There are some things about Cricket Captain that will never change.
You launch a new edition, dive into a game, wishing your welcome to the new captaincy gig consisted of a press spectacle rather than a pop-up message, and pick all your favourite players. Then, complacent from years of playing the game, you soon find that your minnow opponent has gone from a run rate of 4.5 to 6.5 inside ten overs, your club's death-overs specialist has gone for 85 in ten on national debut, and you're chasing 340. The "full-aggression" settings for your batsmen don't work, and you're bowled out for 160. You hate this game.
But you'll play it. And that doesn't change with Cricket Captain 2018.
Over the last two decades, cricket has had an up-and-down presence in the video-game market. Many developers have given it a shot, few have been able to sustain a presence, and the returns from a largely subcontinental audience have seemingly not been enough. However, developer Childish Things has consistently delivered annual editions of this title for nearly a decade.
Cricket Captain is a management game (you don't have actual control of the players as they play) where you get to manage teams from any major real-life cricket competition around the world, pick the players you like, train them, buy or sell them at the end of a season, and micro-manage them on the field: you decide what lines and lengths the bowler bowls, you decide where the fielders stand, and you control how aggressively your batsmen go about things. Whether you're playing against the intuitive AI or against other players online, Cricket Captain's challenges are alluring and the ultimate release for multitudes of armchair critics.
The latest edition has one minute difference in interface from 2017: James Anderson is no longer crossing his arms on the opening screen but is instead caught halfway in his delivery stride. Apart from that, it's the same transparent grey panels, lined with green borders and blue accent colours - as last year. It's neat, intuitive and functional, and it keeps the game to 193MB (on the Mac), which is a solid trade-off. Cricket Captain has never been about the graphics and there's no reason to change that.
What it has been about is its match engine, and there is evidence of change there.
Limited-overs batting is much improved in the latest version, particularly in 50-over cricket. While blazing off early in the innings with the top order has remained relatively easy, like before, there is a telling difference with middle-overs batting. Where teams were prone to random collapses, especially during the final ten overs with high-aggression settings, this edition allows more room for late-overs specialists to flourish.
There are some leaps in player training as well. Targeted batting training now goes beyond foot movement, pace-or-spin preferences, and a general "aggressive shots" training with the addition of two specialised roles - opening and middle-order batting. Bowlers can also be trained specifically for limited-overs cricket, with "aggressive OD bowling" and "defensive OD bowling". However, the long-standing problem of there not being visual indicators of a player's changing ability, except for sporadic messages, means the effectiveness of the training is hard to judge. Statistics in gameplay are the only way to tell. And this is not ideal, because generating a good sample set on a player can take an entire season.
A coaching staff in the game who can give you inputs from training sessions that you can't see are a massive necessity. Fielding coaching has been given an extra feature or two, but catches per game remains the only metric to judge a player by.
The rest of the game stands strong. The database continues to be the strongest area. All the major leagues from around the world are available to choose from. The additions of Afghanistan and Ireland as Test-playing nations has brought more interest, if social media is anything to go by, as has the inclusion of every player to ever have played an international game, which compensates for the limited "scenarios" tab, which offers only contests featuring England, India and Pakistan.
A blockbuster addition this time is that you can receive job offers from other clubs when playing domestic cricket. The challenge of, for example, transforming Yorkshire on a small budget while losing players to the IPL, Adil Rashid to a white-ball contract (fixed in the latest update), and using the home groundsman to cover up for deficiencies was gripping, but the relative calm after completing the transformation made the game stale, whether you were winning a lot or otherwise. That is not something you have to endure this time. In Cricket Captain 2018, you will receive job offers from other teams at different points, and do not, like in previous versions, have to go back to the start of the game if you want a new challenge.
These details apart, it's the endearingly quirky game we've always known. A bowler will stare down the pitch as a batsman is struck on the body, and the keeper will go into his squat in preparation for the next ball. No remorse. A batsman will go on glorious streaks, where he's virtually undismissable, while simultaneously being dropped from the real-life equivalent of the tour. And Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi's first name is simply "Nawab of".
There's also the hilarious anomaly of an Indian playing in Pakistan during the off season, and of Imad Wasim turning up for Delhi Daredevils in the IPL. Not to mention Jofra Archer playing for England in the 2019 World Cup, which I only forgave because Keemo Paul blew through my Indian team with a hat-trick in the semi-final. A West Indies team in the World Cup final is a world I can live in. Total realism is a total bore.
There is one thing about Cricket Captain that still hasn't changed: you will always come back for more.
Cricket Captain 2018
Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android