Ferment, furore and India's future on the mend
It was to be a year of near-cataclysmic change off the field, and a degree of transformation on it. After more than a decade of pulling Indian cricket's strings, Jagmohan Dalmiya's influence waned, with the wily career politician, Sharad Pawar, replacing him as the board's main man. Deprived of his support system, Sourav Ganguly almost followed Dalmiya on to skid row, jettisoned by a team management ready to embrace the future.
The signs had been there by the end of the series against Pakistan in April - the Tests were drawn 1-1, and the one-dayers lost 2-4 - that the Ganguly-John Wright combination that had served Indian cricket with such distinction for nearly five years had taken the team as far as it could. Even as Wright departed, he bemoaned India's failure to close out the Mohali Test, thanks largely to some uninspired bowling and some insipid captaincy. Failure to beat a Pakistan team deprived of the services of the mercurial Shoaib Akhtar was too much for many to take, and by the time the new season rolled round in July, there was a new face at the coaching helm.
Wright's replacement to handle a team of superstars was a bonafide legend, and Greg Chappell quickly let it be known that he would be doing things his way. Wright's tenure, successful though it was, had been marked by a reluctance to rock the boat, with the result that certain players - the stars on the make - had become lazy and complacent. But ironically, it was Ganguly - an enthusiastic votary of Chappell's coaching ability - who was the first to feel the icy chill of his no-nonsense approach. After Chappell's advice to Ganguly in Zimbabwe - that he sit out of the Test in favour of Mohammad Kaif - and the frenzy sparked off by his leaked email to the board, it was apparent that there was space for only one of the two at the top table.
Rahul Dravid, India's most consistent performer for several seasons, was given the top job, with Chappell's endorsement and the reported blessing of heavyweights like Sachin Tendulkar. Left to contemplate a bleak midwinter during the one-day series against Sri Lanka and South Africa - a 6-1 victory and a 2-2 draw that only enhanced Dravid's stature - Ganguly was given one last reprieve by the powers that be. Shoehorned into the Test squad for the games against Sri Lanka, he made 40 and 39 at Delhi before a new set of selectors showed him the door. Hysterical over-reaction followed, contributing to the dramatic decision to recall him for Pakistan, but that it was a sound cricketing call was borne out by Yuvraj Singh's brilliant innings of 75 on a raging turner at Ahmedabad.
On the field, the undoubted highlight was Sachin Tendulkar's record-breaking 35th century, a determined matchwinning effort at the Ferozshah Kotla, the venue where Sunil Gavaskar had drawn level with Sir Donald Bradman's tally of 29 hundreds. Sadly, that and India's emphatic 2-0 victory over Sri Lanka were destined to be overshadowed by the media fallout from L'Affaire Ganguly.
New Man on the Block - Mahendra Singh Dhoni The red-stained mullet may have been a throwback to an era best forgotten, but there was nothing old-fashioned about Dhoni's insouciant bludgeoning of opposition bowlers. He announced his arrival on the big stage with a stupendous 148 against Pakistan, and followed it up with a devastating 145-ball 183 against Sri Lanka. Apart from the odd gaffe, his keeping also improved, and he scored a run-a-ball 50 in his second Test just for good measure.
Fading star - Sourav Ganguly His last-minute bail-out at Nagpur last year won him few friends in the team, and wretched displays in both the Tests and one-dayers - he was suspended for the last two, after being docked for slow over-rates - against Pakistan further undermined his status. Greg Chappell was thought to be his favoured choice as coach but within two months of taking charge, he was building for the future - sans Ganguly. Last orders at Last Chance Saloon in Pakistan?
High point - Tendulkar's 35th Later, even he admitted that the four months spent on the sidelines after surgery for tennis elbow involved prolonged bouts of self-doubt and despair. Returning to the one-day side with an ebullient 93 against Sri Lanka at Nagpur, Tendulkar saved his best for year-end, and a wintry Delhi afternoon. When he clipped Chaminda Vaas to square leg to go past Sunil Gavaskar's tally of 34 Test centuries, a nation rose to acclaim a man who was bestowed iconic status even before he needed a twin-blade razor.
Low point - Bust in Bangalore Despite having been outplayed from start to finish by Inzamam-ul-Haq's under-rated team, India only needed to bat out the final two sessions to save the match, and win the series 1-0. Instead, with nine wickets in hand, they imploded in spectacular fashion, gifting Pakistan a huge victory and a share of the spoils. Ganguly's humiliation at the hands of Shahid Afridi was emblematic of a side that had lost the plot. The drawn series felt like a defeat.
What 2006 holds They start with an arduous test across the border - a series too close to call - and then come back to take on an English team that may struggle both with the early-summer heat and the slow pitches. A tour of the Caribbean will be a good measure of progress, as will the far more challenging journey down to South Africa at the end of the year. In between, Chappell's plan for World Cup 2007 success will be tested to the limit in the ICC Mini World Cup, albeit with home advantage.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo