Eventful 2005

The passion that rose during the Ashes and the maturity shown by the spectators during the India-Pakistan series also went a long way in confirming the popularity of the longer version of the game, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY

SURGING crowds for Test matches; the revival of the game in England, the home of cricket; and the qualitative improvement overall were the most noteworthy gains of 2005.

The passion that rose during the Ashes and the maturity shown by the spectators during the India-Pakistan series also went a long way in confirming the popularity of the longer version of the game.

Australia, despite the Ashes setback, continued to dominate world cricket, setting new standards. The Aussies might have caused some worry to the administrators with their sledging, especially against the South Africans, but there was no denying the fact that the character of international cricket was reflected in the high quality stuff that Ricky Ponting and his men continued to display on the field.

The Australians might have performed below their best against England, but there was an intensity that set the team apart.

India failed to tame Pakistan at home. Inzamam-ul-Haq and his team bounced back to draw the three-Test series 1-1. After the drawn first Test at Mohali, India went one up in Kolkata but lost the final Test in Bangalore.

The determination of Kamran Akmal and Abdul Razzaq came in for praise. They defied the Indian bowlers on the final day at Mohali in the first Test.

Coach John Wright's chapter came to a close at the end of the Pakistan visit and a new era began with Chappell taking over. "I enjoyed my time with India. It's a great country where cricket is a religion and I pray the players do not let down their passionate supporters. India has the potential to become the best team in the world," was Wright's parting observations after being with the team for five years. His greatest contribution had been teaching the team how to win overseas.

The two-Test series against the depleted Zimbabwe was a non-event, though it was the first series win outside the sub-continent since 1986.

But the tour achieved notoriety for the Ganguly-Chappell spat. It left a bitter taste with Chappell sending an e-mail to the Board that was leaked to the media. The rest of the cricket world laughed at the state of affairs in Indian cricket. In the end, Sourav Ganguly was out in the cold and Rahul Dravid was elevated to the captaincy... and `The Wall' crossed the 8000 mark with the bat.

India's performance against Sri Lanka at home was on the expected lines. Sri Lanka's poor overseas record may flatter India, but there was enough in the series to be happy about. Sachin Tendulkar reached his 35th Test century, a landmark that saw the nation celebrate in a big way. He went past the record of legendary Sunil Gavaskar, who made 34 Test centuries. Tendulkar was humble in his moment of glory, promising greater efforts in helping India achieve greater goals.

Sourav Ganguly, who was picked for the three-Test series against Sri Lanka, was dropped after the second Test. This created a furore. The divide was apparent with Ganguly unable to comprehend the real reasons for his unceremonious exit. It was one of the darkest chapters in Indian cricket. The Board could have handled this issue better. With India playing just eight Test matches in the year, it was hardly surprising that it did not have a batsman or a bowler in the top 10 category. For India, the year ended with a vision for the future. Coach Chappell's motto is: "perform or perish."

The Ashes, as usual, hogged the limelight with England stopping the mighty Aussies. The matches brought crowds back to the venue in a big way. According to the reports, hundreds of spectators had to return home failing to get tickets, something unheard of in England for a long time.

It was a competitive series, after Australia won the opening Test comprehensively. The close finish in the subsequent Tests only proved the growing belief that under pressure Australia is vulnerable like any other team. The series drew the attention of fans all over the world.

But England lost its way in Pakistan. The star-performer Inzamam, with support from Shoaib Akhtar, led the team to a superb series win against an overconfident England.

New Zealand proved good at home while South Africa was going through a transition period. The worst show came from the West Indies. The team was riddled with internal problems involving pay disputes. But Brian Lara, with a sensational double century against Australia, and Chris Gayle, with a triple century against South Africa in Antigua, excelled in patches as West Indies continued to slide. Lara became the highest run-getter in Test cricket, surpassing Allan Border's record.

Zimbabwe and Bangladesh had little to offer. There were no signs of improvement as cricket in Zimbabwe faced crisis with the top players pulling out. Zimbabwe's cricket was at its worst when it was bundled out for scores of 54, 59 and 99 in different Tests. Bangladesh struggled to find cricketers worth making a mark in the international arena.

The Super Test failed to attract crowds. The concept came in for scathing criticism from some former greats and it was hardly surprising when Australia humbled the World XI.

Later, the International Cricket Council announced a rethink on the future of the contest.

Marcus Trescothick was the batsman to watch along with Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden, who responded to criticism with some heavy scores. Among the rest, Jacques Kallis, Brian Lara, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Younis Khan and Graeme Smith figured among the top run-getters.

Leg-spin wizard Shane Warne emerged the top bowler, his guile leaving the batsmen in a daze. Andrew Flintoff improved dramatically as a bowler and shared the spoils with his mate Matthew Hoggard. Australian pace ace Glenn McGrath had his quota of wickets. Pakistan leg-spinner Danish Kaneria made his mark in the season with some wily stuff, while Steve Harmison confirmed his reputation as a quality fast bowler. India's ace spinner, Anil Kumble, scored a century of different kind. He played his 100th Test at Sardar Patel (Gujarat) Stadium, Motera, Ahmedabad.

Shoaib Akhtar promised Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer his best and did not disappoint. He was at his menacing best against the Englishmen at home.

Cricket was richer with characters like Akhtar and Flintoff making their presence felt in a telling manner.