Cricket’s global reaction to the pandemic appeared to represent the main plot of the latest cricketing calendar at the back end of 2020, but it turned out to be just one of several twists and turns – plenty for the worse – in 2021.
A calendar year which comprised an inaugural World Test Championship final, England and India facing off twice in Test cricket and a T20 World Cup was always set to throw up its fair share of thrills and spills.
Yet unfortunately, the most important story to emerge from the cricketing world rocked it to its very core as Azeem Rafiq’s emotional testimony revealed an alarming number of metaphorical gaps within the game.
Sportsmail details its winners and losers from cricket in 2021, in everything from the T20 World Cup to the Ashes
Several players have consequently gained the courage to speak out about the abuse they have suffered, yet 2021 will play the dual role of having a black mark next to its name while simultaneously representing a beacon of hope for the future.
Yet that beacon was lit in other dimensions, with the first edition of the Hundred in particular trailblazing a path in terms of how cricket is consumed.
So who came out on top and who will look back on this year with plenty of regret? Sportsmail looks at some of the options….
If the talk of the town at the start of the year was that the England captain’s legacy would be decided one way or the other in 2021, then what he will leave behind is substantial after a stellar year with the bat and as skipper.
He racked up 1,708 runs – the third-most by a men’s player in a calendar year ever – in 15 Test matches at an incredible average of 61, and also became England’s all-time leading runscorer across all formats in the process.
Two double centuries in less than a month in Galle and Chennai – either side of a mammoth century in the Sri Lankan city – provided the momentum from the get-go that rarely slowed throughout the year, as well as going a long way to helping England win their opening three Tests of 2021.
Joe Root became England’s all-time leading runscorer across all formats this year
There was a less fruitful patch afterwards on some questionable Indian wickets – on which he nevertheless looked the most comfortable of all the batsmen on both teams – and then against New Zealand.
But the visit of Virat Kohli’s men brought the best out of him once more. In the second innings of the first Test, he notched a calm, confident 109 and then followed it up in the first innings at Lord’s with a sublime undefeated 180.
The piece de resistance arguably arrived at Headingley, as he made it six Test centuries in the year with a serene three-figure score in just 124 balls, and the records quite simply stacked up.
Root’s hundred in Leeds was his 39th in international cricket, taking him past Sir Alastair Cook to score the most centuries for England in all formats. He also broke the record held by Cook for the most runs in a calendar year by an England captain, surpassing the Essex batsman’s 1,364 runs in 2015.
And if that wasn’t enough, Root also equalled the record for the most Test hundreds in a calendar year by an Englishman, going level with Michael Vaughan and Denis Compton.
It included six centuries, with his record-equalling knock coming at Headingley against India
Once Craig Overton had dismissed Mohammed Siraj on day four, he also surpassed Vaughan for most Test wins as England captain, securing a 27th victory at Leeds. Although not in any jealous tone, Vaughan subsequently claimed 30-year-old Root cannot ‘go down as a great captain until he beats Australia’.
That is no longer possible after his side surrendered the Ashes following shoddy batting performances in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, with Pat Cummins’ men having an unassailable 3-0 lead.
That century Down Under also remains elusive – though Sydney and Hobart represent two more opportunities to break that duck – and his future as Test captain beyond the Ashes remains in doubt amid England’s torrid tour.
But very little of their shortcomings – with the bat in particular – can be put down to Root himself.
How often he has found himself in at the crease with his side barely in double figures, and his ability to still play with such calm with such regularity is the mark he leaves on what has been a fantastic year for him individually.
Root also secured a 27th Test victory in the summer, the most of any England skipper ever
Australia’s dominance in the 50-over World Cup before and after the turn of the century came as little surprise because of their dominance in the format regardless of the opposition or level of competition.
But success in the T20 World Cup had evaded the five-time 50-over champions coming into the tournament in the UAE, and their form heading into it was concerning at best.
They lost a T20 series 3-2 to New Zealand in March before going on to suffer 4-1 series defeats by West Indies and Bangladesh in the direct lead-up to the tournament. In fact, Australia’s winless run in bilateral T20 series – which will extend at least until they play Sri Lanka in February – goes back 22 months.
David Warner’s poor form did not stretch that far back, but 195 runs in eight innings for Sunrisers Hyderabad before being dropped and subsequently sacked as captain was far from ideal preparation.
