On paper, 2021 appears as a pivotal year of firsts for international cricket, and one for the ages. After months of pandemic-impacted delays, cancellations and venue changes, the sport’s governing bodies were able to ensure the smooth hosting and completion of the two main men’s global events on the calendar — the World Test Championship final and the Men’s T20 World Cup. And both events were absolute humdingers, featuring on-field upsets from Namibia and Scotland, and well-earned new tournament champions in New Zealand and Australia.
“Whips that one away and how appropriate that Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson are there for this moment, for this team…It’s been 21 years of heartbreak, some bare margins for New Zealand, but their name will finally be on an ICC trophy once again.”
“Maxwell looks to finish it, and he might have done it as well! Five times 50 over Men’s World Cup champions, a team that can never ever be written off, and they’ve finally got their hands on a Men’s T20 World Cup trophy, and it is richly deserved.”
From Southampton to Dubai, world cricket’s two most prestigious on-field moments from 2021 not only featured complete Trans-Tasman domination, but were also excellently captured and narrated by Kiwi commentator Simon Doull in the aforementioned quotes.
Under normal circumstances, the standout performances by Kyle Jamieson (New Zealand) and Mitchell Marsh (Australia) should have been the dominant narratives all year. But they remained the talk of the town for barely a week or so. Instead, fixtures continued to be affected by the global pandemic for the straight year, and yet, Covid-19 was not the only cloud that hung over the game of cricket in 2021.
Rather, both the on-field moments and the pandemic-induced stoppages were overshadowed by baffling administrative decisions from major cricket boards, as well as a global reckoning with institutionalised racism.
Women cricketers and Associate nations short changed again
The Indian men’s side faced a mixed bag of a year, navigating a crowded schedule with an unlikely Test breach of Australia’s “Gabbatoir” and a debut World Test Championship (WTC) finals appearance, but ultimately finishing trophy-less across formats. 2021 is yet to conclude though for the Men in Blue as they navigate the first of three Tests away to South Africa from Boxing Day onwards.
On the other hand, the international calendar ended quite early for India’s women’s team, who played just three bilateral series, culminating in a September-October tour of Australia. While several of the squad members stayed on for another couple of months to get useful top-level game time in the Women’s Big Bash League, the domestic scene and talent pipeline remained threadbare.
After the second Covid wave forced a temporary truncation of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) pulled out all the stops to ensure that the tournament could be completed later in the year. But nowhere near the same amount of prioritisation was shown for the women’s game within India as even the three-day exhibition Women’s T20 Challenge was not held.
One would expect that the world’s richest cricket board would at least showcase more transparency with the public on the state of domestic women’s cricket. But in the nine months since we elaborated on the many benefits of putting in place a women’s IPL, little has been forthcoming from the BCCI.
But India’s national level female cricketers are among the fortunate ones, compared to the circumstances surrounding the most significant women’s cricketing event of the year — the qualifiers for the 2022 Women’s ODI World Cup.
Held in Harare (Zimbabwe), the qualifiers began on 21 November and were scheduled to conclude on 5 December but travel restrictions imposed on southern African nations due to the Omicron variant meant that it was no longer feasible to continue playing cricket.
However, instead of simply postponing the tournament to a later date, the International Cricket Council (ICC) opted to cancel the tournament entirely and award the remaining World Cup spots on the basis of ICC rankings.
This was an effective disqualification for the up-and-coming Thailand women’s side, who beat two Test-playing nations in the first round of the qualifiers. On account of being an Associate nation, their games were not considered as ODIs and had no impact on the rankings.
As a result, one of the most promising sides in world cricket was dumped due to what can only be called archaic “red tape” as inferior teams qualified instead.
If you thought England winning the Men’s ODI World Cup two years ago on a technicality was farcical enough, what else can even be said about the ICC’s treatment of, and attitude towards, the Thai women’s team, beyond Thai player Natthakan Chantham’s tweet lamenting the cancellations?
— Natthakan Chantham (@NatthakanJeans) November 27, 2021
For years, governance at the ICC level has largely been at the whims and fancies of India, England and Australia. But the knee-jerk cancellation of the qualifiers and retroactive redefining of the “ODI status” tag are new lows.
Sport-wide renewed reckoning with racism
Another issue that repeatedly reared its ugly head within cricket was that of racism and communalism. In the Indian context, this was apparent with the controversy surrounding Wasim Jaffer, which the Indian men’s side stayed silent on, and the anti-Muslim bigotry meted towards Mohammad Shami, to which Virat Kohli responded with a full-fledged condemnation.
However, more eye-opening and important repercussions took place beyond India’s cricketing borders this year, particularly in England and South Africa.
Those who even vaguely followed the news in early November would already know about the far-reaching consequences of Azeem Rafiq’s detailed testimony against his former domestic team Yorkshire CCC.
But for those unaware, the short version is that over a dozen members of Yorkshire’s coaching and support staff have been sacked under the leadership of new chair Kamlesh Patel, and England fast bowling legend Darren Gough has replaced under-fire Martyn Moxon as Director of Cricket.
While the sweeping changes at Yorkshire (and its reverberations on English cricket at large) were obviously much needed and long overdue, South African cricket’s handling of historic allegations of racism are relatively complicated and nebulous.
Throughout the year, Cricket South Africa (CSA) has been running its Social Justice and Nation Building (SJN) project, an open forum of hearings in which current and former members of the South African cricket community can air experiences of racism they faced at any point during their careers.
These SJN hearings have brought to light some disturbing allegations, such as against former wicketkeeper and current Men’s head coach Mark Boucher, for taunting then-teammate Paul Adams with a racist chant in the South African dressing room, during the 1990s.
However, despite Boucher’s own admission of committing the act repeatedly at the time, he has remained in his position as head coach without so much as a reprimand from CSA.
Other notable allegations relate to apparent racial biases in lineup selections, particularly former wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile’s grievances against former captain and current Director of Cricket Graeme Smith, and batsman Khaya Zondo against former captain AB de Villiers.
Tsolekile’s case against Smith appeared to be nuanced and Zondo’s lacked evidence and historical basis. But that didn’t stop CSA from attempting to brand de Villiers as a racist and seemingly acting in bad faith over a sensitive issue in South African society.
As a result, CSA has not been consistent with its actions, when one compares its response to proven allegations against Boucher, and to flimsy hearings against a player who had previously severed all ties with the cricket board in 2018.
Both the English and South African cases ultimately boil down to institutions failing spectacularly, either by way of inaction or misusing a real problem to settle personal scores.
And that sadly came to define much of cricket in the last 12 months. What should have been months-long celebration of Trans-Tasman talent despite Covid-19 challenges was superseded by dishonest and all-too-familiar failures to make the global game truly inclusive for all.
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(Edited by Prashant)