by Rex Clementine  

The year 2023 was a productive one for the game of cricket as expected to be in a year where there were three major events, World Cup, The Ashes and World Test Championship. The year was so action packed that it provided loads of entertainment. There were some unusual events as well like the first ever timed out in the history of the sport and another dismissal for obstructing the field.  

The World Cup final was sort of an anti-climax. Hosts India had stormed through to the finals with an unbeaten record and given their formidable bowling attack they were hot favourites to win the title in front of a capacity crowd in the world’s largest stadium in Ahmedabad.  

Australia had huffed and puffed to the semi-finals having struggled to beat even Afghanistan but while India had peaked too early, the Aussies were gaining momentum towards the business end of the competition. It was a bold move by the Aussies to play the first half of their World Cup campaign with just 14 players desperately hoping that Travis Head would recover from a broken hand. It proved to be a masterstroke as Head was Man of the Match in both the semis and the final. They needed a cool Head when the going got tough.  

Not just the runs that Head makes but his energy levels lifts the team. The catch he took to dismiss Rohit Sharma turned the game on its head while his spin bowling option came in handy in more than one occasion.  

Fielding made a big difference in the finals as Australia would have cut off at least 20 runs on the field with David Warner being flawless manning the boundary. 

Eventually, millions of Indians went to sleep thinking it was a bad dream. Over 100,000 adoring fans at the Narendra Modi Stadium had been stunned to silence by a clinical display from Australia who went onto win a record sixth World Cup title. 

It was the most viewed cricket tournament ever, further proof for the increasing popularity of the game even in far off places. While over 1.25 million people attended the stadiums to watch the 48 World Cup games beating the previous record of 1,016,420 that witnessed the 2015 World Cup, television audience also grew significantly.  

Television viewership in India crossed over 1 billion while more than 500 million people watched the tournament overseas. Interestingly, the digital platform also increased in popularity with over 59 million watching the World Cup final through digital platforms.  

It was a special year for Australia. The World Cup was the crowning glory on their way to the grand triple. Earlier this year they had won the World Test Championship final and then had retained the Ashes after a closely fought 2-2 draw. Being the holders, they only needed a draw to retain the little urn.  

Australia felt agonizingly short to win the Ashes 3-1. They had been set a target of 384 to win the series at The Oval but were bowled out for 334 although they looked to have the game in the bag at one point having reached 264 for three. 

On the other hand, England would have argued that they could have wrapped up the series 3-2 had it not rained at Old Trafford.  

Australia needed 61 more runs and had just five wickets in hand to avoid innings defeat in the fourth Test and they were staring down the barrel. But the entire final day’s play was washed out while only 30 overs were possible on the penultimate day as the Aussies were bailed out by rain. 

It was a closely contested series, nevertheless. Australia had won the first Test by two wickets at Trent Bridge and by 43 runs at Lord’s to gain a 2-0 lead. 

England then bounced back winning the third Test at Headingly by three wickets while The Oval was another closely fought affair with England winning by 49 runs. 

Travis Head not just finished off a spectacular World Cup, but was Australia’s hero as they won the World Test Championship. He had once again proved to be India’s nemesis with Man of the Match award as Australia wrapped up a comfortable 209 run victory.  

India’s tactics were bit baffling as they left out R. Ashwin of all places at The Oval and the fact that Nathan Lyon had a good game was indication that the off spinner should have been persisted with instead of India’s four seamers policy. 

Australia were deserved winners at the end of the day as they had lost just three of their 19 games of the World Test Championship and won 11 of them. 

While Australia were stamping their authority in the sport some of the game’s power houses of yesteryear were going down while new power bases were emerging.  

West Indies were knocked out of the World Cup after performing so poorly in the Qualifiers losing to Netherlands, Scotland and Zimbabwe.  

For a team that had dominated the sport for close to three decades, West Indies’ decline hurts many fans of the game,  but no denying of the fact that it was on the cards.  

Zimbabwe one of the strong forces in the sport at one point are a pale shadow of their former self at present as they too were knocked out of the World Cup. At least compared to the West Indies they were more competitive during the Qualifiers.  

The new cricketing power that is emerging is Netherlands and having qualified for the sport’s showpiece event, they created a few upsets and went onto beat South Africa as well. 

While Netherlands’ performances have been impressive, the team that became the talking point this year was Afghanistan. They were the team to watch during the World Cup and narrowly missed out on a semi-final berth. 

Their fearless batting and miserly bowling are a treat to watch and with bit more experience they will learn to set attacking fields as well, something that hurt them during the clash against Australia.  

