A cathartic day five and a gripping day three
Best: Day five in Sydney
It's not often in Test cricket that a team can really milk the moment. But that was England's privilege on the final day of the fifth Ashes Test in Sydney, when an astonishingly executed campaign reached the most triumphant of conclusions. It was Chris Tremlett's honour to scalp the final wicket, that of Michael Beer, in the second hour of the morning session, but with Australia's challenge long extinguished, every delivery leading up to that moment provided another etching on the retinas of the 11 England players on the park. Bearing witness to the occasion were thousands of England fans who piled into the Victor Trumper Stand to sing hosannas to their kings.
Worst: The aftermath of the Ashes win
Okay, so the Trafalgar Square bus ride was taking it a bit far in 2005, but even so, the manner in which England celebrated their first Ashes win Down Under for 24 years was pretty bloody ordinary, to use an Aussie phrase. This time, the only bus ride of note was the one that took the hungover squad from Sydney to Canberra, to play a warm-up match ahead of their seven-match ODI series. But even that was better co-ordinated than their eventual homecoming, five weeks and a 6-1 drubbing later. After a bleary-eyed flight, Andrew Strauss posed with the Ashes urn by the Heathrow perimeter fence, then went into hiding for three days ahead of the team's departure for the World Cup.
Best: A great year for Test cricket
The year began with the World Cup and ended with the latest flashy Twenty20 tournament, but the game's oldest format made its presence felt right through. The highlight of the first ten months was, fittingly, the 2000th Test, at Lord's, which went into the last day with all four results theoretically possible. Then things really kicked in. There were results in 13 of the 15 Tests that ended after November 1 - Zimbabwe almost upset New Zealand before going down, Australia traded almighty blows with first South Africa and then New Zealand in two tragically short series and even a draw between India and West Indies seemed like a result. The year ended with a double twist - an underdog winning and a favourite fighting back from behind. Almost as exciting, and certainly contributing to this trend, was the series of five-fors by debutant bowlers - eight in 2011, and six since November. Suddenly Test cricket is a whole new ball game.
Worst: Waiting for God
Nos. 97, 98 and 99 came in January, February and March; the symmetry, the fates, the world itself, pointed to No. 100 during the World Cup final in Mumbai on April 2. That didn't happen, of course, and since then each Tendulkar fifty (there were seven in the year) has seen the cricket world pause and hold its breath; when he twice got to the 90s it was nothing short of agony. It would be funny if it didn't show up the basic problem with Indian cricket: its obsession with the star at the cost of the team. It almost didn't matter that India were being hammered in England or, conversely, that they were doing the hammering later in the year; all that seemed to matter was Tendulkar's 100th. Perhaps God, as he's referred to, knows something we don't: that 99 is the new 100.
Best: New Zealand's win in Hobart
It is impossible for those of us who are not from New Zealand to understand how much it must have meant for the team to beat Australia in the Hobart Test. The sporting rivalry between the two countries is fierce, but New Zealand's successes generally come in sports like rugby and netball. Not since Richard Hadlee's peak in the mid-1980s had New Zealand won a Test in Australia. To see Ross Taylor's men in their victory huddle was one of the most uplifting sights of the year. They had achieved what a generation of their countrymen had not.
It was not just the result that made the Test special. It was the excitement and anticipation as Doug Bracewell curved his way through Australia's lower order after New Zealand looked gone. It was the tension as Australia's last pair threatened to steal the win, getting within seven runs of their target. It was the poignancy of seeing Daniel Vettori, who carried New Zealand for so long but missed the match due to a hamstring injury, clapping the win from the doorway of the dressing room. The victory was well deserved, and deserves to be well remembered.
Worst: All out for 47
A Test loss to New Zealand was difficult enough for Australia's players to comprehend. But a month earlier they nearly took an unwanted record off the Kiwis. At 21 for 9 in the Cape Town Test against South Africa, Australia were in serious danger of collapsing to the lowest Test total of all time, a record set by New Zealand, who scored 26 in Auckland in 1955. The ball was moving but too many of Australia's players threw their wickets away, firm in the belief that attack was the best defence. It wasn't. Only a last-wicket partnership between Nos. 10 and 11 saved Australia from the all-time record, but their 47 was still their lowest Test total in 109 years, and one of the worst displays by any country in the era of covered pitches. It was also the continuation of a theme: their inability to handle the swinging and seaming ball. One thing that can be said for it was that it was certainly memorable, as was the whole day, when 23 wickets tumbled against the backdrop of Table Mountain.
Best: Steyn v Tendulkar at Newlands
If cricket were to end today, those who saw the first Test of the year will always have Newlands day three. It was a day of ridiculously high-quality cricket, the best I have seen live at a ground. Dale Steyn swung the ball from leg, sometimes outside leg, at high pace, towards top of off, or missing off. On another day, against another line-up, he would have run through. Today he ran into the master at his best.
Sachin Tendulkar stood outside the crease, made sure he was moving forward, and playing only when the line of the ball was under his head. He might have given the impression he was getting beaten, but he wasn't. Of Steyn's two spells that lasted 11 overs, either side of lunch, Tendulkar took 48 balls. Steyn still managed a five-for. At the end of the day there was a winner each in each dressing room. And those who were there just looked at each other and knew they had been part of something special.
Worst: Talking about the DRS
The whole year passed in endless debates over the DRS, and it looks like another will. Which is good because it is a huge change cricket seeks to make, and it needs debate, though not on the us-versus-them lines it seems to be conducted on at the moment. It was unfortunate how talk of the DRS overshadowed some great passages of play. Once the DRS got involved, in a good way or bad, we would forget how good the delivery that had been bowled was. Slightly uncomfortable.