Australia bounced back from poor form before the T20 World Cup to win the tournament
But in the classic Australian ‘can do’ attitude to sport, they rose to the challenge of correcting a modest record at the T20 World Cup, first by winning four out of five games in the Super 12, the last of which saw Warner return to form with an unbeaten 89 against West Indies.
Warner gave Australia a start against Pakistan before Marcus Stoinis and Matthew Wade’s heroics at the end, before Mitchell Marsh and Warner’s 92-run stand in the final saw them beat New Zealand in the final six years on from their 50-over success.
Warner was named Player of the Tournament as the Australians won their maiden T20 World Cup title, and confidence will now be in abundance ahead of the defence of their crown on home soil next year.
The more immediate impact however came by putting criticism of Justin Langer’s coaching style, the Tim Paine affair and the defeat by India at the start of they year to rest to go 3-0 up in the Ashes, with a whitewash now very much in their sights.
The word mercurial appears over the years to have been invented for the sole purpose of describing the Pakistani cricket team, and its overuse in doing so has often made for banal analysis.
However, Babar Azam’s men have bucked the trend in recent weeks of largely disappointing at ICC events after reaching the semi-finals of the recently-concluded T20 World Cup with some barnstorming, vibrant play.
The massive monkey off their back came in the first game when they thrashed India by 10 wickets to beat their arch rivals for the first time at a World Cup, and demonstrate their credentials in the format to those who doubted them.
They were led superbly by Azam with the bat and the field, who himself was supported by brilliance from the likes of Shaheen Shah Afridi, Mohammad Rizwan and Asif Ali throughout the tournament.
Pakistan entertained with their cricket at the T20 World Cup and teams will now tour in 2022
They appeared good value for a repeat of their 2009 feat in England, but Australia winning the semi-final toss in Dubai – where 12 of the 13 games in the tournament were won by the chasing side – resulted in those dreams never being realised.
There is a bigger picture bonus for Pakistan too, with Haris Rauf and Mohammad Rizwan picked up by Yorkshire and Sussex for the T20 Blast.
Australia and England have also promised to tour the country in 2022, though no one within the PCB will be holding their breath on those series after New Zealand and England pulled out this year.
Australia have not toured Pakistan since 1998 while England’s last game there was in 2005, and their once again appears a desire from the worldwide community to bring international cricket back to the country.
That commitment extends to the ICC too, who announced Pakistan will host the 2025 Champions Trophy, with the last time they staged an ICC event being 1996. Exciting times indeed.
It seemed improbable Darren Stevens would reach another level this year after taking the third-most amount of wickets in the competition at the age of 44 in 2020. How wrong we were.
The opening round of the County Championship saw him become the oldest scorer of a championship century since 1986, just weeks before he turned 45.
The second hundred of the red-ball county summer saw him not only dominate Glamorgan’s bowlers but also the ninth-wicket partnership with Miguel Cummins, who came to the crease to join Stevens at 128 for eight.
Darren Stevens scored three Championship centuries before rolling back years in T20 Blast final
Stevens scored 160 of the 166-run stand, and as a result he propelled Kent’s total up to 307 before being dismissed for 190 off 149 balls – a knock including 15 sixes – by Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne.
The third century – against Leicestershire – however demonstrated perhaps further belligerence, reaching the landmark from 67 balls, the fastest of his career by some distance. But he wasn’t done yet, in the shortest format anyway.
In September, now aged 45, he rolled back the years at Edgbaston to become a Twenty20 champion for the third time.
After crashing a rapid unbeaten 47 in the semi-final success over Sussex, he added a dozen more quick runs against Somerset in the final before returning figures of 4-0-30-1. Anyone fancy year 46?
Without doubt the most unedifying episode of the calendar year, but one that will hopefully bring about the change the game has been crying out for.
Azeem Rafiq’s testimony in front of the DCMS regarding the horrific abuse he claims he suffered at Yorkshire as part of his claims of institutional racism was just the culmination of his long struggle.
And while his own misdemeanours – sending an anti-Semitic message aged 19 – should not be forgotten, only the county’s reputation has taken an enormous blow which will take years to overcome.