They finished with eight points, just behind New Zealand, who secured ten points. Had they not let Glenn Maxwell off the hook in Bombay it would have been a different story. But nevertheless, for a young cricket nation to beat three former champions – England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka  - in one tournament is no mean task. 

The good thing about this Afghanistan performance was that when they do well, usually it is their super star Rashid Khan who rises to the occasion. But in this campaign the likes of Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman showed that Afghanistan aren’t a one-man attack, and their spin is quite impressive. 

Usman Khawaja is set to end the year 2023 with most runs in the calendar year. His 1168 runs scored in 2023 is ahead of Travis Head’s 902 by a distance. It has been a landmark year for Khawaja, who has not looked back since his comeback last year. 

Khawaja was one of the players who was overlooked after the 2019 Ashes and since his return after a two-year hiatus he has been sensational. He scored a first ever hundred in India this year and followed it up with a maiden hundred in England and it’s all falling in place for the left-handed batter.  

While veteran Khawaja dominated Test match cricket, it was youngster Shubman Gill who took the world by storm in ODIs. He scored over 1500 runs in the calendar year with five hundred and nine fifties.  

In a batting line-up dominated by stroke players, Gill lays the platform for big scores negating early advantage for the bowlers. His game is not all about playing old fashioned anchor role. With an array of elegant strokes, he can put the bowling to the sword when field restrictions are on as showcased by his Strike Rate which is over 100.  

Two spinners topped the bowling charts for 2023 with Nathan Lyon and Kuldeep Yadav finishing as the highest wicket takers. While the off-spinner claimed 43 wickets in Tests, the left-arm wrist spinner had 49 scalps in ODIs.  

Lyon looked a spent force in his first game in India early this year where he was restricted to just a solitary wicket. Then he gained momentum picking up seven wickets in Delhi and a match bag of 11 in Indore.  

His Ashes campaign was ruined after the second Test as he was reduced to crutches, but he has bounced back well to finish the year as the leading wicket taker with the Boxing Day Test left in 2023.  Into the bargain he raced to the 500 wicket mark this year becoming the third Australian to do so and the fourth spinner to the milestone. 

With T-20 leagues mushrooming, a growing trend in world cricket seems to be for players to decline central contracts from their boards. New Zealanders Trent Boult and Jimmy Neesham were trendsetters, and they were followed by Jason Holder and Nicholas Pooran of West Indies.  

There are concerns that more and more players will opt out of Central Contracts down the years and some boards have come up with innovative methods to address the issue. As in the case of England and Wales Cricket Board, they have offered multiple-year central contracts to keep the players interested in international cricket.  

While there were concerns about the future of men’s Test and 50 over cricket, a brand that is growing very fast is women’s cricket.  

While countries like India, Australia and England have well established league tournaments for women, international cricket grew by many folds with a record number of bilateral ODI and T-20 series played this year. There were a few Test series as well and you can reach the conclusion that women’s cricket is indeed in safe hands and can survive on its own.  

More fans are turning up to witness women’s cricket and the television audiences are increasing. Appropriately, some boards have introduced equal match fees for men and women and it is only a matter of time before all boards implement this policy.  

Men’s day-night Test matches were supposed to be growing immensely and catered to the idea of attracting more fans for the longer version of the game with after work playing hours encouraging them.  

But 2023 witnessed just one pink ball Test match, a significant reduction from the previous years since it was first introduced in 2015. Even for 2024, just one day-night Test match has been scheduled and it maybe that the idea will never attract the sport. Early finishes due to the extravagant swing the pink ball offers under light might be one reason for lack of interest but if Test cricket is to move forward, it has to embrace novel features like Test matches in the evening.  

This year, cricket also saw laws being changed to protect players from high-risk injury. From here on, it is mandatory for a batter facing a fast bowler to wear a helmet. It is also mandatory for wicketkeepers when they are standing up to the stumps and for close in fielders.  

The cricketing world also lost many famous names in the year 2023. Bishan Singh Bedi, the revolutionary former captain of India passed away aged 77 while former Zimbabwe captain Heath Streak succumbed to cancer at the age of 49.  

All in all, the sport is thriving and 2023 is further proof for that. The fact that the next couple of ICC events will attract more teams will help grow the sport to a bigger entity.  

There are qualifying tournaments that are being played all across the world and like Afghanistan some other teams could go onto make an impact over the next decade. The team to watch are the Netherlands. Given their impressive performance in 2023, they could be the next team to be granted Test status.