The Playfair Annual 2023
What a difference a year makes! A few days ago, England fell an agonising two runs short of recording a unique winter clean sweep of five Test victories out of five, losing to New Zealand in Wellington by one run. The combination of head coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes has utterly transformed the England men’s Test side after the nadir of last winter’s efforts against Australia and West Indies. So-called ‘Bazball’ – fearless, positive cricket played with a smile (even from Jimmy Anderson) – has made the team one of the most compelling to watch in generations. Run-rates of more than five an over and successful run chases of 300-plus have become commonplace, rather than the statistical outliers they truly are. Like the team of a decade ago, newcomers settle in and perform well immediately: Harry Brook, Matty Potts and record-breaking youngster Rehan Ahmed have all looked at home from the start.
Two big challenges await England this summer. Unlike his all-rounder predecessors, Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff, Stokes has thrived and grown as a player with the captaincy, revealing astute tactical awareness and a remarkable ability to inspire those around him; he also has developed a habit of giving his best performances when the pressure is most intense. To my mind, the debate about England’s greatest all-rounder in my lifetime is now settled in his favour. But the knee problem that hobbled him in the Wellington run-chase is a long-running issue, and there is no obvious replacement for him as player or captain. He will need to be at his best in both roles if England are to regain the Ashes this summer. It is set to be a titanic and entertaining battle, with Australia looking a formidable outfit with few weaknesses. England still have their frailties, especially at the top of the order, but their character is not in question.
At the domestic level, most readers of the Annual will have welcomed the retention of the 14-match County Championship season, which is the bedrock of our game and which continues to attract some of the world’s best cricketers. It is the importance of the counties as clubs that struck me when Northamptonshire’s long-serving scorer Tony Kingston decided to step down over the winter. In his resignation letter, he noted how between 1990 and 2018 he had not missed a single full day’s play in all that time. An injury and a family funeral meant he missed one session of play in each case, and a further two overs were lost to pick up an award; in total, he missed just 66 overs in almost 30 years. It is hard to imagine anyone displaying such enduring support and loyalty to a franchise. Tony has been a great help and supporter of Playfair, so I want to both acknowledge his largely unsung work here and to wish him a long and happy retirement. At all levels of the game, cricket really does rely on such people to ensure it functions as well as it does.
This year’s cover star is Sam Curran, of Surrey and England, and the first to be shown bowling left-arm over (an omission I’m personally delighted to rectify!). He played a relatively brief part in his side’s County Championship success, but was central to England’s ICC T20 World Cup triumph, earning both the Man of the Match award in the final against Pakistan and the Man of the Series prize. The paymasters at the IPL duly took note, and the Punjab Kings recruited him for a record £1.85 million contract for 2023. His performances in Bangladesh this month show how he can set the subcontinent alight, not just in the IPL but also in the World Cup in India this autumn, when he will need to play a key role if England are to defend their title. That England hold both white-ball world titles shows how far they have come in the shorter formats; their progress in the red-ball format is about to face the acid test in the Ashes. It should be a special summer. I hope this year’s Playfair Cricket Annual keeps you company throughout.
Eastbourne, 13 March 2023