Chairman Roger Hutton and board members Hanif Malik and Stephen Willis resigned, while long-serving director of cricket Martyn Moxon and head coach Andrew Gale also left Yorkshire along with the entire coaching team.
Azeem Rafiq’s allegations of institutional racism came to a head in front of the DCMS
But they only came after a delay in releasing the findings from a report, insufficiently issuing only ‘profound apologies’, the lack of subsequent disciplinary action, and then summarising the findings before shocking details of the report were leaked.
Only the backlash from those leaks brought about the resignations, while the likes of Michael Vaughan and Gary Ballance were implicated and the fight to save their reputation in the game will carry on into 2022.
New managing director of cricket Darren Gough and new chairman Lord Kamlesh Patel face a mountain of a task to rebuild the club’s status in the county game – especially with their first-team considering asking for the right to speak to other clubs – and on the international scene, with Headingley stripped of all international fixtures.
India (white-ball cricket)
Supporters have almost become disenchanted with India’s ability to turn up in white-ball bilateral series (see the T20 series in Australia and the T20 and ODI series against England) but flounder – given their extremely high standards – at limited-overs ICC events.
Rohit Sharma said before the T20 World Cup in the UAE that India’s target was to win two of the next three limited-overs ICC tournaments. That is of course still possible, but the current side’s confidence took an almighty blow in October, albeit on tracks which favoured the team that won the toss, especially in Dubai where India played four of their five games.
Successive Super 12 defeats by Pakistan and New Zealand – games in which Kohli lost the toss – effectively saw their campaign end and left them heading back to the drawing board to decipher a style to approach the shortest format of the game.
Virat Kohli’s India went out at the Super 12 stage of the T20 World Cup in the UAE
Rahul Dravid’s appointment as coach should help with the clarity required on that front, but while the squad has the talent to bounce back it currently looks incapable of matching the level of the side that thrived in white-ball cricket in the early 2010s.
True, India have continued to excel on the Test front aside from the World Test Championship final, having won an astonishing 41 home Tests from 56 since 2010, losing just five in that period, with the 1-0 victory against New Zealand confirming a 14th straight home series win.
Away victories at the Gabba and at Centurion have demonstrated their strengths in all conditions, while they lead the series against England 2-1 ahead of the final match at Edgbaston in July.
But in the reverse situation to England, India appear in need of addressing their white-ball cricket, which has underperformed in recent years given the strength of the IPL.
Even as early as the beginning of November, you could have described Paine as Australia’s captain looking to retain the urn, and then afterwards as their wicketkeeper batsman.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, Paine had resigned as skipper following revelations of a sexting scandal with a Cricket Tasmania staff member in 2017, with Pat Cummins soon taking over.
Not long after he had completely lost his place in the side, with Alex Carey the replacement glovesman for the first three Ashes Tests in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne.
Paine’s indefinite break from Test cricket – aside from the fact there are genuine fears about his and wife Bonnie’s mental wellbeing following the revelations of the scandal – appeared to benefit Australia.
Tim Paine resigned as Australia captain last month after revelations of a sexting scandal
However, there is no doubting that while Paine’s mental wellbeing is of primary concern, he is most definitely a loser after all the fighting talk and apparent insensitivity to the dilemma facing England’s players and families when Covid protocols had not been established.
‘They’ll have a choice to make, you either get on that plane or don’t,’ Australia’s captain said on radio station SEN. ‘No one is forcing you to come. If you don’t want to come, don’t come.
‘The Ashes are going ahead. The first Test is on 8 December, whether Joe is here or not. There will be a squad of England players coming here.’
He also hit back at the Barmy Army after they mocked his Test record, pointing out that Root has scored almost as many runs this year as him in his entire career.
But while that is just the normal chatter you expect around a series of such magnitude, his comments in October may well be what he is most remembered by as an Australia Test representative.
England (Test cricket)
Their captain may have experienced 12 months to remember but as a collective unit England will be disappointed by their return in red-ball cricket this year.
Root’s men may have embarked on an underrated 3-0 win in Sri Lanka in November 2018, but the side they faced at the start of this year in their 2-0 win was not even comparable to three years ago, such has been their fall from grace.
In India, the batting unit never really got a grasp on India’s Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin, and most of their batting techniques against spin were horribly exposed.
Admittedly, it was a younger batting line-up than has landed on Indian shores in previous years and dry surfaces which offered extravagant spin throughout will forever remain a point of debate.
