NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Explosive all-rounder Ben Stokes and relentless run accumulator Steve Smith could not be more different in their approaches to the game but both roared back from personal adversity to bestride an extraordinary cricketing year.
Nobody doubted England’s title credentials in their home World Cup after the spectacular metamorphosis of Eoin Morgan’s side into a white-ball juggernaut since their embarrassing exit from the 2015 tournament.
But few anticipated the drama that would mark their crowning moment as they ended a 44-year wait for a maiden 50-over World Cup title at a mesmerised Lord’s.
Stokes’s international future had been in doubt after he was involved in a court case over a fight outside a nightclub, but with that behind him he returned to the fold in spectacular style.
In the final, he channelled his inner gladiator to almost single-handedly drag England to a tie with New Zealand as, after six weeks of cricket, the game was decided by a Super Over.
That too ended level but England knew it would be enough to win the trophy on the obscure boundary countback rule, triggering wild celebrations at the home of cricket and heated debate about the fairness of the rule.
Defeated captain Kane Williamson, adjudged player of the tournament, handled gracefully the heartbreak that cemented New Zealand’s reputation as the tournament’s perennial bridesmaids.
Three months after the July 14 final, the game’s governing body discarded the rule, prompting a sarcastic response from New Zealand’s Jimmy Neesham.
“Next on the agenda: Better binoculars for the ice spotters on the Titanic,” tweeted the all-rounder who faced five of the six deliveries from Jofra Archer in that fateful Super Over.
Stokes also lit up the Ashes series.
After England had been bowled out for 67 and were running out of batsmen in their second innings, he smashed an incredible unbeaten 135 to secure an astonishing victory in the third test at Headingley.
His heroics earned him the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, but even the great all-rounder had to bow to Smith when it came to dominating the series.
In a drawn series, Australia retained the Ashes largely because Smith redeemed himself in extraordinary fashion after the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa last year.
Stripped of the captaincy and smeared in ignominy after the Cape Town fiasco, Smith became Australia’s immovable rock as he amassed 774 runs in seven innings at an average of 110, despite missing the third test with concussion.
Financial powerhouse India lost in the World Cup semi-finals but flexed their muscles in the long format. Virat Kohli and his men top the confused and confusing World Test Championship table with seven wins in as many matches, including their first pink-ball test against Bangladesh last month.
That victory marked their 12th consecutive test series win at home.
In other significant developments, women’s Twenty20 got the nod to feature in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, while test cricket returned to Pakistan after more than a decade with a two-match series against Sri Lanka.
The game continued to grapple with corruption issues and Bangladesh captain Shakib-Al-Hasan was given a two-year ban, one of which is suspended, for failing to report fixing approaches.
Player-board disputes flared up in Bangladesh and South Africa, the latter also grappling with a tricky transition after quick Dale Steyn quit test cricket while batsman Hashim Amla and leg-spinner Imran Tahir retired altogether.
The game also lost former England captain Bob Willis, one of the heroes of the classic 1981 Ashes series who died of cancer aged 70 this month.
(This story fixes a typo in the first paragraph.)
Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; editing by Ed Osmond