Some of cricket's most resonant records were smashed. There was the first official 100mph ball, bowled by Shoaib Akhtar in Cape Town. Then West Indies, cricket's fallen giants, rose from the canvas to pull off Test cricket's biggest-ever successful run-chase and beat mighty Australia. In Perth, Matthew Hayden took perhaps the game's most magical number - the highest individual Test score - to a new peak of 380. Even the poor sad whipping boys from Bangladesh took part in a fantastic Test match, when they came within one wicket of beating Pakistan in remote Multan.
Australia scored their Test runs in 2003 at a phenomenal rate of 4.08 per over. Everywhere, the pace of batting, and the dominance of bat over ball, seemed rather like global warming: terrifying when you contemplate what it means for the fragile ecology of cricket, with bowlers potentially being driven to the edge of extinction, but thoroughly pleasant when contemplated from a deckchair on a summer's afternoon.
In England, the sun really did blaze down, and the much-derided England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) produced a new tournament - the Twenty20 Cup - that struck the motherlode of public affection for cricket that runs just below the surface crust of apparent indifference.
Arguably, the game has been better run for the past few years than at any time in history. The ECB has been thinking hard and, I believe, creatively about the problems it faces. At the international level, match-fixing has almost certainly not been eradicated from the game, any more than chucking and dissent have. But at least corruption is handled with a sense of urgency and vigour unthinkable less than a decade ago, when the crisis first emerged and the International Cricket Council (ICC) pretended it was not their problem. And with what was either astonishing acuity or luck, the ICC managed to secure a TV deal for the 2003 and 2007 World Cups at the very top of the TV rights market, which was a remarkable piece of business.
Cricket's development strategy is showing gains and, in places far more improbable than Multan, the game appears to be taking a grip. Some of the gains might be overhyped, but the reality is impressive enough. Our Round the World section reports how an Afghan warrior laid down his arms to join in a match. In the United States, the shimmering fairytale castle (so impregnable! But, oh, so full of treasure!) which cricket's rulers keep glimpsing through the mist, Asian migrants are giving cricket a currency it has not had there since the mid 19th-century. More enticing yet, the Chinese government are said to be keen on encouraging this mysterious sport, believing it will teach their people useful virtues. Think of that.
For those of us who already love the game, the year's events provided regular infusions of delight, reinforcing our romance with this strangely bewitching, ineffably complex and maddeningly beautiful pastime. Maddening? Oh, yes. Definitely maddening.
Consider for a moment Britain, and its ambitions to host the great sporting events of the planet. The Olympic Games might come to London in 2012; they might come sometime never. As things stand, England cannot bid for the football World Cup, never mind get it, until 2018 or 2022 at the earliest. Even rugby, with a nuclear family smaller than cricket, is not expected to stage a World Cup final in the British Isles until 2015. And cricket's own World Cup is not expected back until at least 2019.
But wait a minute. Here is - or was - something: a one-day tournament involving the 12 best cricketing nations planned for England this very year: a World Cup in all but name, but shorter and sharper. Surely given all those other schedules, this could be one of the nation's sporting events of the decade?
Well, by the time you read this, it is possible the Champions Trophy will have been shifted or cancelled - a protest by the rest of the cricketing world against England's refusal to go to Zimbabwe. We await developments.
But think about it anyway. There are two ways of regarding this tournament, devised by the ICC in 1998 as a biennial event to raise funds for cricket's development. Either it is a mini-World Cup, a showcase for the game and a wonderful opportunity for the host country, especially one that cannot expect to hold the real World Cup for a generation and is widely thought to have botched their last one. Or it is an abscess - yet another build-up of stinking pus on the fixture list, which should be lanced immediately: the last one, in 2002, ended in farce, and actually failed to attract crowds in Sri Lanka, where people will normally watch grass grow if you sell it to them as a 50-over grass-grow.
Both these views are perfectly tenable. But you cannot hold them simultaneously. Either the tournament is worth staging properly or it is not worth staging at all. In my view, with a little imagination, effort and cooperation, England could have made the Champions Trophy something sensational: a two-week, sell-out showpiece culminating in a cracking final at Lord's.
So what was offered instead? The fixture list at the back of this book may be a guide to a real live event or a historical curiosity; as I write, we don't know. But it's curious enough either way. No games were scheduled for Lord's; the final was sent to The Oval instead. But even The Oval was offering only a tatty old drugget rather than the red carpet; the place is being rebuilt - not for this year, but for the 2005 Ashes Test. England would not even rate the building site short of being in the final: their biggest scheduled fixture, against Sri Lanka, is at the Rose Bowl in Southampton, which cannot cram in as many as the main Test grounds.
