The Playfair Annual 2020
With events moving so swiftly in the days leading up to my copy deadline, I have had to rewrite some of this Foreword because of the Coronavirus, which, over the last weekend – in sporting terms – accounted for the abandonment of the Formula One Grand Prix in Australia, the domestic football programme and England’s tour of Sri Lanka. Things are expected to get worse before they get any better, so I fear that the fixture lists at the back of the book could prove to be a case of wishful thinking, rather than reality. Instead of looking forward, therefore, perhaps this is an opportunity to look back – and happily last summer was undoubtedly one of the greatest for any cricket fan. England’s World Cup final Super Over win against New Zealand and their astonishing Ashes Test triumph by one wicket at Headingley will never be forgotten.
This year’s cover star, Sussex’s Jofra Archer, earns his place after a series of superb performances in both red- and white-ball cricket for England during last summer, and was at the centre of so much of that drama. It is hard to remember the last time a debutant had such an instant impact. The fact that he is the quickest bowler England have possessed in years, that he is unspoiled enough to tie his sweater round his waist and he has a quirky social media presence all add to the sense of real excitement around him. I was fortunate to be at The Oval for his domestic 50-over debut on 8 May, against Pakistan. He may have bowled only four overs before the weather caused the match to be abandoned, but the response from the crowd was palpable. On the field, his team-mates saw what a potent weapon they had; his opponents simply tried to get to the non-striker’s end.
And yet that first period of his career – which also featured a stunning spell against Steve Smith and the highest pressure to perform in that Super Over – ended with him suffering a stress fracture to his elbow, and he is currently out of action. This led to some accusations that he had been over-bowled: he sent down slightly more than 400 overs in 22 England appearances in 2019. These criticisms have been dismissed by the England camp, but clearly – if we are to continue to see the best of him in the years ahead (he turns 25 the day before the Annual is published) – he needs to be sensibly managed. And there may be a lesson to be had in how the Australians rotated their pacemen during the Ashes.
But it is not just about him. England travelled to Sri Lanka this month missing not only Archer but also Mark Wood and James Anderson through injury. Had this series gone ahead, England would have played Test cricket on five continents between February 2019 and March 2020. During this summer, England’s men should not only face Test series against West Indies and Pakistan, but also white-ball series against Australia and Ireland. The international programme is obviously a highlight, but the players can’t be expected to cope with so much of it, and nor – perhaps – can the fans’ wallets and purses.
And yet, into that crowded field of international cricket comes a major new domestic commitment, The Hundred. The counties have been given plenty of money to compensate them for this competition. But the Royal London One-Day Cup takes place at the same time, so the format in which we are now world champions will be deprived of some 120 top cricketers who will be finding their way round a format that is played nowhere else. And as for bringing in players that fans wouldn’t normally be able to see, the register I have supplied for the teams reveals that just 11 of them are not already playing for a county. Superstar cricketers such as Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, David Warner and Kane Williamson are welcome arrivals, as is Nepal’s Sandeep Lamichhane, but when 90 per cent of these players can be seen in county action anyway, you sense it is not quite the revolution some hoped for.
Eastbourne, 16 March 2020