Legends October 26, 2010

The best of the best

While it can be argued that picking fantasy XIs are ultimately exercises in futility, they also serve the worthiest of causes

I am yet to meet a cricket fan who doesn't fancy himself as a selector. This of course makes the job of professional selectors among the most hazardous in the business. Everyone thinks they could have done a better job than you and, no matter what team you pick, there would be a billion people disagreeing.

But picking all-time XIs is always fun because it allows you to enter the realms of fantasy with nothing material at stake. So we stand accused of having indulged ourselves for over 15 months in picking all-time XIs of each major Test-playing country and then capping it off with a World XI. Judging from your whole-hearted participation, though, it's clear that we haven't been the only ones enjoying ourselves.

However, fun was only part of the deal. While it can be argued that picking fantasy XIs are ultimately exercises in futility, they also serve the worthiest of causes. They give us a reason and opportunity to peek into the past, and regard the present in its context. Cricket is so incessant, so over exposed and, if you live in the subcontinent, so pervasive that it allows little room for contemplation. And the modern game can get so raucous, so frenzied and so over-hyped that it can feel too rarefied for its own good.

The word "great" is bandied around so casually and so carelessly - and never so insincerely as on TV commentary - that it has been stripped of all value. An exercise like picking an all-time team is to force yourself to examine greatness in proper context and restore it to its rightful place.

Picking an all-time XI is never about whom to include but whom to leave out. Selectors regard the problem of plenty as a happy one, but this is a problem of obscene abundance. Picking one player means leaving out at least five others who could have done the job as well. But, as Ian Chappell has said, the best way to examine great players is to judge them by their opposition. We can go on quibbling about the players we would have had in our team, but is there anyone in that XI who didn't earn his place?

Happily, my role was restricted to picking the jury and I can explain that part of the selection. We chose eight Test captains, most of whom started their first-class career in the 1960s; assuming they all started watching cricket at least ten years prior to that, that would have given them a span of almost 60 years. As captains, they were all keen students of game and were closely involved in selecting teams. Additionally, we chose three cricket historians for obvious reasons and one of world's most-travelled cricket writers who has been a captain himself.

Now we can go on quibbling about the players we would or should have had in our team - Where's Imran? Why not Hadlee? No Gavaskar? Gilchrist over Knott? Why not both Murali and Warne? - but to a great degree that's what it is all about: getting involved, digging into memories, caring and feeling for your heroes and celebrating them.

And in keeping with the spirit of things, I have allowed myself the indulgence of picking my own team. I would make two changes. Alan Knott wins my vote for being the better wicketkeeper and because this team might not be so reliant on Gilchrist's batting.

And because I saw him tackle the most fearsome bowling attack of our times with the assuredness none of his contemporaries could manage, and because so much my childhood and youth was spent worshipping his batting, I would have Sunil Gavaskar open the innings. But who would I drop - Hobbs or Hutton? - is a question to contemplate over the next few days.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo