If cricket fans had billed 2021 as the year where normality would return to the sport, then their optimism proved wildly misplaced.
England being battered in Brisbane aside, it proved a surreal 12 months, and we’re not just talking Covid bubbles and crowd restrictions.
India upping and leaving England ahead of the fourth and final test, the Hundred landing on our shores, Quinton de Kock’s refusal to take the knee, that Jordan over in the T20 World Cup, the racism allegations which rocked county cricket – there have been no shortage of talking points on and off the field.
Here, the Mirror has singled out the figures who shone through the chaos, by adjudicating on a some unofficial end-of-season awards.
There’s little by way on rules of eligibility, but in contrast to England’s team selections in the Ashes, we’ve tried to put a little thought into things.
Batter of the Year – Joe Root
With the thread his team were hanging by clinically cut off in Melbourne, it’s not rash to suggest that Joe Root’s future as Test captain has reached a crossroads.
Since beating Sri Lanka at the turn of the year, England have lost a series in India, then at home to New Zealand, and were 2-1 down to Virat Kohli’s men in the return leg when the the visitors suddenly decided hot footing it home for IPL riches outweighed any desire to play a final Test.
The losing trend will is continuing spectacularly down under, but while Root the leader may be in the firing line, 2021 proved the year when Root the batsman cemented his status as a world-class talent.
His first innings knock in Adelaide saw him become just the fourth Test batsman to pass 1600 runs in a calendar year, with six centuries contributing to an average that exceeds 65.
Throw in the fact that the ineptitude of England’s openers has meant many of his knocks have seen him deal with the new ball, and Root stands alone as the best in the world over these past 12 months.
Regardless as whether he’s there as captain in 2022, one thing is abundantly clear.
England need him. Badly.
Bowler of the Year – Shaheen Afridi
With over 50 Test wickets in 2021, Indian spinner Ravichandran Ashwin was a strong contender here, while Ajaz Patel’s feat of taking all 10 wickets in an innings – just the third player in history to do so – propelled him into the frame.
But few players have brought more charisma, and quality, to cricket this year than Pakistani paceman Shaheen Afridi.
His national side has endured a frustrating year in terms of the fixture calendar, but the 21-year-old lit up to T20 World Cup in Abu Dhabi and Oman, bowling opening spells signified by pace, swing, aggression – and downright exuberance.
His three-wicket haul in his side’s win over arch rivals India is already written into folklore, and had the ‘Green Stars’ not been surprisingly beaten by Australia in the semi-final stage, Afridi would have been a solid bet for the player of the tournament.
He missed out on that gong, but being named here is surely ample consolation.
Newcomer of the Year – Devon Conway
Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
Ok, admittedly, handing an award of this nature to a 30-year-old is a little contradictory.
But, hands up how many of you really new about New Zealand opener Devon Conway before he rocked up at Lord’s this summer?
On Test debut, he amassed exactly 200, a knock only ended when he was run out trying to farm the strike late on.
He backed that up with 80 in the first innings at Edgbaston, and then in the World Test Championship final, amassed another half century before the Black Caps beat India on the final day in thrilling fashion.
They say good things come to those who wait. And Conway had clearly waited long enough.
Team of the Year – New Zealand Test team
The last award rolls nicely into this one.
Perhaps there is a sprinkling of sentiment involved here. Following that famous 2019 ODI World Cup final, New Zealand’s players took their defeat with grace and humility – when lesser men would have been smashing up the dressing room.
So there was something cathartic about seeing them take that afore-mentioned title at Lord’s, confirming themselves as officially the best Test side on the planet.
In Kane Williamson, they have a leader who seamlessly combines a likeable personality with aggressive cricket captaincy, and him holding the trophy aloft was an image to warm the hardest of hearts.
New Zealand’s ascent to the top of Test cricket has been a building process, but it was also fitting the likes of Tim Southee, Trent Boult, and Ross Taylor, who have contributed so much to their country and the sport, were still there to see it through.
Good cricketers. Good blokes.
Moment of the Year – Oval Invincibles win the women’s Hundred
The narrative ahead of The Hundred competition kicking off was almost set in stone.
Confusing, crisp-sponsored nonsense that would further rip apart the upstanding traditions of the game. Or something like that.
Instead, we got exciting, innovative cricket, and a major boost for the women’s domestic platform.
Seeing Dane van Niekerk lift the inaugural silverware with the Oval Invincibles after beating Southern Brave had wider implications than a team celebration – it represented a triumph for the sport.
The decision to play games as double headers, all covered on Sky, undoubtedly boosted attendances and raised the profile of women’s cricket. And given it was tournament that challenged cricket’s established gender order, staging the final at Lord’s was fitting.
It represented the first time in 200 years of the ground’s existence that a domestic women’s final has been played there – and the 17,116 spectators who came through the gates to watch it duly contributed to an historic afternoon.
The noise levels from the crowd that day would have easily drowned out any tut-tutting from old-school cynics.
Biggest Deja Vu Moment of Despair – Mitchell Starc bowls Rory Burns
Ok, so we’ve thrown this category in there. But we were in grave danger of completing a cricket related article that lacked the mandatory waves of despondency and pessimism that accompany England playing in Australia.
There’s something captivating about the Ashes away from home. You sense the inevitable, you know harrowing sleepless nights are ahead, and you soon realise any positive periods of play from the visitors are unlikely to last beyond a session.
And yet, in almost stoic act of loyalty, we collectively stay up for the first few overs of that Brisbane test, having dubiously convinced ourselves that the hosts aren’t that good and the hazy days of 1986/7, or more recently 2010/11, could be repeated.
But whilst very few would have tipped Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed to have been 260-0 at the end of the first day at The Gabba, you would have hoped they’d keep England in the contest for longer than say, one ball.
Mitchall Starc opened up with a swinging delivery on leg stump, Burns did his customary shuffle, and as the stumps were shattered – one nation rejoiced while another sank to its knees.
No wonder Nasser Hussain bowled first.
Cricket Personality of the Year – Michael Holding
We finish on a far more serious note.
Azeem Rafiq unveiling the institutionalised racism which plagued his time at Yorkshire was as inspiring as it was earth shattering. It was a water shed moment for English county cricket, and one which should pave the way for counties to seriously address issues of diversity and equality.
Hussain’s stock has risen these past 12 months too, not just as an expert analyst and commentator, but as a high-profile figure not frightened to call out issues, for example questioning de Kock’s refusal to take the knee at the T20 World Cup alongside his South African teammates.
But no figure has spoken out more poignantly this year than Michael Holding.
A man who battled racism his whole life, Holding was a figure who embraced that Black Lives Matter moment with knowledge and dignity, as opposed to paying lip service to it. One of the voices of cricket, was able to put it to good effect elsewhere.
In July, his book, Why We Kneel, How We Rise was published, confronting how institutionalised racism developed historically and how it affects people of colour. It was an emotional, intriguing, and also a harrowing read.
Holding has recently announced his retirement from the Sky commentary box, and unlike other cricket correspondents this year, walks away without a cloud above his head.
Great player. Great pundit. Great man.