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What we've learnt from cricket's second Covid year

The pandemic has only exacerbated the inequalities in the game, but the Big Three could help by putting out multiple teams simultaneously

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
Fans watch the India-Pakistan T20 World Cup match outside a restaurant in Karachi  •  Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Fans watch the India-Pakistan T20 World Cup match outside a restaurant in Karachi  •  Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

The last live game for me before Covid closed down our world was the World Cup final at Lord's. Yes, that one. And somewhat overcome by the moment, I ended my piece that night with this: if cricket were to die tomorrow, we would still have this game. How was I to imagine these words of pure hyperbole would turn mildly and eerily prophetic? It wasn't until early last month, nearly 30 months since that manically unforgettable day, that I found myself at a cricket match once again.
It's an absurdly unfair comparison, but Mumbai - the first day of the second Test between India and New Zealand, felt a thousand times removed from that day in London, and it had nothing to do with the cricket, which was compelling in its own way, with a dramatic mid-session Indian collapse followed by a punchy counterattack. But an air of desolation hung all around, the stands were sparsely populated, and the large press box, insulated from the sounds of cricket, seemed even emptier, with masks and distanced seating adding further layers of insularity.
The sterile joylessness (relative to previous experiences, of course) of the day, though, allowed for perspective, however tangential. The year gone by was one in which we learnt to live with a pandemic that has changed our lives for years to come. Alongside vaccines, there has been acceptance of new ways of life, and WFH has become a trending initialism.
But working from home is not an option for sportspeople, who must, sunshine or rain, travel to faraway lands to ply their trade in open fields, and because the stakes are so high and contact among players is essential and inevitable, they must live their life from bubble to bubble, their fishbowl existence made even more suffocating. And they must execute the rarest of skills, which require, apart from the skills themselves, peak physical and mental prowess. Doubt and anxiety, natural in these times, must be cast away or hidden, and there is no retreating to safe spaces.
It can be argued that they are professionals, the rewards are handsome, and far greater fortitude can be found among front-line health workers in the battle against Covid, but that will be somewhat reductionist. The nature of sporting performance is public, and every action is open to scrutiny and judgement. Even while living an abnormal life, elite sportspeople must create their own ring of normalcy. We don't owe them gratitude, but empathy will do: isolation fatigue can be debilitating.
There is no playbook for how to conduct sport in such times. Three Sri Lankan players were banned for a year for breaking a curfew in Durham; virtually days later, the UK began dismantling Covid restrictions. An Indian team carried on playing in Sri Lanka after three of their team-mates tested positive, and six others isolated. Two weeks later the Indian Test team jettisoned the last Test in England after a couple of positive tests among their support staff. West Indies completed a T20I series in Pakistan with Covid in their camp and then there were too many cases for the ODIs to be played. Australia woke the first morning of the second Ashes Test to discover their newly appointed captain had to isolate after a stray contact with a Covid-positive diner at a restaurant, but the third Test was played despite four positive cases emerging in the England camp during the game. The IPL was suspended mid-season, so was the PSL, and the T20 World Cup had to change location.
In the pre-Covid era, such events would have felt calamitous, now they only seem like an existential hazard. Who knows what lurks around the next corner?
One nation, two teams and joy of sharing
Perhaps there lurks an opportunity too.
Crises have always produced innovative solutions. When Covid was found in the English camp in the early summer, England put together a whole new white-ball side to play Pakistan, and ended up winning too. When tight schedules and strict quarantine norms made it impossible for India to send their first XI to Sri Lanka, an alternative team, with Rahul Dravid as coach, went and won the ODI series (they lost the T20Is only after half of the side had to be isolated). Why can this sort of thing not become a plan?
The pandemic has only widened the gulf between the richer boards and the rest. After being given Test status in 2018, Afghanistan and Ireland have together managed to play only nine Tests. And since cricket resumed after the lockdown, the Big Three have played 26% of all Tests played (14 out of 54) between themselves.
Ireland managed nine white-ball games against South Africa and England since the onset of the pandemic, but Afghanistan, who qualified directly for the 2021 T20 World Cup ahead of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, did not play a single match against a team ranked above them in the year or so leading up to the tournament. In the five-year period between the two T20 World Cups, Afghanistan, whose qualification in 2016 was one of the most stirring stories in cricket, didn't play a T20 against any of England, India, Australia, Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand. In all, they have played 89 T20Is with a win-loss ratio of 60-28, the best among the 16 teams who have played at least 50 games, and yet only ten of these have been against teams ranked above them.
Equality will be forever elusive, but without the quest, the chasm will grow wider. It's inevitable for schedules to be dictated by commerce, but a little creativity can even things out a bit. Countries fielding two sides simultaneously is an idea whose time has come: those with deeper talent pools - India, England and Australia to start with - must consider, or be persuaded to consider, the idea.
The benefits are self-evident. It will create more opportunities for smaller teams in a slightly more even playing field. Teams like Ireland, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, who rarely get to play the top sides, will be the obvious beneficiaries, but the idea can extend to other teams too: Bangladesh are in a white-ball slump, Sri Lanka are rebuilding and could do with more competitive cricket, and for teams like Scotland, Netherlands, USA or even Nepal, who mainly play each other, a few chances to test themselves against top-quality players outside of the World Cups will be priceless. There can't be a less contentious way for the Big Three to share their wealth. Their own fringe players will also be grateful for the international caps.
There will be challenges, of course. The value of TV rights for these matches will need scaling down, some compromises might need to be made with the strength of reserve players in each squad, and the top teams might have their records a bit diluted. But the upside is enormous.
T20 World Cup: how to do the dew
That the T20 World Cup took place at all was a relief. And true to tradition, an unfancied team - an odd term to use for Australia in an ICC tournament - took the trophy. But the tournament didn't really fizz, barring the two semi-finals, and for instant recall, those two overs from Shaheen Shah Afridi, of course: in one, he ripped the soul out of the Indian campaign; in the second, Matthew Wade, with three audacious hits, ended Pakistan's.
One of the reasons for the lack of excitement is that a few teams didn't turn up at all. India's top order malfunctioned in the two matches that mattered. Bangladesh, after flattering in home conditions, were abysmal, as were West Indies, the reigning champions. It felt like the end of an era, for they had redefined the T20 game through a blinding brand of six-hitting. It isn't that the power game is passé, just that they had too many power-hitters who were past their prime. Also, given all the chatter about how the T20 game has room for anchors, they badly missed players of that sort. Both their previous title wins had one common glue. In 2012, Marlon Samuels first played a steadying hand with 26 runs from 37 balls, before blasting 52 off 19; in 2016, in the final made immortal by Carlos Braithwaite's four sixes in the last over, it was Samuels, again, who kept them afloat after they had slumped to 11 for 3 in the third over.
That aside, there wasn't a sniff of an upset. Afghanistan were not as competitive as anticipated, Ireland seemed to have regressed, and the main interest in the matches involving most of the lower-ranked teams was the margin of victory and how it affected the net run rate.
There was another big factor that made the tournament predictable, for which no obvious remedies are in sight. The toss turned out to be decisive in almost all the games featuring the top sides, because dew set in during the chase, and a wet ball is not merely slippery for the bowlers, it is also utterly predictable off the pitch. The toss is one of the luck elements in cricket, but when the advantage from it becomes this massive, it subverts the idea of a contest. Day-night matches are crucial for maximising audience, but it's no fun watching a lottery. With the 50-over World Cup due in the subcontinent in 2023, can anyone find a way to keep the ball dry at night?
New Zealand: cricket's happy place
New Zealand experienced, literally, both sides of the coin in 2021. In Southampton, the opportunity to use bowler-friendly conditions on the first morning led to, in the words of some of their players, the greatest moment in their cricket history; and in Dubai, having to defend under lights, they had another opportunity at a World Cup title slip away.
Lots of things about New Zealand have become clichés. A rugby-obsessed country of under five million constantly punching above its weight in cricket. The team that wins with a smile. Kane Williamson, the man you trust with your life. Only one thing has changed. They used to be perpetual semi-finalists. Now they routinely make the finals. And they are the first ever Test champions.
Yes, we shouldn't lose our amazement at what they do, but we shouldn't be surprised anymore. For years they have been the embodiment of collective excellence, and with a master craftsman in Williamson and a skilful pace attack, which is also the most varied in the world, they play with the keenest awareness of their strengths and limitations, and belief in their own methods.
Faced with a small chase in the World Test Championship final, they didn't try to dash to the finish line when R Ashwin induced a stutter by taking out the openers. Instead they ground out dot balls - 21 in a row at one point - and only pulled out some strokes when the target seemed within striking distance. The same monk-like belief was in display, too, in the World Cup final, where a two-paced surface neutralised the powerplay overs. Williamson produced an innings of calculated and surgical brilliance. It got them to a score that gave them more than a sniff, whereas over-eagerness could have got them bowled out for 120.