All this was put together with a final on September 25, and a reserve date of the 26th, with October rushing towards us. Only one day of major cricket, the last day of a special Essex v Victoria challenge match in 1991 (when it rained) has been staged as late as September 26 in Britain since 1886. The game's masters are putting remarkable faith in the advance of global warming. Remember that England gave up staging one-day finals in early September because of morning dew: by late September, equinoctial gales are another intriguing meteorological possibility. Nightfall will come quickly and there will be no floodlights.
There is also the simple parochial point. The best argument for staging such a tournament in the UK is not the immediate cash: it is for England to win it and invigorate public support for their sport in the way the rugby team did by winning their World Cup in 2003. By September, the top English players are scheduled to have played 11 Test matches and 16 or 17 one-day internationals in six months. They will be knackered. What kind of preparation is that?
There are reasons for all the above, mostly involving contractual commitments. And the ECB can blame various other parts of the alphabet for most of them. It was the ICC who scheduled this tournament for September, as the only month when there is regularly no major cricket anywhere. (There is a good reason for that too - the weather is unsuitable in just about every cricketing country: either early autumn, early spring or the monsoon season.) It was GCC (the Global Cricket Corporation, who own the TV rights) who insisted that the tournament had to be restricted to three grounds. And it was MCC who chose not to make Lord's available.
Then why the hell did England agree to hold the event? Why didn't they wait for 2006 or 2008, giving time for some of the problems to be sorted and offering a decent chance of success? Although the tournament is supposed to happen in September, my understanding is that the ICC would have been very interested in an English midsummer alternative.
Maybe the Trophy will both happen and turn out fine. Perhaps the sun will shine, the crowds will come and the public will be galvanised. But the objective assessment must be that this has all the makings of being somewhere between a squandered opportunity and a total fiasco.
Modern Wisden editors generally welcome the cancellation of cricket tours, because there is too much international cricket to cram into this book already. This one is saddened as well as irritated by the surfeit. Writing these notes between 1993 and 2000, when I took a break, I fought hard for the World Test Championship. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.
The Championship was intended to be like a salwar kameez, a loose- fitting outfit within which the air could flow. The ICC instead imposed a straitjacket. The promotion of Bangladesh (now universally recognised as a mistake, certainly in the way it was done), the outlawing of one-off Tests, the imposition of too many one-dayers and the proliferation of back-to-back Tests have all made the schedule too onerous for the players and ill-designed to promote the game. The refusal to persevere with the original simple Championship concept (which went wrong only through ICC neglect) means that we have a system probably understood only by its deviser, my friend David Kendix, who is a clever mathematician. It is not a championship; it is a ratings system and it means damn-all to the man on the Clapham or Colombo omnibus, thus defeating the object.
It is right that everyone should play everyone else, if possible. But this schedule elevates one-sided cricket at the expense of the best cricket. As the 2003 England-South Africa series proved, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - in this game to touch a five-Test series between well-matched teams, in which the battle can ebb and flow. Now there are no five-Test series that do not involve England. But who on earth, outside the ICC, ever says "OK, best of two then"? So much time is taken up with bad cricket, there is not enough time for the really good stuff. To compensate, cricket has to think up gimmicks like the Top Team v Rest of the World artifice, proposed for 2005.
Time for a new trophy
England-South Africa matches have in fact been one of the highlights of world cricket ever since South Africa were readmitted. All the Test series have been intensely, sometimes heroically, fought. Yet these encounters, dating back 115 years, still do not have their own trophy to match the Ashes, the Wisden Trophy (England-West Indies), the Worrell Trophy (Australia-West Indies) or the Border-Gavaskar (Australia-India). They should have. It would be a nice gesture, and an appropriate one, if the ECB were to suggest that the Nelson Mandela Trophy should be inaugurated during the 2004-05 tour.
Down with Buggins
A last word on the ICC: it is only the sum of its parts (sometimes minus England). But such an organisation needs leadership. It is no insult to the chief executive, Malcolm Speed, to say that it cannot and should not come from inside the bureaucracy. Under the present system, ICC presidents serve just two-year terms, chosen on Buggins's turn, by countries. South Africa can name whoever they like next. The current president, Ehsan Mani of Pakistan, has the advantage of being an ICC insider from way back. Most of his successors are likely to spend their first year working out what they are meant to do, and the second as a lame duck, preparing to hand over to the next Buggins. The game needs strong leaders with a clear vision for all aspects of cricket and its place in the wider world. They should be chosen on their own merits and should serve four-year terms.
