone who just “chased her own milestones”. Mirroring the Pietersen saga, it also involved email leaks and a fair dose of social media angst, with Raj describing the episode as her “darkest day”. Despite falling out with a megastar of Indian cricket, Powar somehow managed to hold on to his job (until his short tenure was over), a situation poor Anil Kumble must have viewed quite wistfully.
Tears of the year - Danny Morrison
Mohammad Hafeez played just one more series before retiring from Tests after that UAE clash against Australia, perhaps reckoning that if even the oppositions' b***s were conspiring against him, it might be time to give up. His decision will have provoked a quiet sigh from his tormentor-in-chief over the years, Dale Steyn, but the Protean quick managed to recover his emotional poise sufficiently well to become South Africa’s leading wicket taker during the Boxing Day Test against a Hafeez-less Pakistan at Centurion. This left Danny Morrison to endure the greatest tears of 2018 when, one fateful day in December it was announced the cricketing life of both Delhi Daredevils and Gautam Gambhir would be ending. The Daredevils were being renamed the Delhi Capitals and Gambhir was retiring, putting an end to his illustrious, World Cup finals specialising career. In the space of a few hours bombastic IPL commentator Morrison had been robbed of his beloved “Double-Ds” and “Double-G”. Beyond cruel.
Birdlike genius of the year - Ross Taylor
Kevin Pietersen may well have brought us the flamingo shot, but in 2018 Ross Taylor introduced cricket to the flamingo innings, playing one of the greatest ODI knocks of all time largely on one leg. Hampered by a thigh injury, Taylor somehow made 181 not out at Dunedin in March, allowing New Zealand to chase down England’s 335-9. A few years earlier, Taylor had been ousted, clumsily, as captain in favour of new coach Mike Hesson’s preferred choice, Brendon McCullum. Here, in one of Hesson’s last matches as coach, the two men embraced as Taylor hobbled off the field, their repaired relationship one of the key factors in New Zealand's recent renaissance.
Celebration of the year - Nathan Lyon
Before Sandpapergate was just a glint in Warner's eye, Australia were trying to rough up the South Africans with a bit of chin music. Unusually, this came not from their quicks but from Nathan Lyon who, upon running AB de Villiers out in Durban, celebrated by dropping the ball on the star batsman’s head whilst whooping like a off spinning witch who’d just discovered a potion to make doosras. De Villiers was typically phlegmatic and forgiving about the whole thing but, clearly intimidated by such hardman skullduggery, decided to quit the Test arena a couple of months later. For Lyon and Co, this relatively minor controversy would prove to be just a prelude to greater things.