England were well beaten in India, and long-term batting options were axed later in the year
However, the most concerning aspect was the summer. Even against the very best sides, England have remained a force in Test cricket by consistently winning series on home soil over the years.
But New Zealand won their first Test series in England since 1999 in June with an eight-wicket win at Edgbaston, while Kohli’s India were 2-1 up in the five-match series before Covid played spoil sport ahead of the final match in Manchester.
England’s only Test win in those six games came against India at Leeds, but the series against them could have been over even before next summer’s final game had rain not wiped out the fifth day’s play in Nottingham.
Now, there is only pride to play in the Ashes after yet more poor batting in the first three Tests of the series, with Root and Dawid Malan the only batsmen to have scored meaningful runs so far Down Under.
It has led everyone involved in England’s red-ball setup – including Chris Silverwood and Ashley Giles – to face mounting pressure. True, Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes’ absences for large swathes of 2021 for a variety of reasons do present mitigating circumstances, with all three players – in particular Stokes – able to transform England in all three facets of the game.
But a complete revamp of their approach to Test cricket will be necessary to succeed first in the West Indies and then against New Zealand, India and South Africa on home soil in 2022, when the battle to qualify for the 2023 World Test Championship final will hot up once more.
New Zealand won their first Test series in England since 1999 with victory at Edgbaston
And finally… they won AND lost
ECB (The Hundred was a success but 3 DCMS hearings)
Cricket in England leapt into the unknown this year with the Hundred, and while the schism between the cynical and well-wishers may continue for some time yet, the initial signs were promising.
The brainchild of the ECB brought with it sets of ‘fives’ among the new terminology, the dazzling colours of all the franchises and glitzy fireworks to match, but there was plenty to like about the cricket too.
No doubt there are areas to improve, a lack of identity between players and franchises and pay disparity between the women and men’s teams being two such examples which need to be improved and developed over the years.
Yet it appeared to do wonders for the women’s game, with 17,000 fans turning up for Oval Invincibles’ victory against Southern Brave in the final, while there was a marked jump in tickets sold to women and children spectators from the T20 Blast.
The Hundred – won by Oval Invincibles – appeared to do wonders for the women’s game
Viewing figures – a result of matches on free-to-air television – were also another high point.
But questions on how the ECB plan to deliver on the promise on the competition funding county cricket are yet to truly be answered, while others are concerned about the seemingly depreciating value of the Royal London One-Day Cup.
Of greater concern however is the ECB’s handling of the racism scandal that has rocked the sport, with CEO Tom Harrison coming in for fierce criticism from MPs after Rafiq’s emotional evidence to the DCMS select committee.
It was alarmingly the ECB’s third appearance in front of the DCMS in the last 26 months, and Harrison remains determined to help clean up a sport battling to salvage its reputation following the Rafiq scandal.
But criticism of the ECB’s 12-point plan as reactive and measures which should have been put in place a long time ago, along with Harrison’s scheduled £2.1m bonus next year, means the pressure will remain on them as we enter 2022.
But Tom Harrison goes into 2022 under severe pressure following the Azeem Rafiq claims
New Zealand (inaugural WTC winners but lost yet another ICC limited-overs final)
This year will ensure that New Zealand are never considered ‘underdogs’ ever again under Kane Williamson’s stewardship.
They used the advantage of playing and beating England on their own turf to maximum advantage, pulling off a fantastic eight-wicket victory to win the inaugural World Test Championship mace.
Kyle Jamieson – who took seven wickets in Southampton – was among the stars as Williamson became just the second Black Caps skipper after Stephen Fleming to win an ICC event.
New Zealand won the inaugural World Test Championship by beating India in Southampton
Nearly five months later though, New Zealand were in another final, but this time in the limited-overs format, where heartbreak has become the customary emotion.
And unfortunately for the Kiwis, it was not third time lucky, as defeat by Australia – despite Williamson’s classy 85 with the bat – in the T20 World Cup final came after reverses in the 2015 and 2019 50-over World Cup finals against Australia and England.
Next year does provide them with another chance to finally get over the line, but the defending champions will fancy themselves in their own backyard.
But it was third time unlucky for the Kiwis in white-ball cricket, losing the T20 World Cup final