What a pity, then, that the team that made it to three successive World Cup finals across formats should play so little marquee cricket. In the last World Test Championship cycle, they ended up playing only 12 Tests against England's 21 and India's 18, and of their last ten Test series before the WTC final, only two went beyond two Tests. On the list of teams who have played the most ODIs over the last six years, they are eighth; in T20Is, fifth.
The reasons are simple: New Zealand's home market is tiny, and though they have the hearts of cricket's devout, their brand of cricket - optimal efficiency over flair - doesn't fire mass imagination. But box office be damned, let them stay the sunny reminder that it's possible to win with modest means and without snarling.
Virat Kohli: could the end spark a new beginning?
It is conceivable that Virat Kohli might have occasionally nurtured a similar wish: box office be damned, can we just win an ICC trophy? Kohli's magnificent record as captain - he stands comfortably ahead of every India captain in success rate in all three formats - will be forever blemished by India's failure to win a major title under him. It can feel a tad unfair, but World Cups are the stuff of dreams and memories.
World titles have not always been won by the best teams of the time - it would be difficult to argue against India's claim to be the best Test team of the first WTC cycle - but by the teams who manage to be at their best in that one match, or two, when everything is on the line.
Even in the fallow period since their 2013 Champions Trophy win, India made it to the knockouts, including two finals, of every global tournament till the T20 World Cup last November, but many of the knockout defeats featured sub-optimal performances: either top-order meltdowns, or, like in their semi-final against Australia at the 2015 World Cup, the bowling attack, splendid through the tournament, going off radar. The last four batting malfunctions have included Kohli, so masterful for so long in high-pressure games.
We asked Dale Steyn, who was an analyst for ESPNcricinfo during the WTC final, to predict who between Kohli and Williamson would score more runs in the Test. He pondered the answer and picked Williamson. It was in the spirit of fun, as such things often are, but Steyn had his reason. Kohli, he said, just might want it too much. Can too much desire and too much intensity burn a high performer or a team? It's impossible for us to judge but we can see a pattern in these sub-par performances by a highly skilled team.
In this light, India choosing a new leader for white-ball cricket can, as even Kohli himself reflected, only be seen as logical, but it could have been done without the intrigue that accompanied it. Everything has been left to speculation now. Was Kohli trying to pre-empt the BCCI by unilaterally announcing his renunciation of the T20I captaincy before the World Cup and affirming somewhat presumptuously, as it appears now, that he would stay on as ODI captain? Did the selectors make the decision by themselves, or were members of board - as can be implied by the statements from the president, Sourav Ganguly - involved in the conversation? And why was Ganguly, and not the chairman of selectors, making these comments in the first place?
As Ganguly would know first-hand, this is not the first time a highly decorated Indian captain has been sacked. But what makes it tricky is that Kohli remains India's Test captain and, despite his recent slump, their pre-eminent all-format batter. From a time in the not-so-distant past when his influence in Indian cricket seemed all-reaching, the public nature of his uncrowning, both literally and figuratively, has been jarringly swift.
A women's IPL: a promising investment for the future
You could say that's an idea so obvious, it barely needs a spark. The IPL spun the biggest revolution in cricket. It needed imagination, chutzpah, muscle power, entrepreneurial energy, and a disregard for tradition. Only the BCCI could have pulled off something that seemed so brazenly disruptive then. And it has spun a thousand imitations, but nothing comparable. It is, in the quality of players, viewership and revenues, cricket's biggest event.
But when it comes to extending the idea, it has been the opposite: little imagination, no vision, and no willingness to break new ground. In this, the BCCI has easily ceded position to Cricket Australia and the ECB, who have managed to build vibrant and increasingly popular women's leagues. In comparison, the BCCI's three-team Women's T20 Challenge, which was jettisoned in 2021, presumably because it would have been too much bother to organise with Covid still around, feels like feeble tokenism.
The most plausible explanation for this lack of enthusiasm is that there isn't a pot of gold in immediate sight. But that's selling the future short. Apart from their obvious talent, the additional appeal for teams signing Indian cricketers in the Hundred and the WBBL is the audience they attract. Leaving aside the fact that it's just the right thing to do, even in pure commercial terms, the BCCI must see the women's IPL as a small investment with the potential for handsome returns. Which wild optimist could have forecast in 2008 that two new franchises would fetch the BCCI US$1.69 billion, a three-fold increase over the board's own ambitious base price? What use all the wealth if it can't be used to grow the game? Or the business?
