The headline, as it so often is these days, is Virat Kohli. The story, though, naturally runs deeper.
The Indian captain, batsman extraordinaire and him of the scarcely believable numbers, swept the 2018 ICC awards announced on Tuesday, 22 January, with a dominance never before seen. But look who was chasing him for the honours.
Kohli had three big challengers for the main awards, and all of them were bowlers. Not just any bowlers – three of the best who have broken stereotypes and brought to the game an unabashed uniqueness that has trumpeted the resurgence of the ball over bat.
Kagiso Rabada – fast, fiery and exciting. Jasprit Bumrah – also fast, and freakishly deceptive. Rashid Khan – wily, prolific and a source of joy. They send down ball after ball, consistent and effective, asking questions of batsmen all right, but also challenging the viewers: ‘Look away if you can!’
Rabada came second to Kohli in both the Sir Garfield Sobers Men’s Player of the Year and Test Player of the Year awards. Bumrah was the only player apart from Kohli who featured in both the Test and ODI Team of the Year. Rashid, meanwhile, was runner-up for the ODI Player of the Year honour.
That the trio was front and centre of consciousness and ranking charts in the year gone by comes as little surprise. 2018 was, after all, the year of the bowlers. Rare was the Test that meandered to a draw – a few draws were positively thrilling. And much of this, arguably, had to do with competitive pitches and the skill of this generation of bowlers.
Presenting the ICC Men's ODI Team of the Year 2018! 🏆— ICC (@ICC) January 22, 2019
🇮🇳 @imVkohli (c)
🏴 @josbuttler (wk)
➡️ https://t.co/EaCjC7szqs#ICCAwards 🏆 pic.twitter.com/dg64VGuXiZ
According to ESPNcricinfo’s stats engine, a bowler took a wicket every 27.37 runs and every 54.7 deliveries in 2018. Both numbers are the best in a calendar year in nearly six decades. Fast bowlers were again calling the shots: they averaged 25.39, the best since 1960.
Rabada, sitting comfortable at No.1 on the MRF Tyres ICC Test Rankings for Bowlers, and Bumrah, No.1 on the corresponding ODI chart, while rising to 15th among Test bowlers in just his first year in the red-ball game, led this pace charge.
Think back to Port Elizabeth in the second Test against Australia in March. In the first innings, Rabada came back from an indifferent start to prise out five wickets. In the second, on a mostly placid surface and faced with the prospect of being out of the rest of the series with disciplinary complaints, he began with a bouncer to David Warner, and followed it up with a searing spell that forced the opener to duck, weave and ultimately be bowled by one that moved back in. His 11/150 that game earned him back the No.1 Test ranking.
Bumrah’s pièce de résistance was in Melbourne (although the five-for in the Johannesburg win in his maiden Test series at the start of the year was thrilling in its promise). And the best came not with pace, but with his slow yorker to Shaun Marsh to break a crucial partnership and put his team ahead. For someone known for his variations in limited-overs cricket, it has been his consistency, discipline and guile that has served him well in his debut year in Tests – beyond the initial awkwardness of his action.
And to think they’re both just getting started. No fast bowler has taken as many wickets as Rabada since his debut in late 2015. In fact, only Ravichandran Ashwin (197) and Nathan Lyon (177) have taken more Test wickets in that time. When Dale Steyn recently became South Africa’s highest wicket-taker, Rabada lifted him up on his shoulders – but on the stats charts, he was right at his senior’s back: the youngster is only one behind Steyn’s five 10-wicket hauls, and his strike-rate is better than Steyn’s, easily sitting in the top five of all time for those who’ve played more than 35 matches.
Bumrah, meanwhile, could become the quickest Indian pacer to 50 wickets. If his team’s pace attack can evoke comparison to the West Indies greats, it’s because he’s a big part of it.
As for Khan, he is no ordinary spinner. For so long carrying the hopes of Associate cricket, his performances have shown that Afghanistan belong in the top flight. His 96 wickets in all Twenty20 cricket is the most by a bowler in any calendar year – leaving Dwayne Bravo's record of 87 in 2016 in the dust. In the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2018, he became comfortably the fastest ever to reach 100 ODI wickets, in just 44 matches.
Before that in February, when he was yet to turn 20, he rose to the top of the charts at the end of Afghanistan’s 4-1 ODI series win against Zimbabwe, following his 16 strikes at a remarkable average of 7.9.
Their skills as bowlers have enthralled in recent years, but the trio means so much more. Both Rabada and Khan have sparked cricket dreams in communities that needed the role models. Blame (or thank) Khan for sparking a leg-spinning industry in Afghanistan. Bumrah, arms flailing, ponying in to deliver the ball, is the inspiration for every kid given a hard time for being different.
They may not have walked away with the annual gongs, but 2018 was as much their year.