The highs and lows December 31, 2008

Money talks, money shrieks

Bad hair, near-naked cheerleaders, Harold Pinter, brassy impresarios, fishing trips, lots of lolly... and some cricket as well

It's not how they come: Pietersen unleashes his inner leftie at Chester-le-Street © Getty Images

Shot of the year
Kevin Pietersen's switch-hit, the human in the evolution chain to the reverse-sweep's ape: As opposed to the shot Mike Gatting made infamous, Pietersen's requires pre-meditating and changing grip as well as stance, making it riskier still. Most notably, he did it in an ODI against New Zealand in the summer, in Durham, twice hitting Scott Styris for six. The second went over the right-hander's long-off. Even the MCC took notice, promptly concluding it wasn't against the laws of the game.

Ball of the year I
Anything bowled by Ajantha Mendis, but if pushed, one ball stands out. First Test wickets, or runs, are remembered usually only by the player himself but Mendis' first in Tests will live on. It was the flicker, the carrom ball; pitched on middle, on a length, it left Rahul Dravid completely unsure of what to do, before zipping off, turning away and clipping the off bail. Set the tone for the series.

Ball of the year II
Mohammad Ashraful's wonderfully disguised delivery to AB de Villiers during the first Test in February in Mirpur: it bounced first at his own feet, then again, a little closer to de Villiers, who, completely bamboozled by now, top-edged a pull back to Ashraful. If you fly over Dhaka, it is said you can still hear them laughing.

Cricket headline of the year
"Pinter: Cricket is better than sex" (The Guardian, days after the death of playwright Harold Pinter). Perhaps, and it definitely lasts longer.

Catch of the year
The league may not be recognised, but nobody will argue that Justin Kemp's catch in the second ICL final doesn't deserve recognition as one of the finest seen in recent years. Mohammad Sami was rightly expecting a maximum from a smash towards long-off. Kemp, however, sprinted across, leapt as if to pluck out a shooting star, twisted and caught the rocket, all at once, before falling over just inside the boundary. So unbelievable was it that the Lahore Badshahs didn't believe it, subsequently sparking a bust-up.

Clash of the year
Australia-India? England-South Africa? South Africa-India? South Africa-Australia? Nope. Stanford v Lord's. New money v old power, Yanks v Brits, Bacon n' egg ties v Armani suits, 20 million dollars v millions of years of tradition, a helicopter v the sacred Lord's turf. Stanford's shopping trip to Lord's to buy English cricket was the heavyweight clash of the year. Even now no one is sure who won. Or whether there was a winner at all.

Controversy of the year
Race, power, money, monkeys, maas, culture clash, poor umpiring, icons: The surprise of Sydneygate was that it didn't spark off WWIII. At its heart was something Harbhajan Singh said to Andrew Symonds, in a Test marred by diabolically poor umpiring. He was banned for three Tests, the BCCI and India screamed murder, threatened to call off the tour, appealed; the decision was overturned, Steve Bucknor was removed. Cue pained debates on sledging, race, power, monkeys, maas, culture clashes, umpiring and icons, and precious little on India losing three wickets in an over, to a man KP might call a pie-chucker, to lose the Test.

Debutant of the year
Twenty-six wickets in his first three Tests against the best modern-day players of spin; 48 wickets in 18 ODIs, including a six-for on essentially a cement track in Karachi against the best modern-day players of spin, all at an average of 10. A strange grip, no stock ball, more variety than Murali has wickets, and a nice smile; welcome to cricket, Ajantha Mendis.

Last year windows for rest were being sought desperately; this year the panes shifted, and windows to cram in more and more games - and more ways to make more money - were created

Makeover of the year
If cricket was Pamela Anderson, then the IPL was Pam post-op. It wasn't bad before but it's never been sexier since. Liquor barons, cheerleaders allergic to clothes, film stars, big money, big businessmen, music, noise, lights, and a marketing campaign to match any. There were also some pretty handy cricketers playing some pretty handy cricket, but that was almost besides the point.

Spell of the year
Ishant Sharma's hour-long torment of Ricky Ponting on the fourth day in Perth set the tone for both players' year: Sharma confirmed himself as the best young fast bowler going, and Ponting, though never out of form, was never the perky intimidator. The duel was fascinating, nine overs of the most intense examination. There was pace, bounce, movement, accuracy, heart, near-misses and close things. Finally, as his spell neared an end, he brought about Ponting's, with one that rose sharply and caught the edge. A star was thus born.

Costliest hook of the year
The one Andrew Symonds used while fishing, having skipped a team meeting to do so, the day before an ODI against Bangladesh. The price? His place in the squad for that series, and more importantly, the one against India that followed. As punishment, CA officially placed him in the saloon for last chances, which, given his preference for an ale, he may not mind so much after all.

Over of the year
Actually 10 balls bowled by Andrew Flintoff to Jacques Kallis at Edgbaston, but they produced more threat than some bowlers do over an entire career, and more quality cricket than do some Test series. Two sharp yorkers, one lbw appeal that Stevie Wonder would've given out, bouncers hellbent on rearranging Kallis's face. The 10th was another yorker - quick, swinging out, against which Kallis had no chance. The sightscreens weren't great apparently but were Kallis' bat a wall and the ball a balloon, Flintoff's will still would've forced it through. Loud and clear it was announced: Three injury-marred years after another special over to Ricky Ponting at the same ground, Freddie was back.

Most embarrassing thing of the year about the Stanford Series I

Most embarrassing thing of the year about the Stanford Series II
The English press complaining about pitches, poor lights and Americans. In Antigua. While being paid to watch cricket.

The Muntazer Al-Zaidi Public Service Award of the year
To Harbhajan Singh, for slapping Sreesanth at the IPL, and thus doing what all batsmen who have come across the breakdancer have presumably wanted to do. Funnily enough, the Annoying Prat Formerly Known as Sreesanth has been less annoying since. The spirit inspired a copycat attempt at the end of the year by the Iraqi shoe-throwing journalist after whom the award is now named.

The AWOL cricket gripe of the year
Player burnout: Funny that, how no player spoke of being overworked despite schedules more crammed than Dolly Parton's bra. Last year windows for rest were being sought desperately; this year the panes shifted, and windows to cram in more and more games - and more ways to make more money - were created.

Apparently the new Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif emerges from yet another hearing © AFP

Timeliest comeback of the year
Stephen Harmison, disenchanted with international cricket, suddenly rediscovered his fire in the summer. It had nothing to do, of course, with selection for the Stanford series and a potential million-dollar payoff, or the India tour and a possible route into the riches of the IPL. Just like the late Anna Nicole Smith's marriage to that old whatsisname had nothing to do with his fortune. By the end of it, England had won nothing in Antigua and Harmison looked likelier to become a roving ambassador than to end up in the IPL.

The "Oops I Did It Again" Award of the year
One drugs scandal is generally enough for most sportsmen, but three in two years? Mohammad Asif should've been on thin ice after the 2006 Champions Trophy scandal but he skated on. The folly of the PCB's lenience then came back to haunt them this year, when first Asif was detained at Dubai airport for possession of an illegal recreational drug. Soon after, it emerged that he had tested positive for nandrolone again, this time during the IPL. Thus became Pakistan's brightest star it's biggest disappointment.

The worst advertisement for Test cricket this year
The Bangalore Royal Challengers. They were a Test side, everyone groaned. No they weren't. They were just a crap team. The Mohali Test between India and England was a close second.

The best advertisement for Test cricket this year
Test cricket has never been as rowdy as when Virender Sehwag is at the crease. He resurrected his career with a resolute Adelaide hundred but he lit up the year with two outrageous innings. A triple hundred against South Africa at better than a run-a-ball in Chennai was easily the fastest triple ever, managing to enliven what was otherwise one of the year's dullest Tests. The second capped off one of the best: A ludicrous 68-ball 83 that really made impossible nothing, letting India chase down 387 at the same venue but on a very different pitch.

