XIs April 8, 2009

Unpredictable XI - part 2

After much deliberation, and the resignation of half of the selection panel (the nought-year-old Zaltzman junior), here is the remainder of the post-1980 World Unpredictable Test XI.

6. Shahid Afridi (Pakistan) (honorary captain)

The first name on the team sheet. Gives this team excellent balance, as he can be devastating with both bat and ball. To both his opponents and his own team. On and off the pitch.

Afridi – “the maddest of Mad Maxes” according to his Cricinfo profile – has taken unpredictability to and beyond its logical extremes, to the extent that the most unpredictable thing he could possibly do in the rest of his career (other than claiming that Asif Mujtaba was his role model and inspiration) is nail down a place in the Pakistan Test team and string together a steady run of solid performances.

Thus far, he has had a genuinely baffling Test career. Despite batting and bowling averages of 37 and 34 respectively, and despite scoring more centuries in his first 22 Tests than any of Ponting, Tendulkar, Lara, Inzamam, Dravid, Gooch, Yousuf, Gower, Kallis, Jayawardene, both Waughs, Saeed Anwar, Sangakkara or Hayden, Afridi has played fewer than one in three of his country’s Tests over the course of his career.

His average Test innings lasts for the same length of time as Jimmy Anderson’s, but contains more runs than Hussain’s, Cronje’s or Ranatunga’s. And with the ball, he dismissed Tendulkar three times in two Tests in 2005, which is as many times as Warne managed to snare the Mumbai Maestro in his entire career.

Afridi arguably had the potential to be Pakistan’s Sehwag and Kumble rolled into one explosive package, but it has proved impossible to predict whether he will blast an incredible hundred, swipe a less-than-incredible nought, spin out the world’s best batsman, get smashed about by Matthew Hoggard, retire, unretire, almost hit a spectator with a ball, almost hit a spectator with a bat, or audition for a part in the PCB’s annual charity ballet by pirouetting in the middle of the pitch.

Afridi therefore is honorary captain of this team. This XI would need little captaincy, if only because even attempting to mould it into a coherent, focused unit would be an act of wilful futility.

7. Kamran Akmal (Pakistan) (wicketkeeper)

In his short career to date, Kamran has veered from being a top-class keeper but underachieving batsman, to being the new Gilchrist with the bat and the new Coco The Clown with the gloves. After scoring five brilliant centuries in two months in 2005-06 (three in Tests, two in ODIs), he sunk into a fallow period in which his ineptitude with the bat often matched his seismically shaky wicketkeeping, in which he remained flawless apart from his glovework, footwork and headwork. At times, he has not so much been ham-fisted, as appeared to be keeping wicket with two live pigs strapped to ends of his arms.

His recent re-emergence suggests that he could have a long career of wildly undulating form, and cement a reputation for being both breathtakingly brilliant and utterly useless.

Kamran sneaks in to the team because MS Dhoni, who appeared to have the unpredictability world at his mercy, has disappointingly used the responsibilities of captaincy as an excuse to become disturbingly consistent and reliable, and ahead of Brendon McCullum – how did it take such an obviously extravagant talent with the bat four years and 35 matches to score a century against a major Test nation?

8. Craig White (England)

White was a curious cricketer. For the first six years of his sporadic Test career, he appeared to have been selected by mistake, or as one of the Australian double-agent players which the ACB intermittently plants in county cricket to undermine the England team. Then he emerged as an occasional master of reverse swing and a occasional player of brilliant innings.

He took 14 wickets in his first 10 tests, then back-to-back five-fors, then, after four more in his next test, took no more than two in an innings for 14 tests, before wrapping up his career with 12 in three innings in Australia. With the bat, he twice put together impressively inept sequences of eight single-figure scores in nine innings, but also played masterfully on turning wickets in Asia. By the end, it was hard to work out if he had overachieved or underachieved with both bat and ball. Or done exactly as well as he should.

9. Shoaib Akhtar

The man who puts the ‘liability’ into ‘unreliability’.There is a wealth of out-and-out pacemen from which to choose – Devon Malcolm, Patrick Patterson, Fidel Edwards, Lasith Malinga to start with – but the Rawalpindi Roller-Coaster is out on his own for both performance and behaviour.

On form, Shoaib has been the most spectacular sight in world cricket. At Colombo in 2002, he blasted out Ponting and the two Waughs in four balls, then Gilchrist and Warne in the next two overs – five legends of the game blasted out without requiring the assistance of a fielder in perhaps the greatest fifteen-ball spell in Test history.

