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Cricket’s darkest year


Rest In Peace-Phillip Hughes CartoonThe tragic death of Philip Hughes in November 2014 enveloped the sport in a dark cloud of grief, one from which it will take time to escape– if ever it does.

The outpouring of emotion in Australia - not to mention the rest of the cricket community around the world - reminded us that for all the money, and by consequence, greed, that has crept into the game, at its core cricket is still blessed with the best of human nature.

At 25, Hughes had it all in front of him. The batsman, from Macksville, New South Wales, was expected to be recalled for Australia’s Test series against India in December. Sadly, we will never know what could have been, though we can predict, reasonably assuredly, that Hughes would have had a fine career under his baggy green – number 408, of course.

Life can be unbelievably cruel at times, although the love and strength displayed by Hughes’s friend and Australia captain Michael Clarke in the aftermath of that horrific accident reminded us that life also throws up incredible instances of kindness and warmth. Clarke’s cricket career may now be nearing its conclusion, as injury restricts him, but he will retire an Australian great for sure.

For 2014 had started so well for Clarke and his Australia team, as they completed a fifth victory of an Ashes whitewash over Alastair Cook’s beleaguered England. Australia annihilated England; their bowling was hostile, the batting and fielding cleaner and more clinical than their desperate opponents. It was a miserable series for England, and the ramifications were felt throughout 2014.

The English Decline

Andy Flower left soon after the series, believing he had taken England as far as he could. He still works for the ECB, having been appointed Technical Director of Elite Coaching, but others have not fared as well. Kevin Pietersen was fired, after new ECB MD Paul Downton said he had “never seen anyone as disinterested or distracted” as Pietersen in Australia.

Pietersen’s riposte was equally unequivocal. He released a book in October – shortly after the expiry of a confidentiality agreement with the ECB – in which he described Flower as a “Mood Hoover”, Matt Prior as the “Big Cheese,” and accused a bowling unit including James Anderson, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad of bullying in the dressing room.

England also played some cricket in 2014, although it would have been preferable if they had not. They lost 28 games in all formats – the most defeats in a calendar year of any England side.

The summer started badly, with Sri Lanka recording their first ever Test series win in England, leading to calls for Cook to resign in June. But the Essex opener stood firm, helping his side recover from a 0-1 deficit against India to win the five Test series 3-1, Cook scoring successive half centuries in the pivotal third test at the Ageas Bowl.

In limited overs cricket, England fared poorly throughout 2014. In the spring, Stuart Broad oversaw a dismal campaign in the World T20 in Bangladesh, his side failing to progress from their group after suffering a humiliating 45-run defeat to the Netherlands in Chittagong.

In the 50 over format, England won just nine out of 25 matches played in 2014, and in November lost a pre-World Cup series in Sri Lanka 5-2. It was the final straw for Cook’s ODI captaincy, a three-year tenure which included the highs of leading England to Number One in the ICC rankings, to the lows of scoring just one half-century in 22 matches.

Eoin Morgan will lead the ODI side in next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The Middlesex man has already captained England in T20 matches played since the World T20. Rather than using limited overs cricket to blood new players and leaders for the Test side, the English selectors would do well to pick a man like Morgan, or Joe Root, in formats to which they are both clearly suited. Root has been superb in all formats this year – England’s player of the year perhaps.

Change in high places

The way cricket is run took a turn for the worse in 2014. The constitution of the ICC changed, and it is now to be run by the “Big Three,” namely Australia, England and India. The Future Tours Programme was scrapped, to be replaced with bilateral agreements between member boards. Additionally, the distribution of wealth within the game was changed, so that the sides generating the most money from TV revenues would receive a bigger chunk of money.

This spells danger for countries like Sri Lanka and West Indies, who need series against the Big Three just to pay the bills. That point was exacerbated further in October when the West Indies players walked out of their tour in India over a pay dispute with West Indies Cricket Board. The BCCI were furious, threatening to sue the WICB for lost income.

Quite how the game can continue to grow when the size of future World Cups has been reduced, the requirement of the Big Three to play all Test-playing nations has been removed, and the allocation of funds has been pro-rated depending on profitability, are questions the Big Three have chosen to ignore.

Rays of light

Above all, 2014 has been emotional. News that Australia’s greatest commentator, Richie Benaud, is battling skin cancer reaffirmed that feeling. But the game will go on. It has to. Too many of us are still deeply in love with the sport, and as with a sweetheart who continually breaks our heart, we will always too come back for more.

We will miss Phil Hughes. His memory, as the inspirational Clarke said so beautifully at his funeral, will act as a custodian for the game forever.

New heroes will emerge

In this year of sadness, it is the imperious batting of Brendon McCullum which has brought this writer the most joy in watching. The New Zealand captain scored a triple hundred, two doubles and a thunderous 195 off just 134 balls in 2014. The latter - against Sri Lanka at Wellington – was an innings scored at the highest strike rate ever recorded in Tests where a batsman finished with 150 or more runs. As the world mourned the loss of Phil Hughes, McCullum scored 202 in Sharjah against Pakistan. A fitting tribute to a fallen friend.

Cricket changed in 2014. With the ICC restructure, the on-going power struggle at the top of the game, the fight to bring cricket to a growing audience around the world is hampered by the most powerful administrators in the game.

More than that. A player. A son. A friend. A hero fell. A nation mourned. A cricket family came together in grief. For all the difficulties cricket faces, 2014 at least showed us that there is something truly special about our beautiful game.

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Tom Huelin is a freelance cricket writer based in the South of England. Contributing work to All Ou...

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