The most audacious match-winning innings of the year not played by V Sehwag
This year Graeme Smith confirmed his status as one of the best last-innings batsmen ever, leading South Africa to victories in four countries. He started with a 79-ball blitz against the West Indies in Newlands in January, his 85 fairly hunting down a tricky 186. Sixty-two came in a dicier 205-run chase in Dhaka. But the glory lay first in a monumental unbeaten 154 at Edgbaston, chasing 281; a blistering 108 in Perth in the second-highest chase ever; and a calming 75 at the MCG to seal the series. No longer the cocky kid, in 2008 Smith became a man of indomitable will.

Streak of the year
Once a more solid Imran Farhat, Gautam Gambhir became a smaller, less puffy-chested Matthew Hayden this year. No batsman was more difficult to remove: in 16 innings his lowest score was 19, and only once did he bat for less than an hour - that was for 55 minutes. He didn't dawdle either, crossing 50 nine times, and always scoring three runs an over.

Bradmanesque streak of the (last 2) year(s)
Shiv Chanderpaul: 13 Tests, 1467 runs, six 100s and ten 50s in 23 innings, and at an average of nearly 105. We are not worthy.

Late cut of the year
It will happen, it will happen, it will happen, it will… actually it won't. So went the saga of this year's Champions Trophy. Nobody knew, least of all hosts Pakistan, whether it would happen, until the day it was postponed. It was a cruel, devastating and poor decision.

Comeback of the year
On the back of a sensational domestic season, Simon Katich forced his way back into the national side two-and-a-half years after last playing for them, and this time as opener. By a troubled year's end, he was one of the few rocks in an uncertain batting order: Four hundreds and over a thousand runs, each of which suggested you would have to kill him to get past him. No less obdurate was Neil McKenzie, who also came back as an opener for South Africa four years after last playing for them. He helped Graeme Smith to all manner of opening records and himself to over 1000 runs, and three hundreds.

Once a more solid Imran Farhat, Gautam Gambhir became a smaller, less puffy-chested Matthew Hayden this year

Career-saving hundreds of the year This was a vintage year. Andrew Strauss saved himself in March with 177 in Napier, having averaged 27 over his previous 14 Tests (and made a duck in the first innings). Paul Collingwood went into the Edgbaston Test against South Africa with 92 first-class runs in nine innings, having been dropped for the previous Test. He responded with a hundred that should have won the game. Rahul Dravid averaged 31 over two years and 19 over his last ten Tests before he made 136 against England in Mohali . Career-saving perhaps, but ugly as sin all the knocks. "If he was batting in your front garden, you'd draw your curtains," David Lloyd quipped of Collingwood recently. Had any of these been played in your front garden, you'd move house altogether.

Most bizarre selection of the year
Darren Pattinson. Who? Yes, precisely. Nothing more left-field was seen until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the world a Christmas message on the UK's Channel 4.

Most overworked officials of the year
Reg Dickason, the freelance security expert, clocked up more air miles than Simon Taufel as cricket met the harsh realities of today's violent world. If he wasn't scoping out Karachi and Lahore - more than once this year - it was Chennai and Mohali, before heading all over the world to report back to players. Followed closely by the PCB's lawyers, who slapped more lawsuits than were slapped in all of the US.

The Inzamam-ul-Haq Award for figure of the year
Jesse Ryder. The boy may be fat but the boy can most definitely bat.

The Lalit Modi Award for services to cricket
Lalit Modi. Obviously.

Quiet champion of the year How many people noticed the work of Hashim Amla this year? Quietly, unnoticed, and with a lovely, old-world dignity (and quirky technique), Amla went about ensuring South Africa barely felt the lack of runs from Jacques Kallis. Over a thousand runs from that crooked back-swing, with three elegant hundreds, meant South Africa always built on the fine starts their openers gave. Other contenders were, unsurprisingly, also South African: Ashwell Prince, AB de Villiers, Paul Harris, and Kallis with the ball.

