Guess what he’ll bowl next. Guess where she’ll look to play it. Guess who’ll be sent in next. Guess what the captain’ll do at the toss. Guess who’ll be named in the team. Guess whether the wicket’ll firm up or break up.
The uncertainty fascinates us. The cliché about glorious uncertainties reflects the fact that guessing is an integral part of cricket, not to mention sport. And it’s not confined to the field.
Wisden has for the last 100 years or so, with a few notable exceptions, named Five Cricketers of the Year past. This is not a traditional best-of-the-year award. It is unashamedly Anglo-centric, giving most weight to impact on the English cricket season. Players cannot normally receive the award more than once. These constraints make attempting to predict the eventual winners more interesting than it might otherwise be.
Back in April 2014, after my correctly guessing four out of the five 2014 COTYs, I stuck my 2015 predictions down on paper. Six months later, with the English season over and six months to go until the announcement, it’s instructive – not to mention humbling – to reassess my guesses.
2015 predictions: reevaluated
1. Virat Kohli
The signs had been promising. A tricky two-Test tour in South Africa against the world’s leading pace attack had concluded with him being the second-highest run scorer: 272 runs at 68 placed him only behind his team-mate Pujura, who had 280 at 70. It was therefore particularly surprising to see an arguably weaker attack doing for him time and again with traditional English movement. While the post-Test ODIs provided an opportunity to extract a little revenge, the fact that during the Test series he averaged less with the bat than Jimmy Anderson says it all. Saddled with the Heir of Tendulkar tag, Kohli seemed to sag rather than surge.
Assuming he doesn’t pick up the award in 2015, a long-term guess is that he’ll do so in 2019, when the World Cup returns to English shores.
Chances for 2015 COTY: Low
2. Cheteshwar Pujara
If the flamboyant Kohli didn’t find English conditions to his liking, surely the understated Pujara would, master of graft and patience that he is. Or so the accepted wisdom ran. Pujara’s failure in England was even stranger than Kohli’s. The lad who had averaged 87.60 against England in 2012-13 stumbled to 22.20 in 10 innings.
An end-of-season stint with Derbyshire, however, gave indication of some form. With his agreeing to return next year in the County Championship, the signs are that he intends to nail these conditions. Watch out next time, England: Che will be back.
Chances for 2015 COTY: Low
3. James Taylor
This was always going to be a bit of a punt. Not being in the England sides at the beginning of the year wasn’t going to help his chances. Yet with the batting order in tatters after Australia, there was a good chance that he would get a recall. Sadly for him, Robson, Ballance and Ali emphatically filled the available slots.
Despite international disappointment, his county form was good, particularly in the limited-overs competitions. In the 50-over competition, he only had 7 matches to show off, yet took his opponents for 444 runs at 88.60. If we relax the criteria to include all List A cricket, only Alex Hales scored more than his 586 runs, and at a much lower average.
His inclusion in the Lions team and the one-day squads made it clear that he was in the selectors’ thoughts, although frustratingly failed to actually make any of the teams. Worst case scenario would be for him to travel to Sri Lanka, struggle on foreign pitches, and be summarily discarded without a proper chance to show what he can do. He should at least be taken to the pre-World Cup ODI tri-series in Australia.
Chances for 2015 COTY: Low to moderate
4. Sam Robson
I wrote that Robson, Balance and Ali emphatically filled the available slots. That’s only true to an extent: as a trio they kept other contenders out, but individually Robson and Ali were a little suspect. Ali’s bowling enabled his quiet end to the summer with the bat to be overlooked, but Robson had nowhere to hide, after his form dipped.
A maiden Test century shouldn’t be overlooked, though. At county level, an end-of-season rearguard action at Old Trafford in the relegation scrap showed that form was returning, and while everyone gets into a frenzy over the World Cup, there is plenty of county cricket for him to ensure he opens in the Ashes next year. A break may be ideal for him right now.
Chances for 2015 COTY: Moderate
5. Steven Finn
“Unselectable” at the beginning of the year, but back in the ODI and T20I sides by September: England’s strike bowler was never that far away from a Test recall, but was edged out by the Plunkett-Jordan-Woakes trio. In the County Championship, 48 wickets in just 11 matches showed that his wicket-taking ability was still there, although his average of 30.72 also demonstrated that his occasional profligacy remained a concern. A decent County Championship showing in April and May 2015 could see him return for the New Zealand home Tests, or injury to one of the above trio could even let him in for the West Indies tour.
Not a bad year for Finn, but lack of Test matches means it won’t be enough to get a COTY nod. Not this year, anyway.
