The England cricket season of 2019 has been one of the most spectacular in recent memory. The cricket has been phenomenal from all involved, starting with a five-game ODI series with Pakistan to a five-Test Ashes battle against Australia – with the small matter of a World Cup thrown in for good measure.
The season started on a hint of sleepy subtleness with the county four-day championship and the Royal London cup, the latter of which was to be the last in its current form. This was also to be the last time the final was to be held at Lord’s – and a most enjoyable final it was, as if making some opinionated stand against its cricketing downgrade. Somerset took the cup, and perpetual run maker James Hildreth made an unbeaten 72.
This will now be replaced by the ECB’s newly fashioned “Hundred” – the rules of which would confuse a NASA astrophysicist: 100 balls are delivered in blocks of 10, with each bowler allowed a maximum of 20 balls, which could be bowled in a block of five or – for the daring – a block of 10. Not too healthy if you’re a relentless no-baller.
The international season kicked off with five ODI’s against Pakistan, who appear to have made England their unsanctioned third home after the UAE – having toured here every year since 2016, and they are back here from July 2020. The first ODI at the Oval was a stop-start affair, mostly the former. Wintry weather ended proceedings quite conclusively, but in the 19 overs that were bowled, Jofra Archer showed just why England had him fast tracked into the national team, persistently squaring up Pakistan’s opening batsmen with deliveries in excess of 90mph, and that with swing. After that, it would have been inconceivable for this man not to play in the impending World cup.
England pounded Pakistan 4-0 but in a high-scoring series, the hosts reaching 300+ in each completed game, and the visitors surpassing that landmark apart from in the last game when they fell 3 short.
This, after some warm-up games, led us into the World Cup, held in England after an absence of 20 years.
Favorites as the top-ranked side in the ODI format, England started off the proceedings with a thumping 104-run win over South Africa. But they did suffer a few hiccups during the course of the tournament, at one point facing the threat of elimination. The other sides who made it to the semi-finals were New Zealand, Australia and India. Pakistan finished in fifth place, an initial loss to West Indies not helping their cause, nor their run rate further into the tournament.
South Africa, another side that always seem to do well in big tournaments – until they reach the semi-finals, lost their first three matches, with the fourth being called off due to rain. Not much they could do to recover from that start. Afghanistan, gave some of the big boys a run for their money in some close games, though not winning any games in the tournament.
India meanwhile broke the hearts of its billion passionate fans by losing to those cunning Kiwis by 18 runs. With a hint of arrogance-cum-optimism, a large chunk of their fans had purchased the majority of the tickets for the final, leaving the ICC a busy few days trying to resell unwanted tickets. Some were off loaded via EBay and some on the black-market were being touted for up to £16,000!
England had comfortably beaten Australia in the second semi – by eight wickets and joined New Zealand, another of the fancied teams, at Lord’s for finals day. A slightly grey and cloudy morning gave the home of cricket a subdued festival atmosphere, with an RAF parachute troop jumping into the ground. Some people would do anything to watch the game.
Now, that game. It started off slowly enough, with New Zealand batting first compiling 241-8, an easy task for England one would think, in home conditions and with their batsmen consistently scoring over 300 runs, and a below par total. Yeah, well, wrong on all accounts. What came was one of the most outrageous passage of play ever witnessed in cricket, let alone a World Cup final. Into the last over and England required 15 to win, with Ben Stokes on strike. The first two deliveries from Trent Boult were dot balls. The third a six.
What happened next even Nostradamus wouldn’t have seen coming. Stokes, diving full length to complete a second run, had a throw from the outfield ricochet off of his bat and the ball went to the boundary. That got counted as six by the umpires and scorers. England now only needed three runs for victory. They made two, tying the game and sending the players into a Super Over – six balls apiece. Incredibly, inevitably, both teams scored 14 but England won from hitting the higher number of boundaries, 24 to New Zealand’s 16.
With the World Cup now nothing but a dreamy distant memory, the action reverted back to the longer format. Time to resume cricket’s oldest rivalry: the Ashes.
Australia comfortably won the first Test, England losing the perennial Jimmy Anderson to a recurrence of a calf injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the series. David Warner and Steve Smith were also making their Test returns, Smith basically starting off where he left off, by scoring a century in each innings.
The second Test switched to Lord’s. Jofra Archer came in for Anderson – and again he produced a compelling passage of play that left everyone gasping for breath. Words just don’t do it justice. On the Saturday afternoon, Archer was bombarding Smith with a barrage of hostile 90mph+ bowling, first hitting him on the forearm, then a few overs later the batsman took a sickening blow to the back of the head.
Smith was down on the ground and new concussion rules came into play so he had to go off, though eagerly coming back on shortly after the fall of a wicket, still perceptibly woozy and confused. He was ruled out for the next Test as the concussion protocol stipulated no play within seven days of being hit. With the third Test at Headingly only a few days away, that worked in England’s favor.
That game belonged to one man, and one man only: Ben Stokes. After his heroics in the World Cup final, now it was time to show us how good a Test batsman he was. To cut a long story short, this was one of the most thrilling and entertaining matches ever seen. Yes, I’ve said that about another game already, but what can you do?
Stokes with the help of tailender Jack Leach, chased down an impossible target of 359 after England had been bowled out for 67 in the first innings! The greatest knock Stokes had played since his last amazing knock, in the final a month before. There was no stopping this man, Australia missed chances to finish off the game and effectively keep the Ashes, but the overwhelming pressure was even starting to affect them. Perhaps they can look on the bright side and think at least people might go on less about the Botham Headingley Test of 1981 now.
Smith returned for the last two Tests, helping Australia finally retain the Ashes after scoring more runs at Old Trafford, though Warner’s poor series continued, out to Broad seven times. England with nothing to play for but pride at the Oval were able to snatch a consolation victory – leading to the first drawn Ashes series since 1972.
Smith made a total of 774 runs in the series, and that after missing a game! A true cricketing enigma. At the start of the series, his every appearance triggered catcalls as fallout from Sandpapergate. By the end, the English crowds were still booing, but they were doing it while simultaneously giving him standing ovations.
For England, apart from Stokes – who is surely odds-on favorite to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year – the talk of the summer was Jofra Archer, who took two five-wicket hauls, constantly hitting the mid 90’s with accurate swing bowling.
Generally some feared with justification that England Test players weren’t playing enough of the four-day variety of cricket for their respective counties, hence the Test side suffering for it.
T20 finals day produced a final between last year’s winners Worcestershire and first-time finalists Essex. The latter took the trophy in a spin-dominated final – off the final ball, what else, keeping their hopes of a domestic double alive as the chased the Country Championship.
Essex played everyone’s favourite other team Somerset in the climax of the county season a few days later – Essex most likely to take the title, but Somerset within spitting distance. Then it rained. Session after session was lost and when the two teams finally got onto the field at Taunton it looked like Essex just needed to bat out time to crown their year.
They collapsed for 141. Take a bow England tailender Leach, this time getting the plaudits for his full-time job, took 5 spin wickets. Somerset forfeited their second innings leaving them the unlikely fairy-tale target of trying to bowl out Essex for 62. Could they? Former England opener Marcus Trescothick, in his last game in his season, came out to field in the slips. Could it happen? For once this year, no.
It has, without a doubt, been the most enthralling and dramatic season ever. One would have to wait a generation to see anything such as this.
The Kolkata Knight Riders man has leaked runs at an economy-rate of 8.66 – but that is the least of the troubles currently surrounding him.
More than his growing inability to contain the flow of runs, it is Kuldeep’s lack of wickets which is the biggest cause of concern for both KKR and the India ODI squad ahead of the World Cup.
The 24-year-old is now into his fourth IPL campaign with the Kolkata franchise and has got better with each passing season. After making just three appearances in his debut campaign on 2016, the southpaw grew in prominence in the subsequent two editions where he picked up a total of 29 wickets.
This year, Kuldeep has picked up just four wickets in his nine appearances, with just one of them coming in his five most recent outings for KKR.
Hence, when the left-armer was dropped from the Kolkata playing XI in their latest encounter against Sunrisers Hyderabad, it came as no surprise.
“Definitely a form issue, he (Kuldeep) didn’t stand up for us in the previous game. That’s why we had to give him a break and get him back fresh,” KKR skipper Dinesh Karthik stated after the SRH clash.
“Kuldeep’s not been bowling as well as he would have liked, as we would have liked as well. That’s why we gave him a break, that’s the only reason that we haven’t played him this game.”
Most runs conceded in an IPL match by a KKR bowler:— Cricbuzz (@cricbuzz) April 19, 2019
2/60 Ryan McLaren v MI (Wankhede) 2013
1/59 Kuldeep Yadav v RCB (Kolkata) 2019 **
0/58 Mashrafe Mortaza v DCh (Wanderers) 2009
1/58 Shivam Mavi v DD (Delhi) 2018#IPL2019 #KKRvRCB
Karthik was alluding to Kuldeep’s display against Royal Challengers Bangalore at the Eden Gardens where he was carted for 59 runs in his four overs while picking up just the solitary wicket.
It was a match where Kuldeep’s confidence took a mighty battering, with Moeen Ali taking him for as many as 26 runs in a single over. The defining image from the game was the KKR spinner slumped to the ground in tears following the attack by Moeen, even as his team-mates rushed to console him.
