2018: A big year for... Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and England Women
Ireland and Afghanistan set to play first Tests; Virat Kohli to lead India in South Africa, England and Australia
By Sky Sports Cricket
Last Updated: 10/01/18 3:31pm
2018 promises to be an enthralling year, with India testing their Test-match mettle on the road and Ireland and Afghanistan set for their first forays into the five-day format.
England's men will be busy - hosting Pakistan, India and Australia across the formats at home following Antipodean assignments in the early part of the year and a trip to Sri Lanka to end it.
England Women, meanwhile, will enjoy a bumper white-ball schedule, including an ODI series in India and culminating in the sixth Women's World T20 in the Caribbean at the end of the year.
Here's a look at who could have - and who needs - a big 12 months…
It's easy to forget, what with that late-night incident in Bristol, that Stokes had an excellent year up until September 24 - he actually had an excellent September 24 until visiting the Mbargo nightclub having scored 73 in England's win over Windies in the third ODI earlier in the day.
Stokes' 2017 will now not be remembered for what he achieved on the field, including two mature Test centuries against South Africa and Windies with his side four down for not very many, and a match-winning hundred against Australia in the Champions Trophy.
Far from cowed by his bumper IPL fee - Stokes signed by Rising Pune Supergiant in a £1.7million deal - he flourished, with a ton, a fifty and 12 wickets. It could be that India is where Stokes makes his biggest mark in 2018, with the ECB confirming they will not stop him entering the IPL auction.
When he next plays for England, though, is uncertain - the Criminal Prosecution Service is still deciding whether to press charges, while Stokes could also face disciplinary action from the ECB or Cricket Disciplinary Committee. "If the indications are accurate any likely situation could be six to 12 months away," said ECB chief executive Tom Harrison recently. It may be a while, then - Stokes having been withdrawn from the ODI squad to face Australia in January.
Whether it's with England, county side Durham, or an IPL franchise, all eyes will be on Stokes this year as he aims to move on from Bristol and show his undoubted skills on the field, as a powerful and technically-correct batsman, astute bowler, and gun fielder. His presence in the Ashes may not have stopped Australia regaining the urn but, surely, it would have helped England make a better fist of retaining it.
Eyes are always on Kohli, as India captain and one of the finest batsmen of his generation, and perhaps even more so in 2018 as he takes his team to difficult venues and aims to impress with the bat in England in Tests for the first time, having struggled when India lost 3-1 in 2014.
Kohli's side, who top the Test rankings having won each of their last nine series - eight in Asia - visit the side immediately below them, South Africa, for three Tests in January and then head to England for five in August and September, before a winter assignment in Australia. Perform in those and they can lay claim to being the best in Tests.
Kohli has pedigree in South Africa - one hundred and a fifty in four innings - but not so in England, where he has scored just 134 runs in five Tests at an average of 13.40. Kohli has racked up 14 hundreds since then, though, so you'd expect him to fare a little better this time around.
Performing in England, aside, another thing on Kohli's to-do list will surely be winning the IPL - despite plundering runs in the tournament, including a record 973 in 2016, he has yet to lift the crown with Royal Challengers Bangalore, with three runners-up results the best RCB have mustered.
Heather Knight's side will find it hard to top winning the World Cup final in July 2017 at a packed-out Lord's thanks to an unforgettable spell of bowling from Anya Shrubsole, but a second World T20 title would still be a fine achievement. That's the goal in the Windies in November.
Before then, though, England have got what coach Mark Robinson had been desperate for - more games - with an ODI series in India in April following a T20I tri-series against the hosts and Australia in March. Then it's back home for summer showdowns with South Africa and New Zealand.
England will play the Proteas and the White Ferns in ODI series, with a T20I tri-series featuring all three teams taking place in between, as the sides seek to fine-tune their preparations for the World T20, an event England last won in 2009, at home, under the stewardship of Charlotte Edwards.
Players will also be looking to force their way into Robinson's plans for that tournament during the expanded Kia Super League in July and August, with each of the teams playing the others home and away in the group stage before Finals Day takes place at Hove on Monday, August 27.
Any English bowler with pace
The England selectors will look longingly at Hove, keeping tabs on young Sussex pace ace Jofra Archer, who may be a long-term answer to their much-discussed lack of pace. He's not the short-term answer, however, with the Barbados-born quick not eligible until 2022.
Mark Wood is the obvious candidate to inject some immediate speed into the England seam attack - provided he can stay fit - with the hierarchy seemingly having decided that Liam Plunkett factors in only as a white-ball bowler. He was ignored for the Ashes and hasn't played a Test since 2014.
George Garton and Tom Helm - highly regarded by Michael Atherton - are ones to watch, as is Somerset's Jamie Overton, who is quicker than brother Craig. Then there is Josh Tongue, who, having taken 47 County Championship wickets in 2017 for newly-promoted Worcestershire, will now get to test himself in Division One.
These young players may not dislodge James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes immediately but getting them in the mix before the next Ashes tour in 2021/2022 is paramount. As we have seen this winter, pace - and lots of it - is king down under.
You could forgive Moeen for never wanting to set foot in Australia again, such have been his struggles in the Ashes series: a highest score of 40 and an average of 19.42 - not to mention a highly frantic innings in Melbourne - and three wickets at an average of 135.
After starring for England with bat and ball against South Africa and Windies over the summer, Moeen's travails have once again raised the issue of what his role in the team should be. Frontline spinner? Second spinner? Batsman who bowls a bit? Left out entirely? It may be the latter at the SCG.
If Stokes returns to bolster England's batting and give them another seam-bowling option, perhaps Moeen's spot could be in greater jeopardy. The likes of Mason Crane and Somerset twirl twins Jack Leach and Dom Bess will be eyeing the spinner's berth at home this summer.
We've been here before with Moeen, though. After averaging almost 65 with the ball in India last winter, he took 25 wickets at 15.64 against South Africa, including a memorable hat-trick to win the Oval Test.
Moeen is also the second-quickest Englishman, after Tony Greig, to 2,000 Test runs and 100 wickets, so perhaps Joe Root is right when he says of Moeen: "He will have a big future for England. It is important everyone knows that."
Ireland and Afghanistan
Having taken some big scalps in limited-overs cricket - Ireland beating England, Pakistan and Windies in World Cups, and Afghanistan knocking off Windies and having England in all sorts of bother in the most recent World T20 - the sides are now fully-fledged Test nations.
Ireland will welcome Pakistan to Malahide in May. "It has been our wish to make our Test debut in front of our own fans within 12 months of becoming a Test nation, and against a big team - so I'm delighted," said Ireland CEO Warren Deutrom.
Afghanistan have yet to ink dates for their first Test but it should be against India at some point in 2018, most likely just before Kohli takes his team to Australia for a four-Test series. It will be an historic Test match," said Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO Shafiqullah Stanikzai.
The Test could give teenage leg-spinner Rashid Khan a chance to shine in the longer form. He has been brilliant in white-ball cricket, averaging just over 14 in both T20I and ODI cricket.