Chances for 2015 COTY: Low
2015 predictions: reloaded
So who will actually be invited to Lord’s to be presented with the leatherbound Wisdens in April 2015?
I naturally have no inside information. As I may have touched on earlier, guessing’s rather addictive.
1. Gary Ballance
England wanted a No. 3 lynchpin to replace Trott, and early signs are that they’ve uncovered one in Ballance. Two centuries at Lord’s were followed by a 156 at Southampton and a useful 64 at The Oval. Only Joe Root, with two helpful not-outs, surpassed his run tally of 503 and average of 71.85 against India.
For Ballance not to collect a COTY would require an act of transgression on the Amir scale. Shirtless table-dancing will barely register, though it’s not recommended in the Long Room. If he’s overlooked, I’ll eat my recently purchased sale-price Lord’s sunhat.
2. Angelo Mathews
Armed with metaphorical eggs, Mathews pelted England with beamers. At Leeds, after taking 4 for 44, Mathews shepherded the tail as he worked towards a match-winning 160. It contributed to what arguably became the worst day for English cricket since Adelaide 2006.
What a victory it was. Having had their coach lured away by England, their Tests reduced in favour of their big neighbours, and their sportsmanship questioned, Sri Lanka pulled off their first-ever Test series victory in England, to go with a 3-2 ODI victory and a win in the only T20I. Mathews deserves much of the credit for uniting his dressing room against the dark forces that seemed to encircle it.
3. Moeen Ali
The supposedly part-time spinner who outspun India in England. His maiden Test century at Headingley should provide sufficient evidence of his prowess with the willow, but it was his performance with the leather that took all, not least the subcontinental batsmen, by surprise. Against India, his 19 wickets at 23 was nothing less than embarrassing: India’s best reply was Jadeja, with 9 at 46.66; fewer than half the wickets at twice the average.
It’s also easy to forget his significant contribution to Worcestershire’s promotion back to Division 1. Although his England duties removed him from New Road for much of the season, while with Worcestershire he piled up 676 runs at 61.45 in 8 matches, giving the team a crucial early-season boost.
Despite his inherently modest and self-effacing style, Moeen also somehow seemed to wind up most days on the front page for one reason or another. If it wasn’t his wristband protest, it was the unedifying booing he received at Edgbaston. One way or another, Moeen Ali was the unofficial face of English cricket in 2014, and only the most ungracious of individuals would have it any other way. A 2015 COTY certainty.
4. Bhuvneshwar Kumar
Easy to forget, in the eventual 3-1 scoreline, that after two Tests, India had outbowled England in England. Sharma grabbed the limelight at Lord’s, but it was the workhorselike Kumar who had been most impressive. He tailed off toward the end of the series, as India’s collective will and apparent energy faltered in the face of the English counterattack, but his 19 wickets at 26.63 surpassed what anyone was expecting. Additionally, his 58 & 63* at Trent Bridge, followed by 36 & 52 on a Lord’s greentop, were above and beyond the call of duty of any No. 9.
5. Rangana Herath
Eight wickets may sound a distinctly underwhelming basis on which to hand out a COTY award. Yet Herath’s wickets came in just two Tests, and on the not traditionally spin-friendly tracks of Lord’s and Headingley. It was his height, or lack of it, rather than his spin that contributed to his wickets, with the reduced bounce increasing the threat of LBW. His second-innings wickets at Lord’s slowed down England’s declaration acceleration, thus contributing to an ultimately saved match. At Headingley, after a gutsy 48 helped his captain to reach 160, he chipped in with lower-order scalps as Sri Lanka attempted to, and eventually succeeded in breaching England’s defences.
2016 Early Bird predictions
And finally, some long-term predictions for the 2016 awards!
1. Jos Buttler
Only three Tests limited his opportunity to impress in 2014, but his ODI century at Lord’s clearly signalled his coming as a future star. Expect his maiden Test century in 2015, probably against the West Indies.
2. Alex Hales
Demolition of Sri Lanka in the World T20 showed his limited-overs potential, but his red-ball game has come on leaps and bounds. Will have a good 2015 in ODIs, and could be knocking on the door of the Test side by winter 2015.
3. Sam Robson
Will find form against the Australians to go with heaps of County Championship runs; will also be a crucial factor in keeping Middlesex in Division One in the absence of Chris Rogers.
4. Mitchell Johnson
Will be keen to repay English crowds for their past mockery, with the most dramatic means:
scary facial hair stacks of wickets.
5. Brendon McCullum
New Zealand’s first triple-centurion has experience on his side and will bruise English attacks across all formats. Will show that the New Zealand tour is much more than a mere Ashes appetiser.