The Aussies bench strength was remarkable and on each occasion they had a saviour, be it Symonds, Bichel or Hogg. Their World Cup defence had begun on the wrong note when champion leg-spinner Shane Warne had to be packed for testing positive for drugs. But they never allowed such things to distract them and instead went ahead from strength to strength. Their horses for courses policy has paid rich dividends and they always had the right man for the big occasion. The young Ricky Ponting is ready to take over the reins from old warhorse Steve Waugh.
India too was right up there. After an eminently forgettable Kiwi tour, the team gelled together under the astute captaincy of Sourav Ganguly to reach the finals of the World Cup where they couldn't stop the Aussie juggernaut. The winning momentum reached a crescendo with that epic triumph in Adelaide scripted by the unsung duo of Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman, not to forget the contributions from Ajit Agarkar and Anil Kumble. The year personally was not a good one for Tendulkar whose lean patch in the Test matches continued. However, the mystery is that he still rakes up tons of runs in the instant version of the game where he bagged the Man of The Series award in World Cup. To write off Sachin will be at one's own peril.
However, Dravid made up for Tendulkar's failures, as he lived up to everyone's expectation of a 'crisis man' upon whom the team could rely. In ODIs he had to double up as the wicketkeeper too, thereby providing the team plenty of options.
Laxman was in his elements whenever given a chance after being unceremoniously dumped for the World Cup. Together with Dravid, he forged a terrific combination that would send shivers down the bowler's spine and the mighty Aussies would be the first ones to acknowledge it.
Ganguly lead from the front and always was a players' captain. He silenced his critics who suspected his technique against the rising stuff with a scintillating century in Brisbane. The team thinktank that comprised of even a sports psychologist revolved around the 'team-effort' theme and nobody can forget the great Indian huddle. Ganguly and his boys promise a lot in the coming year.
Pakistan were always unpredictable as usual. Best one day, worst next day. The team made amends for the first round exit in the World Cup with series-win over the Proteas at home and against the Kiwis at their den. On and off the field, Shoaib Akhtar was lively. If his toe crushing yorkers send the batsman packing, the Match Referees had to spend good time on him, be it for ball tampering or for sledging. The Pakistan captains' appointment continued to be a game of musical chairs with the mantle finally falling on Inzamam.
A lot was expected from South Africa who took a bold step by appointing a young captain in Graeme Smith as they pitched for someone from the non-Cronje era. Smith made a good start by smashing two double tons in England thereby raising Bradmanesque comparisons. But he couldn't keep the momentum going and lost the series and his form to the Poms. However, he still has time and age on his side and it would be too early to write off this tough cookie and his enthusiastic outfit.
New Zealand had always been an under-rated side. To captain Stephen Fleming goes the credit of transforming a group of ordinary cricketers to outstanding performers. In the World Cup, Fleming put paid to the hopes of the host nation by cracking a match-winning century. But, the Kiwis were jolted by the injury to their star all-rounder Chris Cairns and now the ebullient skipper too has joined the casualty list. Drawing the series in India was definitely one of the high points of the Black Caps.
The Sri Lankans heavily relied on spin wizard Muralitharan and depending on his form, the teams' fortune varied. A semi-final berth in the World Cup is all that they have to show at the end of the year. Retirement of Aravinda has left a big void in their batting ranks. Jayasuriya is past his best and Atapattu is being weighed down by expectations. The Lankans record outside the subcontinent continues to be abysmal.
England too promised a lot, but failed to deliver. Nasser Hussein's resignation in the midst of the South African series compounded their woes. The search for a future Botham is still on and if anyone can come anywhere near it is our 'Freddy' Flintoff, but for whom the cupboard is empty.
From Calypso, the Windies have become collapso as they rely heavily on their captain and star batsman Brian Lara. After a glittering start to the World Cup, the Carribeans withered. The only silver lining came for them, when they successfully chased a world record Test score of 418 against the Aussies.
Zimbabwe and Bangladesh just made up the numbers. While the former was besetted by political tribulations, the latter couldn't match up to internationals standards. Raymond Price gives a ray of hope for the African nation, while it is high time the Asian minnows unearthed players of quality and stature.
The year also saw the swansong of a few seasoned campaigners who have carved a niche for themselves in the game's annals. The 'grandpa' of reverse swing Wasim Akram, 'Mysore Express' Javagal Srinath and 'Mad Max' Aravinda joined the pantheon of greats. The 'gladiator' Down Under will be the first addition to this list in the New Year. Cricket will never be the same without them.