Afghans land my top prize … but Ireland must shape up
2016 was another engrossing year of Associate cricket, even if those beyond Afghanistan and Ireland have played rather less than they would hope. Here are the year’s awards:
Men’s team of the year: Afghanistan
If Afghanistan victory over the West Indies in the World T20 was the single most noteworthy victory by any Associate in 2016, the nation were excellent throughout the year.
They defeated Zimbabwe 3-2 in an ODI series, beat Zimbabwe 2-0 in a T20I series, and then thrashed them in the first stage of the WT20, setting up their heist over the West Indies in Nagpur – West Indies’ lone defeat in the tournament.
If opportunities against Full Members were frustratingly limited thereafter, Afghanistan still competed admirably in a 2-1 ODI defeat in Bangladesh, when they lost the first game by seven runs, and were increasingly dominant over fellow Associates, routing the Netherlands in the Intercontinental Cup and ending the year with a 3-0 victory over the UAE in a T20I series.
Oddly, for all these wins perhaps Afghanistan’s most encouraging display was in defeat. Against the England Lions, in a de facto Test match, Afghanistan fought valiantly before losing by 48 runs, suggesting that, as and when Test status comes, Afghanistan will be ready.
Most disappointing team of the year: Ireland
For years Ireland have been pleading for more fixtures and opportunities to advance themselves. In 2016, a sad irony became detectable: at the very moment Ireland’s cries are being heard – notwithstanding the ridiculous decision to go ahead with the 10-team World Cup in 2019 – the team went into a decline.
Beyond the Intercontinental Cup, where they remained exemplary and therefore on course for elevation to Test cricket from 2019, Ireland barely won a game. They used 26 players, summing up the muddled thinking and need to move on from the class of 2007, were hapless in the WT20 and, even more worryingly, suffered five comprehensive defeats by Full Members in ODIs.
For the good of not just Irish cricket, but the entire Associate cause, this grim record needs to change in 2017. In May alone, Ireland have six ODIs against Test opposition, including a historic series in England; riches compared to Ireland’s paltry nine ODIs against Full Members between 2011 and 2015. Now, Ireland must make good on these opportunities.
Women’s team of the year: Ireland
At least good news came from the continued progress of Ireland’s women, who beat South Africa, twice, during their home summer, and added a victory over Bangladesh.
By year end they had moved up ninth on the ICC rankings – an outstanding achievement considering Cricket Ireland’s lack of financial resources.
Player of the year: Mohammad Shahzad
Batted with thrilling audacity throughout the year, from the moment he slammed a T20I century against Zimbabwe in January. Immediately after that innings, Shahzad distilled his cricketing philosophy: “There is no plan, only to hit every ball to the boundary.”
This approach resonated throughout the cricketing world during the WT20 when Shahzad smashed 22 in an over from Kyle Abbott against South Africa, and then promptly announced he was disappointed not to have the opportunity to take down Dale Steyn, too.
Batsman of the year: Ed Joyce
Even in the year he turned 38, Joyce continued to bat with grace and unstinting desire for runs.
He scored Ireland’s two ODI tons of the year, both against Afghanistan, including a career-best unbeaten 160, and was terrific again in the County Championship, averaging 64.12, and making 250 against Derbyshire, his highest first-class score. Ireland were thrilled when Joyce announced he would return home full-time to play in Ireland’s domestic competition in 2017.
Bowler of the year: Rashid Khan
Has the capacity to be the first cricketing great from Afghanistan, oozing thrilling potential.
Khan is a leg-spinner combining unusual pace, a fine googly and admirable control and is equally adept in white ball cricket – in the WT20, he took 3-11 against Zimbabwe and 2-17 to reduce England to 59-6 – and also the first-class game. In December, Khan took 12-122 in the match against England Lions, and made 77 runs for once out to boot.
Unsung player of the year: Paul van Meekeren
The Netherlands endured a year defined by being denied opportunities to play cricket: they had only three games in the entire year after the WT20, and they were knocked out there by rain.
Yet at least Van Meekeren, a product of Dutch cricket, made a terrific impression, bowling with pace, seam movement and hostility to claim 6-29 from six overs against Bangladesh and Ireland. He was later rewarded with a Somerset contract, and took three wickets on debut against Pakistan.
Breakthrough player of the year: Nizakat Khan
For long overshadowed by Mark Chapman and Jamie Atkinson, Nizakat Khan became the mainstay of Hong Kong’s batting line-up in 2016. At the end of the year, he scored a century against Sydney Thunder to confirm his status as one of the breakthrough Associate players of 2016, while the ICC cleared him to bowl leg-spin again too.
Upset of the year: Oman beating Ireland
Perhaps not that surprising, considering the depth of Associate talent in T20 cricket, but Oman’s victory over Ireland in the WT20 was still a stunning heist: at the time, Oman were ranked 29th in the world in one-day cricket.
Most dispiriting moment of the year: Preston Mommsen’s retirement
Scotland skipper Mommsen was among the most dedicated and fittest of all Associate cricketers and in the form of his life at 29. His retirement, in despair at a lack of opportunities – “something drastically needs to change in terms of actual game time for Associate teams,” he warned – embodied the derisory treatment to Associates beyond Afghanistan and Ireland.
Biggest reason to be cheerful: U19 World Cup
Namibia, Nepal and Afghanistan all recorded notable victories – Namibia over South Africa, Nepal over New Zealand, and Afghanistan over New Zealand and Zimbabwe – to finish in the top nine of the tournament, above New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It showed the huge, and ever-growing, talent that exists beyond the Test world.
Most welcome development: The rise in streaming
Streaming more matches – even with only a couple of cameras – should be central to future Associate plans, as this column has repeatedly argued. So it was heartening 50,000 watched streaming of Hong Kong’s bilateral series with Papua New Guinea; even more that there were over 20m video views across ICC WCL divisions five and four.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, December 30 2016
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