For much of 2003, international cricket followed a predictable pattern, with teams divided into three categories. Australia stood alone in the first as undisputed champions, and Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in the third as an axis of weevils. The other seven sat in the middle, all seemingly capable of beating one another on their day.
The likelihood was that if Australia, Zimbabwe or Bangladesh were involved, the series would be lopsided. Australia faced both of them at home and had no difficulty completing their seventh and eighth clean sweeps under Steve Waugh.
However, by the end of an engrossing Australia-India series which finished tied at 1-1 in the first week of 2004, the picture looked more confused. A vibrant Indian side led unwaveringly by Sourav Ganguly came closer to winning a Test series on Australian soil than any visiting side since Australia became the dominant team in world cricket - a reign that really dates back to their win in the West Indies in 1995.
Waugh, the game's senior statesman, went into international retirement praising India as the equal of any batting side he had seen. Meanwhile, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy - which India retained by dint of victory at home to Australia in 2001 - appeared to have emerged as Test cricket's premier event, a claim no observer of recent Ashes series could dispute. In 14 Tests between the sides since 1996, the score now stood at 6-6.
Worthy runners-up to Australia at the World Cup, India had the right to claim to be the world's second-best team, though further supporting evidence was thin. India played remarkably little cricket in 2003, including just two Tests outside the Australia series, both at home to New Zealand and both drawn. They won no one-day tournament either. Among the failures was another defeat in a final with Australia, in Kolkata, during a triangular also involving New Zealand. Australia, who extended their record sequence of one-day wins under Ricky Ponting's captaincy to 21 in the Caribbean before dead-rubber syndrome and fatigue took hold and they lost three in a row, won the most Tests of any side in the year, their tally of eight boosted by the four demolitions of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
After feeble World Cup showings, South Africa and Pakistan regrouped well. South Africa were lifted by the precocious leadership of Graeme Smith, who led from the front in every way after taking over from Shaun Pollock, aged just 22. Opening the batting, he scored a mountain of runs in aggressive style, and was forever geeing up his men in the field if they looked like drifting. His manner suggested that at last South Africa might be ready to shake off their tag as chokers. Smith led them to a 2-2 draw in England and also to victories over Bangladesh away and West Indies at home. The only blemish was a narrow 1-0 defeat in Pakistan; even there, Smith's men came close to drawing a brutally fought series.
Pakistan also turned to a new captain after the World Cup, Rashid Latif replacing Waqar Younis, although within months he was removed in favour of Inzamam-ul-Haq after a disciplinary breach. With Yousuf Youhana deputising once, Pakistan got through four Test captains in the year, which even by their standards was a good effort.
But by following home victories over Bangladesh and South Africa with another in New Zealand, thanks to a brilliant spell of reverse swing by Shoaib Akhtar, Pakistan enjoyed an impressive second half of the year. A crowd of 12,000 (unusual in a country where Test crowds are usually paltry) watched them hold out for a draw against South Africa in Faisalabad to seal the series.
England, the busiest team with 13 Tests, won seven times but, like Australia, got four of them against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. The way they trounced South Africa in a one-day final at Lord's and twice fought back to level the Test series against them promised much, but the optimism evaporated in both forms of the game in the Sri Lankan heat. Rather than going forward or back, England - under both Nasser Hussain and his successor Michael Vaughan - seemed to be treading water.
The same can be said of New Zealand and Sri Lanka. New Zealand, the only established side not to win a Test, enjoyed qualified success in Asia, where they fought tenaciously to draw Test series in Sri Lanka and India. They also won a low-scoring triangular one-day event hosted by Sri Lanka, who seemed to be drifting under the new split captaincy of Hashan Tillekeratne in Tests and Marvan Atapattu in one-dayers - at least until they beat England just before Christmas.
West Indies continued to struggle, despite displays of individual brilliance with the bat, many from Brian Lara in a second spell as captain, and one monumental team effort to score 418 to beat Australia in Antigua. Lara said the team would want to forget 2003.
Even Bangladesh and Zimbabwe found slim cause for hope. Both came within a whisker of a rare Test win: Pakistan had only one wicket to spare when they scraped home against Bangladesh in Multan, while the last West Indies pair, Ridley Jacobs and Fidel Edwards, survived 12 overs to deny Zimbabwe victory in Harare. Zimbabwe had lost their previous 11 Tests and by the end of 2003 Bangladesh's losing streak stood at 20 - sequences that date back to their last series against each other.
The intensity of the schedule continued to cause concern, with boards using their commitment to the ICC Test Championship to fill the calendar. Despite a three-month hiatus for the World Cup, 44 Tests were staged. To cram them in, back-to-back Tests (separated by two or three days) became standard fare. The four-match Australia-India series spanned 34 days, and England and South Africa played five Tests in 47 days. The longer series tended to produce the more compelling cricket and the England-South Africa contest, the only five-match series of the year, was a wonderful advertisement for an endangered product.
Matches were even played out of traditional seasons, including the firstever Tests in Australia's tropical north, in July. The relentless programme took heaviest toll of fast bowlers, many of whom spent long periods injured. England fielded 11 different new-ball combinations in their 13 Tests. Burnout contributed to Australia's three defeats: all three came in the second of back-to-back Tests, and two followed long spells in the field in the first games because Waugh had enforced the follow-on. Brilliant though it was for West Indies to score 418 to win in Antigua, it was hard to imagine such a thing happening against Australia in normal circumstances (whatever they now were). When India beat them in Adelaide, Australia for various reasons were missing Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Shane Warne.
The ICC ordered an inquiry into burnout that was due to report in 2004. But there were several other factors favouring batsmen: good pitches, improved bat technology and the ineffectiveness of the Kookaburra ball once it lost its shine and hardness. All that said, there was a shortage of top-class fast bowlers, and the upshot was batsmen making hay as rarely before.
Including the Test record 380 Matthew Hayden took off Zimbabwe in Perth, there were 14 double-centuries (three by Ricky Ponting, two each by Graeme Smith, Rahul Dravid and Brian Lara) and 99 centuries in all. South Africa's 682 for six at Lord's was their highest-ever score and their 658 for nine against West Indies at Durban the best by any side in South Africa. Australia's 735 for six at Perth was their best at home; New Zealand's 630 for six at Mohali their highest overseas. Runs had not been so cheap since Bradman's day.
It was not just the volume of runs that was striking, but the speed at which they came. Scoring at a rate of 4.08 runs per over, Waugh's Australia beat their own annual record of 3.99 in 2002, ahead of South Africa, who managed a creditable 3.54, their third successive annual increase.
South Africa opened games with first-day scores of 445 for three, 398 for one and 368 for three, but such was the pace of the game that it was hard to know what score might be safe: Australia scored 556 and lost to India in Adelaide while South Africa, after totalling 484, were still easily beaten by England at The Oval. First-innings crease occupation appeared a forgotten gambit.
Hayden's colossal 380 was scored at 87 runs per 100 balls, easily the fastest Test triple-century for which balls faced are known. His tempo for the entire year (75 per 100 balls) matched Bradman's at Leeds in 1930. During the West Indian tour of southern Africa, Lara was on course for the second-fastest Test double-century when he fell for 191 to his 203rd delivery against the hapless Zimbabweans in Bulawayo, while Shivnarine Chanderpaul scored Test cricket's third-fastest hundred off 69 balls against Australia in his native Guyana.
So spare a thought for the poor bowlers. Those with the miserly streak of a McGrath, Warne, Pollock or Muttiah Muralitharan were in short supply, and seamers needed a working knowledge of reverse swing, just as a spinner needed a good wrong 'un, to prosper.
The ICC got tougher on indiscipline. An ugly spat between McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan in Antigua appeared the catalyst. McGrath was seen as chief culprit, and Hayden and Waugh also had an exchange with Lara, reinforcing an impression that the Australians might be the best cricketers but not the best sports. The Australian board issued a general warning to its players, who bound themselves to a document concerning the spirit of cricket. The first indication of the ICC's tougher stance came when referee Mike Procter handed Rashid Latif a ban of five one-day internationals for claiming a catch against Bangladesh that plainly went to ground, an incident that contributed to Latif 's subsequent removal from the Pakistan captaincy before a series against South Africa that proved particularly fractious: Clive Lloyd, the referee, issued an unprecedented string of bans.
If the schedule was tough on players, it was unforgiving on the elite panel of umpires. The ICC acknowledged the problem by expanding the panel from eight to 11 in April 2003, but it went back down to nine early in 2004.
Forty-nine players made Test debuts: ten of them for England, eight for Pakistan and seven for West Indies. Australia, who introduced only two newcomers in the first three years of the millennium, added Brad Williams and Nathan Bracken. Devon Smith of West Indies and Ed Smith of England took the number of Smiths to play Test cricket to 27, leaving the Joneses - who acquired a tenth member in Richard Jones of New Zealand - far behind. A 28th Smith (but the first Dwayne) came on board for West Indies in the first week of 2004 and celebrated with a century in 93 balls. But that is part of next year's story...
Simon Wilde is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times, London.