It is hard to forget that Kuldeep is still a youngster who only made his international debut two years ago, but the formidable reputation he had established ever since is now in danger of being wiped away just over a month ahead of the World Cup in England.
Wrist-spinners have become essential commodities in limited-overs cricket over the past few years, with every top international side having at least one of them at their disposal these days.
India have entrusted their faith in Kuldeep and Yuzvendra Chahal since their 2017 ICC Champions Trophy final defeat to Pakistan, with the duo going on to forge a formidable partnership.
However, while Chahal has still managed to hold his own for RCB this season despite the team’s early struggles, Kuldeep has looked a shadow of the player that was terrorising the best of international batsmen just a year ago.
Armed with a lethal and subtle googly, Kuldeep was on song to start with when India toured England in the summer of 2018. He picked up a terrific 6-25 in the first ODI to give India a roaring start in the series before following it up with a 3-68 in the second match.
In the third and deciding ODI, Kuldeep went wicket-less, with England’s batsmen playing him out with ease to clinch the series. The English batsmen, including Joe Root, had struggled to cope with Kuldeep’s variations when they faced him for the first time in their careers, but by the time the series ended, they had started to decipher his mystery.
That is exactly what is happening with the spinner in the IPL this year with the mystery no longer present. Batsmen seem to have figured out his variations and that has seen Kuldeep’s fear-factor totally evaporate.
His struggles, while fellow wrist-spinners like Imran Tahir, Rashid Khan, Chahal and even Rajasthan Royals’ Shreyas Gopal have lit up the IPL, does not bode well for India heading into the World Cup.
A mentally fragile youngster short of confidence is the last thing Virat Kohli and his men need in England.
The 20-run defeat in the fifth and final ODI against Australia was symbolic of Pakistan’s struggles in the five-match series with the Men in Green falling short once again of the required gold standard in 50-over cricket.
It was the final ‘home’ series for Pakistan before their departure to England for a five-match ODI series before the ICC World Cup. A 5-0 whitewash at the hands of the Aussies has left the team with plenty of questions to be answered before the global showpiece.
Pakistan have not won a bilateral ODI series against any team not named Zimbabwe since October, 2017. For all their dominance in the T20 format where they are deservedly ranked No1, Pakistan have failed to translate that success into their 50-over displays where they remain a tier below top teams like England, India and Australia.
Granted, they were missing the likes of Babar Azam, skipper Sarfraz Ahmed, Fakhar Zaman, Shadab Khan and Hasan Ali in the series against Australia, yet the manner of their defeat has exposed plenty of gaping holes in the ODI outfit.
Their inability to force the scoring-rate with the bat was all too evident in the five losses and they were duly punished by a clinical Australia who are starting to click into gear at just the right time.
Quite simply, if you fail to score 300 runs on a consistent basis against the top ODI teams in modern cricket, you will likely end up on the losing side as Pakistan have just found out the hard way.
Amassing 280 odd runs in the first two ODIs while batting first was a decent effort from Pakistan’s batsmen but it wasn’t nearly enough with the Aussies coasting to victory in both chases.
The lack of intent stems from the very top where opener Imam-ul-Haq has struggled to up the ante. The top-order batsmen have failed to score runs at a fair clip and this in return has left the lower order with all to do when it comes to accelerating the scoring rate. If not for some quick-fire cameos from Imad Wasim in the death overs, the report card for Pakistan’s batting would have been even more dismal.
The returns of Babar and Fakhar into the playing XI will no doubt help address some part of this problem but those two alone cannot provide a miracle fix for the unit as a whole. What the team desperately needs is an enforcer in the middle-order and it looks like veteran Shoaib Malik will have to fill that role at the World Cup.
Pakistan would have hoped for Umar Akmal to come good on his international return to provide another alternative to Malik but the right-hander failed to seize his opportunity with some inconsistent displays.
Apart from the lack of intent, the team remains vulnerable to collapses as shown by their defeat in the fourth ODI where they choked to throw away a winning position.
With the ball, Mohammad Amir’s struggles on UAE pitches continued with the senior pacer dropped after just one poor display. It looked like the team management were trying to prevent a further drop in Amir’s confidence after the first ODI which only begs the question as to why he was picked in the first place.
The left-armed seamer might still board the World Cup plane given his 2017 Champions Trophy displays in England, but he is now a shadow of the bowler he was when bursting onto the stage as a teenager.
Young Mohammad Hasnain was barely given a chance to make an impact while Test specialists Yasir Shah and Mohammad Abbas did themselves no favours.
There were a few positives to take for Pakistan like the form of Haris Sohail, Mohammad Rizwan and Abid Ali, but those are too few and far in between.
It will of course be a vastly changed Pakistan team in the World Cup but Mickey Arthur and Co have plenty of work to do in changing their whole approach towards 50-over cricket.