With 178 wickets at 25, and a strike rate of 45, Shoaib clearly could have been one of the greats, if only his mood had not swung further, faster and more consistently than his yorker. The three Fs – form, fitness and focus – have been intermittent and reluctant travelling companions on his madcap journey through cricket, and he has played fewer than half of Pakistan’s Tests since his debut. He has not – how should I put this? – always taken a fast bowler’s tummy with him onto the field of play, and has broken down on the field more often than a cheapskate farmer’s home-made tractor.

He faced allegations of throwing, before his action was cleared due to natural hyperextension of the elbow. He has, however, been found repeatedly guilty of throwing tantrums, due to unnatural hyperextension of the ego.

Occasionally, amidst the controversies, injuries, bans, strops, drops, comebacks and court cases, there have been outbreaks of cricket. Against England in late 2005, Shoaib was a controlled, mature, focused match-winner, seeming to presage a vintage autumn to a turbulent career – since then, he has taken just 17 wickets at 34 in seven Tests. And tested positive for nandrolone, hit a team-mate with a bat, and faced a legal action from the chairman of his own country’s cricket board, amongst other escapades. He does not drink in Last Chance Saloon. He lives in it, has repainted it in his favourite colours, and is about to buy out the management and rename it after himself.

As Irving Berlin once said, “There’s no business like Shoaib business.”

10. Steve Harmison (England)

It is often said that England never know which Steve Harmison will turn up – the one who almost took Langer’s, Hayden’s and Ponting’s heads off on the first Ashes morning of 2005, or the one who almost took second slip’s kneecaps off with his first ball of the 2006-07 rematch with a delivery that challenged humanity’s assumptions about the laws of physics? Or the one who nibbles it about in the low-80s mph, trying to keep an end tight until Collingwood comes on to try to force a breakthrough?

Statistically, the Durham Dilemma’s career divides up into three distinct phases – not very good (28 wickets at 39 in his first 10½ Tests), very good (146 at 25 from his breakthrough second innings at the Oval in 2003 to his last triumph against a terrified Pakistan at a bouncy Old Trafford in 2006), and not very good again (47 at 46 in 18 Tests since then).

But even in his good phase, the wrong Harmison would pop up with alarming regularity (especially in South Africa in 2004-05), and in the midst of his struggles, there have been moments when he has looked a skull-shuddering world-beater once more (notably at the Oval last year). As the England selectors gaze lovingly at the fading, sepia-tinted photographs of the Australian captain dripping blood, and of a Jamaica scoreboard emblazoned with the figures 7 for 12, will they give this difficult marriage one last go?

11. Stuart MacGill (Australia)

This team has to have a front-line leg-spinner – until Warne spoilt the reputation of leggies by being persistently brilliant for almost his entire 15-year career, wrist-spinners had unpredictability written into their contracts. MacGill seemed like a throwback leggie, veering between unplayable and flayable, mixing genius with garbage like a drunken Einstein.

He failed to live up to his brief, brilliant early period of Warne supremacy – excluding relatively facile wickets against Bangladesh and in the so-called ‘Test’ against the ICC XI, he averaged 44 in his final 17 Tests with only one five-wicket innings − but remained one of cricket’s most compelling variables, with a fuse as short as some of his long-hops, and a glare as devilish as his googly.

MacGill narrowly edges out Abdul Qadir, who at one point followed up a spell of two wickets for 300 over five Tests by whirling out 40 victims at 16 in his next four matches. He then took only one more (expensive) five-wicket haul in the remaining three years of his career. Qadir’s Test average unsuccessfully tried to escape from both ends of the 30s throughout his career (excluding a one-match breakout to 29.64, after which it was recaptured and sedated back up to the mid-30s), but MacGill takes the main spinner’s spot in the team because the look on his face always suggested that something was about to explode, whether it was a fizzing leg break out of the rough, or, more likely, his own temper.

This then, is the full line-up:

1. Virender Sehwag (IND) 2. Marvan Atapattu (SL) 3. Aravinda de Silva (SL) 4. Kevin Pietersen (ENG) 5. Carl Hooper (WI) 6. *Shahid Afridi (PAK) 7. †Kamran Akmal (NZ) 8. Craig White (ENG) 9. Shoaib Akhtar (PAK ) 10. Steve Harmison (ENG) 11. Stuart MacGill (AUS)

That is a team that I guarantee could win or lose any match by an innings and 400.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find a place for a South African – for all Herschelle Gibbs’ mercurial efforts, unpredictability does not seem to be in the their South African players’ cricketing soul (was this the real reason for Pietersen’s defection?).

Perhaps in selecting three England players, I am guilty of national bias, of wishing that English cricket was more flamboyant and exciting than it really is, but the application of personal bias is historically one of the perks of being a selector.

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