The old moaners and the vegan
The world's cricketers, we are constantly told, have never been fitter. They spend hours in the gym. They receive constant attention from all manner of specialists. Yet they keep falling down. In 13 Test matches in 2003, England had to field 11 different new-ball pairings. As soon as a fast bowler emerged, he collapsed in a heap. Even Australia were not immune and their attack was unusually hard-hit.
The older generation of cricketers have long had an explanation for this. The likes of Sir Alec Bedser and Fred Trueman have moaned for years about the issue, with lots of eye-rolling and "Idunnos" and "inmydays". They have now received improbable support from another all-time great with a very different outlook on life.
Since retiring from cricket, Greg Chappell, who once dickered with conservative politics, has embraced veganism (he prefers the term "pure vegetarianism") and become an animal rights activist. His approach to cricketing fitness is based on reading the works of nutritionists, educational experts and fitness gurus, but they have led him right back to the world of Alec and Fred. "Gymnasiums should be banned," he said in an unguarded moment.
On further questioning, he rowed back, but only a bit. "A lot of what cricketers are doing in the gymnasium is creating problems, not solving them," Chappell said. "Many of the leg machines are incorrectly set up and put pressure on the lower back. For a batsman, too much weight work can have quite drastic effects on movement patterns. Nobody's done any real research on what's right for cricketers. And I believe a lot of what we do is setting players up to be injured. We're going blindly down modern paths and ignoring what's served us so well in the past. The best way for young people to prepare for cricket is by playing cricket."
And you read the papers, you note that yet another quick bowler has done yet another part of his anatomy, and you begin to think Chappell may be on to something.
A time to mourn
On the final day of the Sydney Test this year, Steve Waugh's last day in Test cricket, the Australian players took the field wearing black armbands. There was no obvious reason for this. However, enquiring pressmen were informed it was to mark the death of Brett Lee's grandmother. The crowd were just left puzzled. And it was notable that, on his big day, Waugh chose not to join in.
Now the Lee family has all our sympathy in their loss, and I would never belittle it. But players these days seem to wear black armbands more often than not, and it is time the authorities stamped out this dressing-room indulgence. There were 27,000 people at the SCG that day, all of whom either have lost or will expect to lose their grandmothers. There is a difference between private grief and public grief. Black armbands represent an important tradition: a shared emotion between player and spectator. They should be reserved for the deaths of famous cricketers or major public figures and for national or global tragedies. Otherwise, if a future Flower and Olonga try to draw the world's attention to their nation's plight, people will just assume it concerns one of their team-mates' elderly relatives.
Unfortunately, cricketing authorities are more concerned about stopping what shouldn't be stopped. When England won the Wisden Trophy by beating West Indies at The Oval in 2000, the crowd were welcomed on to the pitch to share a perfect moment of national cricketing joy. A full house cheered, and kids celebrated by playing on the outfield - not football, but cricket. There was not a hint of a problem. Three years later, on the same ground, when England squared the series against South Africa with a tremendous win, the crowd were sent a different message by phalanxes of cold-eyed stewards.
I was in the Peter May stand at the time, as were a large proportion of a substantial crowd. The rostrum was erected with its back to us, and the symbolism was very clear: "This is for telly, not for you. You can go home now." And most people did, deflated, disgruntled and rather insulted.
Thus ends a beautiful English end-of-summer tradition. Of course, it is right to be stern about the players' security. Of course, we cannot go back to the old days of stump-grabbing mayhem. But there is no good reason why, say, ten minutes after play in the final Test of summer, when the players are safely corralled and stewards have had time to cordon off the square, the crowd cannot be allowed on to the outfield. This is an over-zealous ruling by Tim Lamb, the ECB chief executive, and I beseech him to think again. It alienates the people cricket should cherish most.
It is possible that not every Wisden reader will make it through to page 1415, the Sri Lankan domestic scores. This seems a pity, because you might be missing the following:
At FTZ Sports Complex, Katunayake, February 14, 15. Kurunegala Youth won by an innings and four runs. Toss: Kurunegala Youth. Antonians 100 (A. R. R. A. P. W. R. R. K. B. Amunugama 4-39) and 121 (A. R. R. A. P. W. R. R. K. B. Amunugama 4-34, A. W. Ekanayake 4-18); Kurunegala Youth 225 (K. G. S. Sirisoma 5-40).
The successful bowler in this game, as we all know, is Amunugama Rajapakse Rajakaruna Abeykoon Panditha Wasalamudiyanse Ralahamilage Ranjith Krishantha Bandara Amunugama - Ranjith to his friends, apparently. With ten initials, he has now established a commanding lead over his nearest rival, A. K. T. D. G. L. A. S. de Silva (I won't spell it out, if you don't mind: I'm getting tired) and the leading international player W. P. U. J. C. Vaas. This is an area where England used to fancy it could hold its own with any other cricketing country, but such stars of yesteryear as J. W. H. T. Douglas, M. E. J. C. Norman and R. I. H. B. Dyer have long been eclipsed by these ex-colonial upstarts. Only the Essex newcomer A. G. A. M. McCoubrey carries on the tradition - and he's Irish.
Amunugama is not a newcomer. As far back as 1990-91 Wisden reported him taking match figures of 12 for 91 for Tamil Union against Sebastianites. But in those days he was plain old R. K. B. Amunugama, which just makes me wonder. Is this an elaborate joke, along the lines of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch? Wisden's policy is that players may suppress embarrassing middle names if they wish without fear of being outed by researchers bearing birth certificates, and the reverse should also apply (after all, Bob Willis added the middle name Dylan). But our patience is not infinite. You can call yourself what you like - but not if we have to omit the Laws of Cricket again just to make room.
A returned exile writes
As some readers may know, I returned to edit Wisden having spent two years on the heathen shores of the United States. But cricket changes so fast these days that even after a short absence one comes back entirely disorientated.
In a way, the arrival of Twenty20 cricket was the least of it. I am delighted by its success but also remember the initial ecstatic response to 65-over cricket (1963) and 40-over cricket (1969). Actually, Twenty20 went on a bit too long for my own taste. I shall try to hang on for Ten10 or maybe Five5.
Other things were also different. All the county players seemed to have changed, or at least changed counties. Of the few in their familiar place, Matthew Maynard had hair poking out from the back of his cap, and it had either gone completely grey or been dyed blond. Maybe both. Players seem, indeed, an entirely different breed. Last year Alamgir Sheriyar of Kent was injured, having cut his hand while washing up, while Saqlain Mushtaq fell downstairs holding his baby. Such injuries never happened to Lord Harris or D. R. Jardine. Dominic Cork turned out for Derbyshire wearing an Alice band; I am reliably informed that Copson and Pope did not wear Alice bands when they bowled Derbyshire to the Championship in 1936.
In hot weather, the umpires now officiate at county games wearing polo shirts. Since, in the nature of things, not all of them are as svelte as they used to be, and the shirt is sometimes worn over a substantial paunch, it makes them look less like figures of authority and more as if they've wandered in from a game of crazy golf with the grandchildren.
The battle to get players' names on their shirts in the Championship has, surprisingly, largely been won. Unfortunately, my eyes have deteriorated too much in the meantime for them to be any use to me. (It remains mysterious that all spectators who come to a Test match are automatically expected to be able to recognise everyone under their helmets and sunhats; the commentators can't always do it - how can the customers?) And occasionally last summer the terrified cry would go up "The PLO is coming!" Only in county cricket does this refer, not to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, but to the Pitch Liaison Officer.
Meanwhile, squad numbers, Duckworth/Lewis, "overs remaining", "overs per bowler" and the obsessive recording of extras have combined to render scoreboards more incomprehensible than ever.
One ground, however, is offering a potentially vital service. Signs round Trent Bridge say: "Would spectators experiencing any problems please inform an official or steward." Nottinghamshire have always had a reputation as a helpful club, but this is a breakthrough in customer care: "Excuse me, steward. My wife doesn't understand me." "I've got this pain on my left side and the doctor says it's indigestion, but I don't think it is." "The council haven't fixed the holes in the road." Other counties, please copy.
Regular readers of our Chronicle feature know that over the past ten years Wisden has developed a considerable fascination with exotic reasons for stopping play: boy falling out of tree, rogue hang glider, galloping elk - we've had the lot. On my very first weekend back in England last summer, I went down to the New Forest for a family party.
On the Saturday there was a game - Brockenhurst v Ellingham - being played on a lovely cricket ground on a heavenly afternoon. I settled down to enjoy it but the over after I arrived, a herd of New Forest ponies suddenly galloped out of the woods and on to the outfield around deep extra cover. Wild Horses Stopped Play. I watched a lot of baseball in the US, and loved that too, but somehow only cricket produces stuff like this.