XIs March 27, 2009

The Unpredictable XI - part 1

Having promised the World Unpredictable XI a couple of blogs ago (the ‘blog’ now being the only unit of time I officially recognise), I have since found myself in prolonged and agonising internal selectorial discussions

Having promised the World Unpredictable XI a couple of blogs ago (the ‘blog’ now being the only unit of time I officially recognise), I have since found myself in prolonged and agonising internal selectorial discussions. So many players from the last 30 years have thrust themselves into contention through capricious form, majestic peaks and incompetent troughs, or a simple refusal to embrace the warm, comforting slippers of consistency. What, the selectors (The Confectionery Stall and his three-month-old son) debated long into the night, constitutes genuine unpredictability? My Dull World XI could be backed up with simple statistics, but how can one measure unpredictability?

True unpredictability must include considerable amounts of both success and failure. One-off out-of-the-blue triumphs are not sufficient – Ajit Agarkar, for example, played 26 Tests, scored one century but no other 50s, and took more than three wickets in only one innings – a match winning 6-41 against Australia in Adelaide. Aside from these flashes in an otherwise inept pan, Agarkar was almost entirely predictable.

Andy Caddick was often dubbed an unpredictable talent, but, after a nightmare first series, he was, statistically at least, a steady performer whose failures and success broke down simply into whether it was the first innings (average 37) or second innings (average 20) of a match. (Darren Gough by comparison averaged respectively 29 and 26.) Overall Caddick was Manoj Prabhakar at the start of games, and Malcolm Marshall at the end, a curious combination which possibly explains Nasser Hussain’s hairline.

What about Brian Lara? Probably the most vulnerable and flawed of all batting’s certified greats, Lara caused the selectors more headaches than any other player. He compiled many of modern cricket’s greatest innings and series, yet failed amazingly often – he played 26 series of three or more Tests, and averaged 33 or lower in 10 of them (including 5 out of 11 series of five or six matches). Lara narrowly misses out on the final XI. Much of his failure can be attributed to one of cricket’s most notable career slumps. For a five-year period between the ages of 27 and 32, when many batsmen are at their peak, Lara averaged 40. Either side of this, his average was 60.

In essence, the truly unpredictable player must generate the feeling that, as he takes guard or stands at the end of his run-up, no-one in the stadium knows what will happen, least of all himself.

In all, I have set myself an almost impossible task selecting an Unpredictable XI from my Test-watching lifetime (1981 onwards), and one which I am unlikely to fulfil without contradicting some of my own unpredictability criteria, but here, nonetheless, it is. (And, just as I resisted the temptation to pick 11 New Zealanders for the Dull XI, so I have rejected the opportunity to choose 11 unfulfilled Pakistani geniuses and be done with it.)

Part 1: Batsmen

Virender Sehwag (India).

A frankly ludicrous, almost surreal, player with an approach to batting that, according to all received cricketing wisdom, ought to give him a Test average of around 30 at best, but whose shameless brilliance has turned him into a modern great. Sehwag only sneaks into the team. He is, essentially, predictably unpredictable. Everyone knows what he will attempt to do, and how he will attempt to do it. The only question is whether or not he will succeed (1 in 10 innings he passes 150), or fail (in half of his innings he fails to pass 25). Either way, he goes down, or up, in a blaze of glory.

Marvan Atapattu (Sri Lanka)

Not the classic epitome of daredevil unpredictability, Atapattu defied his orthodox technique to become one of the most statistically unpredictable players of his generation. Bouncing back from amassing one run in the first six and a half years of his Test career for a less-than-Bradmanic average of 0.16, intermittently-marvellous Marvan scored six double-hundreds (fourth equal on the all-time list) yet still heroically managed to keep his career average below 40.

Atapattu endured more slumps than a champion narcoleptic on a very comfortable sofa. He passed 50 only once in 26 innings between 1998 and 2000, but that once was an unbeaten double-hundred. Shortly afterwards, he followed knocks of 59 and 207 not out against Pakistan, and 54 and 120 against South Africa, with a run of just 270 runs in 14 innings, including six ducks – and 207 of those runs came in one undefeated innings against England. The game of an orthodox grinder, the statistics of a temperamental, bat-hurling, tortured, tantrum-throwing genius.

Aravinda de Silva (Sri Lanka)

At Lord’s in 1991, the Colombo Curiosity marched out to bat with half an hour remaining of the day’s play. He marched off 30 balls later having flayed 42 unstoppably perfect runs to his name, before marching back out the next morning, getting out, and marching back off. In the second innings, he stodged 18 off 91 balls.

In 1997, he emerged from a three-year slump to hit seven centuries in 12 innings. Capable of coming in at 1 for 2 in a World Cup semi-final against India in Calcutta and blasting 66 off 47, but also of scoring 27 in nearly four hours in a Test against Zimbabwe. In Tests, he averaged 25 between 1984 and 1988, 53 between 1989 and 1993, 20 between 1994 and March 1997 (in which time he won Sri Lanka the World Cup with one of the greatest innings in cricket history), 74 between April 1997 and February 2000, and 36 between March 2000 and the end of his career in 2002. A properly odd career.

Kevin Pietersen (England)

Swerving between the slalom gates of success and failure like a drunken Olympic skier, Pietersen has had one bad series in the 14 he has played, but, arguably, not a single great one. Between the last Ashes and the start of the recent West Indies series, Pietersen scored nine centuries in 22 Tests, but still averaged only just over 50, alternating between the golden underpants of triumph and the dank jockstrap of failure with no apparent link to current form.

Increasingly capable of painstakingly over-careful accumulation, or tub-thumpingly reckless aggression, Pietersen has at times demolished Warne and Muralitharan, but is vulnerable to club-standard finger spin. As captain, he even managed to coax an outburst of baffling unpredictability from the stolid old ECB. Anything seems possible with Pietersen. Would it really be a surprise if he came out to bat dressed as Elvis or scored a 60-ball hundred whilst batting with a dead ferret instead of a bat?

Carl Hooper (West Indies)

Depending on mood, or form, or prevailing winds, or horoscopes, or the will of the fickle cricketing gods, Hooper could look like an undisputable all-time great or a total novice, sometimes in consecutive balls. At his best, he could stroke a ball over a far distant clump of trees whilst appearing hardly even to move his bat. At his worst he could hit any bowler in the world straight to cover point for no apparent reason. Enchanting and frustrating, the ultimate in unpredictability. Let himself down with antiflamboyantly steady off-spin.

Those, then, are the batsmen. So many players have been unlucky to miss out, from Srikkanth to Ashraful, from Astle to Cullinan. Maybe Ross Taylor and Phil Hughes will demand selection in a few years’ time. Your reactions and rival selections are, as ever, welcome and appreciated.

Next time: Shahid Afridi, and the other five members of the team.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer