With the year coming to an end, it’s a good time to look back at what shaped and defined one of the most popular sports on the globe. There is no denying that cricket has had its ups and downs in the year leading to the next World Cup. What with Sandpaper Gate, the banning of Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, the slow fadeout of Aussie cricket and the retirement of AB de Villiers, there has been some good hard cricket in 2018.

Here, then, are the three best international cricket teams of the year – based not just on statistics, but spirit and context:

3. SOUTH AFRICA

It hasn’t been an easy year for an ex-giant that never really goes through a “bad phase” but one that is perpetually in some kind of transition. With the retirement of AB, the team’s chances have reduced significantly to win the World Cup in England in 2019. They have fought well in 2018, though, despite all the controversies and instability around them. They defeated India and Australia 2-1 at home in Tests, but their blot this year has been a 2-0 defeat to a weak Sri Lankan team away. They have gotten over the pasting at the hands of India in February (5-1) in ODIs, to win the ODI series in Sri Lanka 3-2 and an easy 3-0 against Zimbabwe. They’ve had a problem against Asian teams, but there is a grit and grind to the current team that will hold them in good stead next year.

2. NEW ZEALAND

Kane Williamson’s men just don’t play enough cricket, as much as we’d love them to. Since the retirement of Brendon McCullum, Williamson has marshaled his men well and again made the most of their combined talents. A 1-0 home test series win against England followed by a stunning 2-1 win against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi has established them as one of the best Test teams of 2018. Combine this with a 5-0 whitewash of Pakistan at home in the ODI series at the beginning of 2018 and a close, hard-fought 3-2 ODI series loss at home to the mighty England, and you’d say 2018 has been the most New Zealand year possible for the team.

1. ENGLAND

Joe Root and Eoin Morgan’s men have come of age in 2018, after suffering through yet another debilitating Ashes series loss Down Under towards the end of last year. They executed their first ever 3-0 whitewash in a Test series in Sri Lanka, defeated India 4-1 at home, drew 1-1 with

Pakistan at home and won ODI series against India (2-1), New Zealand away (3-2), Sri Lanka away (3-1) and demolished Australia 5-0 at home. One would imagine there is no better preparation and form for England across formats ahead of perhaps the first ever World Cup in which they will enter as outright favourites. In their own backyard.

Other teams:

Virat Kohli’s India struggled, as usual, in Tests abroad all year, despite managing to win a Test each in South Africa, England and Australia. This was their best chance to make a statement, but iffy team selections and schoolboy errors have cost them the chance to be the most dominating team of this era. They lost an ODI series 2-1 to England, too, but did well
to defeat South Africa 5-1 away and the Asia Cup in the Middle East. Pakistan’s dominance at home in Dubai and Abu Dhabi was finally punctured by the most unlikely opponents, New Zealand. The 2-1 Test series loss came on the heels of an unconvincing 1-0 win against Australia (in which Tim Paine fought hard to draw a match in the 2-test series), and they failed to reach the Final of the Asia Cup. Yet, bowlers like Yasir Shah have promised to keep them in the running in their favourite conditions in England next year – where they won the Champions Trophy by demolishing India in the Final in 2017.