Ponting and his invincibles

Even as other teams continued to dream, Australia went about achieving its target ruthlessly. It was the team to watch, and beat, a team complete in all respects. Vijay Lokapally recapitulates.

Others only dream, but the Australians do it, with new benchmarks and new conquests to underline their supremacy. International cricket saw no new script as Ricky Ponting and his Invincibles swept aside every other team.

"It hurt," Ponting was quoted as saying after Australia lost the 2005 Ashes series in England. But he and his team were back in the business in 2006, putting England in its place by winning the first three Tests of the Ashes in Australia and regaining the urn.

The rest of the world played "catch up" as Australia dominated with stirring triumphs in Test and one-day cricket. True, it failed to defend a target of 432, but it was one rare bad day on the field for Ponting's champion outfit. Losing to South Africa in that historic match at the Wanderers was no disgrace though.

Australia, with its splendid support staff, was the team to watch, and beat. A team complete in all respects, Australia showed its character in winning the Champions Trophy, the one title that eluded it. In conditions that required the team to be innovative and flexible, Australia came out on top, making the right moves at the right time and riding on the shoulders of its veteran match-winners, Glenn McGrath and Damine Martyn, who shockingly announced his retirement during the Ashes series.

In Test cricket too Australia dominated and won nine out of nine matches, including the first three Tests of the current Ashes series.

Sri Lanka was the next best team with five victories in 10 Tests and New Zealand distinguished itself by winning three out of seven Tests, including the first one at home against Sri Lanka.

In one-day cricket too Australia was the best, winning 20 of the 29 matches it played. It was followed by New Zealand (eight out of 12) and South Africa (15 out of 24). Bangladesh showed good progress, winning 16 out of 26 one-day matches it played during the year.

International cricket also witnessed some fascinating incidents, but nothing matched the drama that unfolded at The Oval, as the umpires Darryl Hair and Billy Doctrove awarded the Test to England. "Pakistan forfeits Test" ran the headlines the next morning as the game's administrators faced an unprecedented situation.

The incident drew criticisms from all quarters for the manner in which the International Cricket Council handled the situation. It first backed Hair but quickly dumped the Australian umpire, removing him from the panel in a desperate move to avoid further confrontation with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).

The game's image took another beating when Pakistan's Shoaib Akhtar, an icon in his country, and Mohammad Asif were suspended on charges of doping just before Pakistan's first match in the Champions Trophy. They were, however, let off later after a farcical investigation.

Though the doping issue was not as serious as the match fixing scandal, it was an area of concern for the administrators, particularly in the absence of any laws to deal with the menace.

The biggest of all the one-day matches was the run feast in Johannesburg where Australia became the first team to cross 400 in the limited overs contest.

However, its joy lasted for just an afternoon. Graeme Smith and his motivated team-mates, firing on all cylinders, successfully chased down the total. Herschelle Gibbs played a fantastic innings to propel South Africa to victory. It was the most extraordinary one-day contest as South Africa made 438 for nine in reply to Australia's 434.

Runs appeared to come easily in international cricket. Batsmen like M. S. Dhoni and Kevin Pietersen continued to produce some bizarre shots as placid tracks were the order of the day. The race between Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting picked up momentum as they competed for the top slot.

Mohammad Yousuf, formerly Yousuf Youhana, was clearly the batsman of the year. He simply refused to give his wicket cheaply, making the bowlers slog for his scalp, even in conditions not conducive to batting. His astonishing scoring sequence was the result of his ability to raise his game when it mattered.

Yousuf's hunger for runs was evident in the series against the West Indies. With an aggregate of 1788 runs from 19 Test innings at an average of 99.33, the Pakistani emerged as the best batsman of the year, slamming nine centuries and three half-centuries.

Ponting continued his quest for a place among the modern greats with seven centuries and three half-centuries in 15 Test innings. His amazing consistency once again highlighted the Australian's hunger for runs.

Pietersen was among the top five batsmen of the season, hitting four centuries, but he did not quite match the consistency of Ponting and Yousuf. Sri Lanka's Kumara Sangakkara too had the spotlight trained on him, as he was involved in the all-time best partnership with skipper Mahela Jayawardene. The two added 624 runs for the third wicket against South Africa at the SSC ground in Colombo. They came together at 14 for two and rewrote history by the time they parted.

Sri Lanka's off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan had the batsmen in a trance, claiming 80 Test wickets at 17.53 apiece. A best of eight for 70 showed the spinner at his best as he bagged five wickets or more on eight occasions and 10 wickets or more four times.

The batsmen had no clue when facing this affable Sri Lankan, who seems to improve dramatically with every season.

For Mathew Hoggard it was a wonderful year as he ended up with a haul of 48 Test wickets, the same as Anil Kumble, and four more than Makhaya Ntini, who incidentally took four more than Danish Kaneria.

The year ended with some intense cricket in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan as the teams geared up for the World Cup in the West Indies. In terms of quality and consistency, it was Australia that showed the way, achieving its targets even as others continued to dream.

(The statistics in this report do not include matches played after December 10, 2006).