From Pat Cummins’ captaincy to Afghanistan’s self belief and Rohit Sharma’s selflessness, here are five things that stood out this year
One of cricket’s many allures is that it’s an allegory of life. What we learn from playing or watching the game can apply to our everyday lives, work, and personal growth. In that context, here are five takeaways from a year of great cricket in 2023.
A growth mindset: Pat Cummins had led Australia in only four ODIs before the 2023 World Cup in October-November. When he candidly admitted he was still figuring out the nuances of the 50-over format and finding it hard to read Indian pitches, many reacted with derision. After Australia lost the first two games in the tournament, a former Australia captain wondered if Cummins even deserved to be in the ODI side.
But Cummins’ admission of challenges and an attitude of learning worked wonders. He improved as a captain as well as a bowler during the tournament. In the final at Ahmedabad against India—a team that had won every single game till that point—he correctly chose to bowl first on 19 November. He tied down India’s middle order mainstay of Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul by cutting off easy singles. Cummins then delivered the coup de grace himself, dismissing Kohli with a surprise bouncer.
His effective use of slow cutters on abrasive surfaces, and marshalling the fielding team when under pressure was masterful in Australia’s nine straight wins after the initial two losses. Cummins ultimately made his doubters eat humble pie.
The Australian captain’s frank self-appraisal and willingness to learn trumped a know-it-all attitude that often proves our undoing. That’s how the understated and underestimated captain won the ODI World Cup, as well as the World Test Championship for Australia this year.
The Indian women’s team celebrates the fall of a wicket during their Test victory over Australia.
Fortune favours the brave: “We wanted to play positive cricket, and that is why we put Richa Ghosh at No.3. We did not want to go back to defensive cricket,” said the Indian women’s cricket captain, Harmanpreet Kaur, after a historic Test victory over Australia in Mumbai on 24 December. It was the first time India had beaten Australia in women’s Test cricket.
This came right after a Test victory over England, whom they had never beaten in India earlier. Smriti Mandhana set the tone at the top by always putting the bowlers under pressure. And Jemimah Rodriguez, who had returned to the team after being left out of the women’s ODI World Cup squad last year, carried the same attitude in the middle order. Her fifties against both England and Australia were major contributors to the back-to-back victories.
Aggressive field settings and bowling to take wickets were also part of this bold, new approach. “Our bowling coach keeps talking to the bowlers about taking wickets, not being defensive,” says Kaur. The captain herself did this by coming on to bowl and taking the crucial wickets of Tahila McGrath and Australian skipper Alyssa Healy, who were taking Australia to a strong position with a vital partnership.
Bravery has to be tempered with smart play. But it’s usually better to be bold and sometimes lose a game by overreaching than to be timid and lose a chance for glory. The old Latin proverb, “audenta fortuna lovet” (fortune favours the brave), is exemplified in cricket time and again.
Rashid Khan in action at the ODI World Cup for Afghanistan.
Believe in yourself:Afghanistan came into the 2023 World Cup as minnows. The perception was understandable because they had recorded only a solitary win in two previous editions of the tournament.
But the Afghans themselves believed they could beat anybody on their day. In the likes of Rashid Khan, they had players who were top performers in T20 leagues around the world. Now they had to take that self-belief into cricket’s premier tournament as a team.
But even the most fervent believers in the team everyone loves to see succeed, could not have imagined that the minnows would become semi-final contenders. They took down the defending champions, England, arch rivals Pakistan, and had the six-time ODI champions, Australia, on the mat. Only a miraculous double century by a cramped Glenn Maxwell stopped Afghanistan’s march to a semi-final spot.
From the time of the Biblical story of David and Goliath, life and business are replete with stories of underdogs battling giants and winning. Afghanistan’s giant-killing in the 2023 World Cup can be celebrated likewise, even if they ultimately did not make the semis. Coming from a strife-torn land and having to play most of their cricket abroad, the Afghanistan cricket team is an inspiration.
M.S. Dhoni in action for Chennai Super Kings at the IPL.
Ageing like fine wine: Each year since his retirement from international cricket in 2020, speculation grows over whether M.S. Dhoni will continue to play for, and lead, Chennai Super Kings (CSK), the Indian Premier League’s most successful franchise. But, as CSK coach Stephen Fleming quipped at the IPL auction this month, “We’ve had succession plans for M.S. for about 10 years. It is going to be a talking point, but he is as engaged and as enthusiastic as I have seen him for a while. While that passion is there for the team and franchise, we’ll roll on.”
India’s most successful captain led CSK to the title in 2021 and briefly handed over the reins to Ravindra Jadeja in 2022. When that didn’t work, he took the reins again. This year he won a fifth title for CSK, catching up with Rohit Sharma’s five titles for Mumbai Indians (MI). He has taken CSK to a record 10 IPL finals since the inaugural one in 2008.
Dhoni’s captaincy keeps getting better with age, like fine wine. This was starkly evident in this year’s IPL with the unexpected revival of erstwhile Test stalwart Ajinkya Rahane as a fearless T20 batter, when his career had appeared to be on its last legs. He’s among many players who have reinvented themselves under the guidance of Dhoni.
Not everyone gets better with age, which can dent confidence. Dhoni sets an example of making the best use of the wisdom one gains with experience. As Katharine Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, puts it: “No one can avoid ageing, but ageing productively is something else.”
When setting an example is not enough:India’s captain, Rohit Sharma, wanted to lead by example in the 2023 ODI World Cup. He took risks to give his team quick starts. So much so that one of the greatest white ball batsmen of all time ended up occasionally selling himself short. He could have added to his tally of seven centuries, the most for any batsman in ODI World Cups. But he chose to put the team first.
Sharma was aware that a lack of aggressive intent and the temptation of personal milestones had let India down in the past. His leadership gave the team ten consecutive wins in the World Cup, but it wasn’t enough to get the title that has eluded India since Dhoni won it in 2011.
Leading by example can only produce results if it influences others. Unfortunately for Sharma and India, the experienced duo of Kohli and Rahul had a dreary partnership of 67 runs in 18 overs in the final. They refused to take risks even against Australia’s part-time spinners, thereby trusting neither themselves nor the batsmen to follow. It did not behove a team playing at home, with such an enviable wealth of talent, to be so timid.
So it brings us to the conclusion that leading by example can only work if it is combined with a willingness to choose a team that will buy into the exemplary mindset. Who, not how, was the bigger question.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.