Retirements of the year
The quietest but loudest "Just one more things lads' was how one of Indian cricket's most significant figures quietly announced his retirement. Sourav Ganguly signed off with a bang, however, with 324 runs at over 50 against the men he riled the most. No better way of saying he could've played on.
The least noticed The most famous red top since Archie Andrews, and less notably, one of the finest allrounders of the modern age, Shaun Pollock wrecked West Indies in his final Test, in January. That was his first Test in almost a year, though his team have hardly, in the year since, missed the only South African with 400-plus Test wickets.
Most statistically satisfying Stephen Fleming's actual batting was far sexier than his career numbers suggest, but if he had failed to finish with an average of 40, it would've been cricket's greatest injustice since Bradman's 99.94 and Inzi's 49.60. Fortunately, two typically smooth innings (typically, not hundred either) ensured he didn't.
The biggest shoes to fill Those left behind by Anil Kumble and Adam Gilchrist. Both were among the biggest game-breakers their country - and cricket - has seen. Who will be the more difficult to replace: A wicketkeeper-batsman who made 33 international 100s at a strike-rate not far from 100, or a grim-faced leggie with over 600 Test wickets? Will make the search for the next Beefy look like a walk in the park.

Jesse Ryder: Not bad for a fat lad © Getty Images

Lamest excuse of the year
Ricky Ponting citing the spirit of cricket, and his obligation to try and bowl 90 overs in a day, to defend his tactics on the fourth afternoon of the Nagpur Test. Australia needed a win, and India were in trouble, whereupon Ponting turned to those renowned threats Michael Hussey and Cameron White to make up time. Was avoiding a suspension more important than the win? The worst excuse since the dog ate my homework.

The batsman to bat for your life of the year
If ever there was a man for a crisis this year, it was < Kevin Pietersen, Mr 911. Each of his five hundreds, and a 94, came when England in serious strife. First was a 129 at Napier with England 4 for 3; the Kiwis were pummelled again for 115 at Trent Bridge - handy, with his side 86 for 5. The Lord's hundred against South Africa was the most comfortable, Pietersen steadying only a slight wobble, but the 94 at Edgbaston came with England effectively 21 for 4. His next hundred was in his first Test as captain, and in Mohali, he came in at 2 for 1. All he was missing was a cape, some tights and a mask.

Haircut of the year
Ishant Sharma, because he got one.

Finish of the year
The touch he's in, Shivnarine Chanderpaul could get 36 off the last over to win it, so 10 off two balls against Chaminda Vaas in Trinidad was never going to be a problem. He drove a boundary first before flicking a full toss over midwicket to finish, as coolly as you'd flick the ash off a cigarette. Kamran Akmal wasn't far behind in stealing 17 off Jerome Taylor's last over to seal a thrilla in… er... Abu Dhabi.

Captain of the year
MS Dhoni and Graeme Smith were very good, and Mahela Jayawardene always is, but there was only one captain this year. Shane Warne proved that genius remains in all formats and that old dogs learn new tricks. As performer, he was undimmed: his bowling was magic, as 19 wickets for the Rajasthan Royals - joint second-highest in the IPL - testifies. There was the odd batting cameo, as Andrew Symonds will tell you. But his captaincy sealed it: A gambler's touch complementing the sharpest mind. One-over spells, surprise bouncer barrages, no coaching BS, and his players loved him. On rolled the "best Australian captain that never was" debate.

Fruitless search of the year
How many men does it take to replace Warne? Australia tried six spinners this year alone, and by the end, none had really convinced. In 13 Tests, Beau Casson, Stuart MacGill, Nathan Hauritz, Jason Krejza, Brad Hogg and Cameron White took 38 wickets at over 50 each. How many men? How long is a piece of string?

The return to terra firma of the year
Once he had only Bradman in his sights; now Michael Hussey's horizons have shrunk to include other, more mortal, batsmen. Mr Cricket started the year averaging 80 and, having scored an even 900 runs at the comparatively derisory average of 37.50, ended it at 60. This included four ducks in the year, after getting none in his first three years, and the grand total of 10 runs in the last four innings of 2008. How the mighty have fallen indeed.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo