Staff picks 1 December 26, 2008

Big money, big ruckus, big chase

ESPNcricinfo staff
Cricinfo staffers pick the highs and lows from the year gone by

Jayaditya Gupta

executive editor

I bid $20 million for this old pile: Stanford arrives at Lord's © Getty Images

Best: Underdogs winning big money
The delicious irony: The world's richest cricket tournament, contested by a clutch of multi-million-dollar "franchises" coached by some of the biggest names in the game and starring players on million-dollar wages, was eventually won by Rajasthan Royals. They had no "icon" player, nor any Bollywood star as owner or fan, but they had Shane Warne, who, showing an amazing instinct for leadership, captained and coached - and clearly inspired - his team to win the first IPL tournament. Several months later, the sport's biggest ever prize (yes, the title changed hands in the space of months) was won by another team similarly fused together by self-belief; Chris Gayle's Stanford Superstars defied all the odds to beat England and go home millionaires.

Worst: Big money everywhere
Even those moments of pure cricketing joy couldn't fully block out the most sordid image: a crate full of dollar bills, $20 million in all, at Lord's. Allen Stanford's invasion, however brief, of the game's spiritual home, summed up a year in which cricket moved farther away from its roots - a subtle, nuanced narrative spread over three, four or five days - and increasingly was held hostage to the demands of time and money. Stanford's trunkload was only the crassest symbol; the motif running through the year was the all-consuming Indian Premier League and its offshoots, steamrolling everything in their path, selling million-dollar dreams that Test cricket couldn't hope to match. We saw the future and it was scary.

Brydon Coverdale

staff writer

Best: South Africa chase 414 in Perth
If anyone thought Test cricket was dying, the matches in Chennai and Perth in December were the ultimate defibrillators. South Africa's successful chase was significant not just for its enormity but for its wider implications. South Africa could no longer be considered chokers; Australia's claim to being the world's best team had never been less convincing. A new era had begun.

Worst: New Zealand's decline
"It's breakin' me in two, watchin' you slippin' away." Those lines were made famous by the New Zealand-born singer Max Merritt and this year the nation's cricket fans must have been feeling the same. Their team struggled so much in the Test format that even beating Bangladesh in Chittagong was a battle. They slipped to eighth on the ICC rankings, below West Indies, after losing to Australia in Adelaide, and Martin Crowe called it arguably their worst moment in Test cricket. A new coach at least gave hope of change.

Jamie Alter

senior sub-editor

Best: Kumble in Sydney
India's win in Perth in January was eye-moistening but it was Anil Kumble in the preceding SCG Test who set the tone for that unforgettable win. For 111 deliveries in the second innings, with India battling for survival, Kumble defied Australia and the odds. It wasn't take-it-on-the-body, Steve Waugh stuff; his fingers didn't bulge and turn velvet from ferocious bouncers, but he showed what it meant to fight. Kumble epitomised every last iota of what it meant to be a fighter and play for your country. The sight of him unbeaten at one end, seeing his dreams of winning in Australia go down the drain, was something. After the match, faced with the mundanely mandatory task of facing the cameras for Sunil Gavaskar, Harsha Bhogle and Michael Slater, Kumble quelled the anger inside admirably. His eyes burnt fierce, he bit his lips, but it would have been so unlike him to say anything controversial. He refrained from taking the "I'm a martyr" route. He would go on to rally his troops to the WACA, and captain them to "the best win" of his career, but that innings on the last day in Sydney was where the turnaround began, thanks to Kumble.

Worst: Sydneygate
For nearly the whole of January, world news took a back seat in India as television channels and newspapers debated the controversial racism row that emanated from the Sydney Test. Effigies were burnt, the BCCI threatened to call off India's tour of Australia, Steve Bucknor was dropped for the Perth Test. No matter what side your loyalties lay on, the whole affair was sickening. Forget the despicable umpiring at the SCG, the entire premise for handing Harbhajan Singh a three-match ban - which was then incredibly overturned - was based on one man's word against another. Then the BCCI set an unwelcome precedent by threatening to pull out of the CB Series. How can teams protest against an umpire? How can that umpire be changed? How could the BCCI be allowed to think it can get away with anything? Why did the ICC bend backwards to accommodate the BCCI? The answers are, sadly, out there.

Andrew McGlashan

staff writer

Mendis: It's all in the fingers © AFP

Best: Durham's title
County cricket is often criticised - mostly by those who don't watch the game - but for the second season running the Championship produced a cracking finish, in glorious late-summer sunshine. Three teams were in the race at the start of the final round - Hampshire, Somerset and Durham - and the title wasn't decided until the final day. In the end it went to Durham, who gained their first Championship title with an innings victory over Kent. When Steve Harmison claimed the final wicket, broken wrist and all, he ended up at the bottom of a heap of team-mates. The party started on the long journey home and it was no less than the side deserved. They showed what can be achieved with a blend of youth and experience, homegrown and foreign talent. They are breeding England quick bowlers at a regular pace and will be a force on the domestic scene for years to come.

Worst: Michael Vaughan's resignation
England's most successful captain deserved better than a tearful resignation in a bland room at the National Academy in Loughborough. Graeme Smith's match-winning century at Edgbaston was the final nail in Vaughan's captaincy reign, but in truth, doubts had started to set in during the tour of New Zealand. Vaughan appeared more detached from his team and his form was slipping away, to the point where he was almost a walking wicket against Dale Steyn. As he walked off the field in Birmingham there was a sense his time was up, and less than 24 hours later the press conference was called via an ECB text message and press release. Vaughan could barely hold back the tears as he spoke about his family and team-mates. After answering questions honestly, as he had always done, he left and drove home. A day later the new era began under Kevin Pietersen, but what Vaughan achieved won't be forgotten.

Sidharth Monga

staff writer

Best: Ajantha Mendis
What a finger freak. Free-flowing originality, all pristine talent. Speaks only Sinhala, and his bowling is just as incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Wears a devilish grin in celebration, letting batsmen know they have been had. The left hand in the bowling action takes the cake: It comes down with the index finger stuck out, ruling the batsman out even before he has bowled. Took his first Test wicket with the ball of the 21st century, a fast legbreak that dipped in, making Rahul Dravid play, then left him, squaring him up, and took the top of off stump. (Mike Gatting finally has someone to share horror stories with.) Took 25 more wickets in three Tests. Most importantly, proved the game, the art, can be rediscovered, even after all these centuries of existence. Welcome, grinning assassin.

Worst: day four in Nagpur, India v Australia Australia in India was not the usual thrill-a-minute slogathon. The puffed-out chests and flaring noses were missing. Instead the teams went to ground, each waiting for the other to make a mistake; still an engaging contest. But the middle season on the penultimate day of the series featured quick Indian wickets, and finally things looked like transforming into a full-blown war, where nobody would hide and strike. There was anticipation and tension, accentuated by the tea break - only for disappointment to follow after. To see Cameron White and Michael Hussey bowl at that stage (with Ricky Ponting and cronies spending seven minutes between balls, discussing field placings) was plain disgusting. Their coach later spoke of how they upheld the spirit of the game by not going for the win - after having stomped, spat and puked all over it.