How England cricket finally came to flower
ENGLAND gradually flowered under Joe Root after a familiarly miserable setback in Sydney but their conquerors are still rudderless after one of the most shameful episodes in their history.
Root was laid low by a severe bout of gastroenteritis – which would serve as an unfortunate metaphor for England’s Ashes woe – and a nadir was reached when they slumped to 27 for nine against New Zealand in Auckland in March.
The tourists would eventually ‘recover’ to 58 all out en route to another Test series defeat away from home but attention and schadenfreude had already shifted to Cape Town and the balltampering scandal engulfing Australia.
Opener Cameron Bancroft was caught on camera attempting to manipulate the ball with what was later acknowledged to be sandpaper in an incident orchestrated by vice-captain David Warner, with skipper Steve Smith in on the plan.
The fallout was cataclysmic. Not only are Smith and Warner still banned but coach Darren Lehmann resigned while an independent review into the incident saw several of Cricket Australia’s hierarchy stand down.
The notorious ‘headbutting the line’ mantra Australia had bullishly used in recent years was replaced by terms such as ‘elite honesty’ as the new coach-captain axis of Justin Langer and Tim Paine attempted to draw a line under the saga.
‘Sandpapergate’ overshadowed South Africa’s first Test series win at home against Australia since readmission, at the end of which AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel announced their international retirements.
Of far more significance, at least on these shores, was Alastair Cook bringing the curtain down on his record-breaking England career, finishing with a timely 33rd Test century against India.
His haul of 12,472 runs in 161 Tests is unlikely to be surpassed by any of his countrymen in the near future, and he was given a fitting send-off at The Oval as England wrapped up a 4-1 series win over the world number one side.
It would be inaccurate to assume the installation of Ed Smith as national selector served as a panacea but his decisions to restore Jos Buttler and Adil Rashid to the Test set-up and give left-field call-ups to the likes of Sam Curran have seen England win eight of their last nine Tests.
Indeed, they closed the year in style, whitewashing an anaemic Sri Lanka 3-0 for their first ever clean sweep in Asia, with Ben Stokes branded as the difference between the teams.
It has been a bittersweet year for the fiery all-rounder, who was found not guilty of affray at his summer trial at Bristol Crown Court following a notorious late-night melee outside a nightclub in the city centre last year.
Yet the incident is now in his rear view mirror after a Cricket Discipline Commission determined he – as well as Alex Hales, his comrade on that night – would not miss any more England matches.
Hales came to the fore as England racked up a world record one-day international score of 481 for six against Australia.
Despite the notable upset defeat against Scotland in Edinburgh, Eoin Morgan’s big-hitters rose to the top of the world rankings and are well positioned for the acid test of the World Cup on home soil next summer.
Heather Knight’s England fell at the final hurdle in the Women’s World Twenty20 as they were beaten for a fourth successive time in the competition by Australia in the Caribbean.