‘Sandpaper Gate’ was undoubtedly the biggest story in world cricket in 2018.
With a fractious test series in South Africa tied at 1-1, Australian captain Steve Smith resorted to desperate measures by hatching a plan to tamper with the ball in an attempt to quickly gain reverse swing for his quick bowlers.
The sight of Aussie new boy Cameron Bancroft working on the ball and then slipping a small piece of yellow sandpaper down his trousers, in full view of the television cameras, was the defining moment of a scandal that rocked Austalian cricket to its core.
Smith, vice-captain David Warner and Bancroft all held tearful press conferences having been sent home, and were all banned from international cricket for between nine months and a year soon afterwards.
Coach Darren Lehmann and Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland also tended their resignations in the months that followed.
Shorn of their two best batsmen, the Australians are currently 1-2 down with one match to go in their test series at home to India, led by the indomitable Virat Kohli.
How Smith and Warner are reintegrated into the Australian side, and the reception they get from English crowds, will be one of the most interesting features of next year’s World Cup and subsequent Ashes series, which will both take place on English soil.
For England, their talisman Alastair Cook’s fairy-tale finish to his 12-year test career, scoring a hundred in his final innings, was the highlight of an encouraging year in test cricket.
Cook deservedly became the first English cricketer to be knighted since Sir Ian Botham in 2007, in the recent New Year’s Honours list.
Having started inauspiciously with a final test hammering to lose the Ashes in Australia 4-0, followed by a 1-0 loss in New Zealand, England predictably regrouped on home soil to draw 1-1 with Pakistan and thrash India 4-1 in a series that was a lot closer than the final scoreline suggests.
The test side finished their year with a 3-0 humbling of a weak Sri Lankan side away, a significant achievement for a team that has traditionally struggled in Asian conditions.
Left-arm orthodox bowler Jack Leach emerged as a genuine test spinner to complement Moeen Ali’s off-spin and Adil Rashid’s leg breaks and googlies, as England’s spinners out-bowled Sri Lanka’s, and their batsmen, led by Joe Root, took the attack to the home side’s spin attack with an assortment of sweeps and reverse sweeps.
England’s one-day side continued to break new boundaries under skipper Eoin Morgan, their fearless attacking cricket resulting in a new One-day International record score of 481-6 at Trent Bridge during a 5-0 hammering of a crisis-stricken Australia.
India were then beaten 2-1 before England finished their year with a 3-1 win in a rain-hit series in Sri Lanka. As favourites for both the World Cup and the Ashes, 2019 should be a defining year for English cricket.
On the domestic front Surrey emerged from a 16 year slumber to win their 19th County Championship title, Hampshire won the Royal London Cup and Worcestershire struck a blow for the smaller counties by winning the Twenty20 Blast for the first time.
The Women’s World T20 was held as a stand-alone event for the first time, in West Indies in November, but failed to ignite the public’s interest as Australia won their fourth World T20 out of six, and women’s cricket will need greater depth outside the top four or five teams if it is to continue to gain traction with fans around the globe.
The men’s game saw the continued emergence of Bangladesh as a force to be reckoned with, at least at home, in both test and one-day cricket, and New Zealand won four test series in a row including wins over England at home and Pakistan in the UAE.
Afghanistan continued their meteoric rise and were the stars of the Asia Cup, beating Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and tying with India, and also played their first test match, as did Ireland, who gave Pakistan a fright in Dublin before going down to an honourably hard-fought defeat.
However outside the ‘Big Four’ of England, Australia, India and South Africa, the future of test cricket continues to be hotly debated, and it is to be hoped that the ICC’s World Test Championship, beginning in 2019, will give greater context to each series and arouse much greater local interest in tests amongst the likes of West Indies and Sri Lanka, alongside the new 13 team ‘World Cup Super League’ that will begin in 2020 and aim to do the same for ODI cricket.
The threat of corruption, cheating, and Pakistan and Afghanistan’s inability to play in front of their adoring home fans due to the threat of terrorism are long-term issues that show little sign of being resolved in the imminent future.
T20 leagues continue to spring up around the globe, with tournaments taking place this year in Canada, Hong Kong, Nepal and UAE, as well as most of the 12 test nations.
How cricket balances the three different formats (as well as the ECB’s proposed ‘100’ competition that is set to begin in 2020) will continue to be one of the biggest issues for the sport in 2019 and the years that follow.