Pointing to the lack of a player pool is only an indictment of a failure to create one. A beginning can be made with six IPL teams, containing five foreign players each. If the existing model of franchise ownership doesn't work, a new one can be found. The most important requirement is will.
Ashwin and Lyon: the hard path to success
A thousand obituaries have been written for offspin down the ages, but with two of its finest custodians in full flight, it's in health as good as it has ever been. For all the mysteries and magic of wristspin, Ashwin and Nathan Lyon are comfortably the most prolific spinners of their era. Both achieved personal milestones in the final months of the year: Ashwin overtook Harbhajan Singh to become India's most successful Test offspinner, and second only to Anil Kumble among all Indian spinners; and Lyon became the first Australian offspinner to get to the 400 mark in Tests.
They have overcome a lot. Both made their journey to international cricket via domestic T20 but came to be regarded as Test specialists; both have been questioned for their match-winning ability - outside Asia for Ashwin - and both have been dropped in a questionable manner. Lyon has had to overcome the hard and true pitches of Australia, where no fingerspinner, right- or left-arm, had taken more than 100 wickets before him. Ashwin has gone through his struggles outside Asia, but apart from the challenge of adapting his bowling to different conditions, he has had to battle a brittle body, and the vagaries of selection. Of that last, nothing has been more contentious than him being benched for a whole series in England last year. But despite missing those four Tests, Ashwin finished the year as the highest wicket-taker in the format.
As bowlers, they couldn't be more different. Lyon's is a more classical yet muscular approach - strong shoulders, high arm, side-on, imparting revs and overspin. He relies on repetition, and subtle changes within, to wear batters down, or hold an end down to allow the rotation of the quick bowlers. Ashwin's skills are bountiful, as are his tricks. He can alter his grip, wrist position, run-up, delivery, and land, if he wished, six different deliveries in an over without sacrificing accuracy. For how his brain ticks, you can do no better than read this extraordinary interview on the Cricket Monthly a couple of weeks ago.
Together the two have kept the tradition of one of the game's oldest arts twinkling.
Racism: let's root out the hate from the game
In both hemispheres, cricket found itself confronting chapters of its murky past, and while old wounds of racial prejudice were laid bare, they also opened pathways for the future.
The Social Justice and Nation Building hearings instituted by Cricket South Africa raised the lid on three decades of pent-up anguish and anger from players of colour, who felt disadvantaged, discriminated against and made fun of in team environments in the post-apartheid era. Up in Yorkshire, Azeem Rafiq, who could have been a symbol of the county's assimilation of its minorities after a chequered history, instead became a whistle-blower describing both institutional and casual racism at the club.
Yorkshire and South Africa are thousands of miles apart, and their immediate histories don't bear comparison, but a common thread between the experiences of Rafiq and the black South African players was of callous disrespect. Pouring wine down the throat of a team-mate who might be a non-drinker on religious grounds, or a team song with the words brown s**t in a country trying to heal from the scars of a racist past can't be explained away as team rituals gone a bit rogue. These acts are nothing less than downright malicious: how can you not see how they degrade and humiliate?
But as Michael Holding, who has devoted a good part of the last three years to shining a light on racial inequalities, has said: it's not that cricket has a problem; it's society, of which cricket is a part, that has a problem. But luckily, cricket, and indeed all sports, can do something about it. Enlightenment and change are easier to manage in a contained arena than in society at large. Culture can't be codified but it can be bred.
To that end, the revelations in South Africa, Yorkshire and elsewhere, however painful, should be seen as necessary steps towards transformation. And while the commitment to basic decency must be unflinching, absolute and visible, forgiveness is essential too. Those who recognise their mistakes must be given the chances to make amends.
Blame it on woke movements (or would you rather be sleeping in the fog of ignorance?), all workplaces, particularly high-profile ones like sports environments, seem to be moving the right way: there is greater awareness about what constitutes offensive behaviour, and there is greater fear of reprisal. It's hard to imagine Ollie Robinson, who served a ban for his culturally offensive social-media posts while he was a teenager, repeating his mistakes. And it's inevitable that others will learn from example.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal