The year-end essay January 1, 2009

Graeme the Conqueror and other stories

Also, Australia's decline, the effects of the IPL, and the little allrounder who made a big impression

I'll take it from here: South Africa are a shoo-in for the No. 1 team in the world, and Graeme Smith is easily cricket's man of the year © Getty Images

Two thousand eight was an epochal, tumultuous, rancorous, but eventually fulfilling year. It was a year of revolution and churning, of big money and big egos, of acrimony and conflict, but also of wonderful spirit and luminous cricket. It was the year of the possible, the year in which the world of cricket turned upside down and yet landed on its feet.

For a while money threatened to overshadow everything. Certainly players, the chosen ones, got richer quickly, but fear loomed that the game itself would be left poorer if Twenty20, the brash, muscular new form, began to marginalise Test cricket, the grandest and richest version. The Indian Premier League was a roaring success, but the shambles that the Stanford gig, which offered cricket's biggest-ever booty, ended up as was comforting evidence that money alone can't buy success. And as the year wound down, Test cricket bloomed in the most glorious manner possible.

The year began in the ugliest manner imaginable, and traces of the anger, ill-will and malice that Sydney generated can still be found in the readers' comments sections on Cricinfo. But it ended with a powerfully humane gesture from England, who returned to India to complete their tour, which had been disrupted by the Mumbai terror attacks, and in the warm glow of two wonderful Tests, in Chennai and Perth.

It was also the year the umpiring review system was trialled, cricket dried up in Pakistan and all but died in Zimbabwe, and the ICC grew even more irrelevant. But most of all, 2008 will be remembered as the year cricket changed: judgment must stay suspended whether for the better or the worse.

Life after the IPL: an opportunity to reshape cricket
Who could have imagined that a domestic tournament would transform cricket so radically and so profoundly? The IPL was the biggest thing to happen to the game since Kerry Packer, and its impact is likely to be more far-reaching.

Of course, the focus in the first year was money - eight franchises were sold for over US$730 million; over 150 players, including 72 foreign players, were bought for over $45 million, and the television rights were sold for $1 billion. The tournament was an unqualified success. It attracted unique viewership in excess of 100 million in India, an 18% increase on the number that watched the World Twenty20 in 2007. Stadiums spilled over with fans, some of whom had never been to a cricket ground before. Most of all, the cricket was of the highest quality. What had seemed like an audacious gamble the previous year had paid off spectacularly. The IPL took cricket beyond a new form - it created a new world for itself.

The challenge for cricket now is to accommodate the new entrant in the existing universe, and therein lies a huge opportunity. In a sense, the biggest impact of the IPL is yet to be felt. If the administrators play it right, and are able to rise above self-interest, they can use the compulsion to find windows for IPL and its offshoot, the Champions League, to force through some much-needed reforms.

In theory, the Future Tours Programme of the ICC is an egalitarian concept, aimed at providing equal opportunity to each Test-playing country. In reality, it is a blight. Administrators cried themselves hoarse in 2008, hailing Test cricket as the pinnacle of the game. Without doubt it is, but not when it is a mismatch. In between playing India and South Africa, Australia swatted aside New Zealand despite having collapsed in the very first innings of the series. Brett Lee took two wickets per Test against India away, and is averaging 249 against South Africa; against New Zealand, he took nine wickets in one Test.

Test cricket is the pinnacle because it presents the ultimate test of skill. Between mismatched teams, it can feel farcical, and be economically unviable. Rich nations have an obligation to sustain and develop cricket - not by indulging weak countries with a quota system, but by providing a competitive playing field. India have got away with not inviting Bangladesh home even once since they were admitted to the Test fold - at India's behest. At one level, it seems hypocritical, at another it is pragmatic and justifiable. England are likely to follow suit next year, and it is a welcome decision. Bangladesh, their performance in the final Test notwithstanding, boost only one thing in Test cricket: the batting and bowling averages of their opponents. If they can offer a semblance of competitiveness, it is at home. It is futile having them play Test cricket in conditions that render them hopeless.

What cricket needs is not a lot of Tests, but more meaningful ones. When the current FTP expires in 2011, it will be a good idea to bin the formula altogether and start clean. There can only be so much cricket in a year: let it be the best possible the game can provide.

For years India have dominated world cricket with their financial muscle, but now they have a team that is beginning match their wealth. When they travel abroad now, they will be expected to win. That's a significant change

Australia's decline: a more level playing field
It was inevitable and anticipated. No team can lose three of its biggest match-winners and carry on like before. Between them, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne took 750 wickets at 20.78 in the 71 Tests Australia won with them playing together. McGrath took 377 wickets of batsmen from numbers one to six, of which the top three accounted for a staggering 225 at an average of 18.22. Australia lost only one Test match in which Adam Gilchrist scored a hundred. It was always a question of how much the team would fall after the departures, not if.

For the record, Australia had their worst year in 15. Since winning the fractious Sydney Test at the start of the year, they didn't manage to beat India, losing to them thrice. They lost twice in Perth, their fortress, and failed to take 20 wickets in four out of their last six Tests of the year. They turned to six different spinners in an attempt to replace Warne, including Cameron White and Nathan Hauritz, who were not the first-choice spinners even for their state sides. Their last Test of year, where they struggled to finish off South Africa's first innings, merely highlighted a problem that has haunted them all year: Harbhajan Singh scored four Test fifties against them.

Australia's decline is both good news and bad news. It opens up the field, makes Test cricket more exciting. For years they have almost been competing with themselves: Can Ponting's Australians go one-up on Waugh's Australians by winning 17 Tests in a row? After you were done being awed and dazzled by them, it got monotonous and boring. A more level playing field makes for better watching. This year will carry huge anticipation: Any one of the four top teams - Australia, South Africa, India and England - could end the year on top of the Test ladder.

But the bad news is that the level playing field hasn't come about as a result of others raising their game but because Australia have fallen. For years they have set the benchmark for excellence in world cricket, and that mark has been lowered now. India's series victory in 2000-01 felt far more special than the one this year because it came against Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Wonder if opposition batsmen will feel the same satisfaction in milking Mitchell Johnson, a fine bowler, but no more, and whichever spinner Australia might fancy putting up?

After their first series loss at home in 17 years, even Ricky Ponting will be forced to concede that the sun has set on a glorious era. Australian cricket must now ponder if Ponting is the man to lead them out of a slump. A team of winners can almost run on auto-pilot, but a struggling team needs a leader. A feeling has been growing that Australia under Ponting have grown too triumphalist, too blinkered and too self-absorbed. They have also been living in denial. Cricket needs a strong Australia, but the regeneration will need a fresh approach: It will need both strength and humility, steel and statesmanship. Ponting is still Australia's best batsman, but is he is the leader they need at this hour?

The challengers: take a bow, South Africa
It was apt that South Africa and India split the Test series they played this year. They were the teams of the year, the ones that brought Australia down. India began the process and South Africa completed it resoundingly. But South Africa ended the year ahead: They haven't lost a series in over two years; they now hold the trophies in all but one of the bilateral Test series they compete in; and they won 11 out of their 15 Tests in 2008, seven of those away from home. Now that they have dispelled the cross that weighed them down, repeated ignominy against Australia, they are the legitimate No. 1 Test team in the world. India, who lost to Sri Lanka away, and needed a rank turner to draw level with South Africa at home, have some catching up to do.

To Graeme Smith must go a large share of the credit for fashioning a team in his own image. Smith has always been an impressive leader and cricketer, but in the early years of his captaincy, the South African team reflected Smith's own personality then: angst-ridden, overwrought, and somewhat desperate. Smith has mellowed since, without losing his fire, and the team under him now plays mature, confident and controlled cricket. Of course, it helps that Smith is also playing the best cricket of his career: He has led every South African charge this year, reeling off match-winning and match-saving hundreds Test after Test. He is, by some margin, cricket's man of the year.

Shakib Al Hasan punched above his team's weight all year © AFP

In many ways it was India's year. While South Africa were ruthless and clinical, India were sparkling and captivating. They were the ones who first ambushed the champions in Perth, the Australian bastion, and beat them in the one-day finals. For the last few years India have been crossing items off their to-do list: Test wins in Australia and South Africa, series wins in West Indies and England, openers providing hundred-run partnerships abroad, batsmen coming to terms to pace and bounce, and pace bowlers coming to the party. For years India have dominated world cricket with their financial muscle, but now they have a team that is beginning match their wealth. When they travel abroad now, they will be expected to win. That's a significant change.

Shakib Al Hasan: Bangladesh's little dynamo
Bangladesh maintained their familiar routine through the year: the occasional sparkle extinguished by overwhelming inconsistency. The final Test of the year promised to be their best, when they mounted a spirited chase of an improbable 520 and ended only 107 short. But even this featured a familiar failing. The bowlers did their job in the first innings but fell away in the second, and the batsmen left too much for the final innings after having been miserable in the first.

But one man kept shining through the year: Shakib Al Hasan was Bangladesh's best bowler and best batsman in Tests, and their best bowler and third-best batsman in all forms, both qualitatively and numerically.

Hasan will be 22 in March, but all through the year he batted with an assurance and composure that eluded his more experienced team-mates - standing firm against New Zealand when all collapsed around him, not wilting against South Africa, and finally, giving Sri Lanka the scare of their lives with a skilful and nerveless innings during which he worked Muttiah Muralitharan away dexterously off the back foot. That he fell four short of his first hundred was one of the tragedies of year. With the ball, he was equally exceptional, claiming four five-wicket hauls, including a 7 for 36 against New Zealand, the best-ever Test figures by a Bangladeshi spinner. With over 500 runs and 30 wickets he was the surprise allrounder of the year, not just for Bangladesh but in the world at large.

Read part two of the year-end essay here

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo