XIs October 28, 2010

The elegant and the ineffective

It’s all very well picking a world-beating team of players who are attractive to watch, but what about the attractive but useless ones, eh?

As the cricket world digests the big cricket news of the cricket week − that Alastair Cook still has some work to do to earn inclusion in ESPNcricinfo’s all-time XI; that Australia remain very poor at forcing wins in games that are completely washed out (a shortcoming England, as holders, will be looking to exploit in the Ashes); and that Michael Clarke not only thinks that Ricky Ponting should captain Australia in the Ashes, but said so out loud in an interview, thus proving it − the time seems right for another Confectionery Stall XI.

This is the first Confectionery Stall XI for some time, and as the highly enjoyable season of ESPNcricinfo XIs draws to a close (taking with it the even more enjoyable season of readers’ reactions to ESPNcricinfo XIs), I felt it was time to jump on the XI-selecting bandwagon before it is driven off to the ESPN scrapyard and the pieces sold off to another website.

I particularly enjoyed Suresh Menon’s Elegant XI − a useful team, without question, but heavily biased in favour of all-time greats of the game. I feel this is deeply unfair to the stylish underachievers of cricket history, players who have looked great in action but less great in the scorebook. I therefore submit the Confectionery Stall Elegant But (Relatively) Ineffective XI, a team of the not-so-great-but-nonetheless-pleasing-on-the-eye who have intermittently entranced but more often frustrated the international-cricket-watching universe.

It should be remembered that elegance is not always a reliable hallmark of quality. When I was at school, there was a seam bowler who used to flow into the wickets with the ease of a thoroughbred racehorse, then bowl with perfect rhythm and an easy athleticism, reminiscent of a slow-motion Michael Holding. The last time I saw him play, he was bowling quite well in the West Kent Village League. He had a prettier action than Curtly Ambrose but was, by other conventionally accepted measures of bowling quality, not as good.

In my own village team I used to open with a player who was, in almost every aspect of batsmanship, useless. He struggled to keep good balls out. He struggled to keep bad balls out. He struggled. But every now and again – perhaps twice or three times a summer – he would unfurl an extra-cover drive so majestically perfect that it seemed as if Viv Richards had momentarily invaded his body, as if Wally Hammond’s handkerchief should have been fluttering from his trouser pocket. Next ball he would play down the line of leg stump and see his off peg splattered, or attempt a pull shot and spoon-plonk it to extra cover, or be trapped lbw trying to square-cut a full-toss. But those cover drives were worth a whole summer of single-figure failures.

Perhaps the most elegant English batsman of recent years has been no-Test wonder Vikram Solanki, whose contribution to international cricket comprised 51 ODIs and three Twenty20 matches, in which he averaged in the mid-20s. The first of his two hundreds for England was a magical innings against Pollock, Ntini, Kallis et al at The Oval in 2003. The Wisden verdict: “Solanki finally arrived as an international batsman... few players can demand drooling admiration for an innings. Solanki is one of them.”

His England career, however, generated a disappointingly small pool of drool. He passed 10 once in his next eight innings, was dropped, and departed international cricket three sporadic years later as the latest in an illustrious cavalcade of What-Might-Have-Beens of modern English cricket.

But how good was Solanki? Because he could play shots from the cricketing heavens, there is a tendency to think he underachieved. Paul Collingwood, by contrast, is often regarded as an overachiever who has made the most of his relatively limited talents. His batting has the flourish of an egg sandwich and the elegance of a steamrollered hedgehog. But his fielding reveals phenomenal hand-eye co-ordination and athleticism, and his timing is often extraordinary. But because he nudges the ball for four rather than strokes it, he generates no drool. Plenty of admiration, but none of it drooling. The only drool Collingwood prompts slowly dribbles from the snoozing mouths of opposing fans whilst he is compiling one of his famous match-saving rearguards.

Here, then, is the Confectionery Stall Elegant But Ineffective XI – a personal selection of players in my cricket-watching life (1981 to the present day) who have played the game with style, panache, flamboyance, and above all, limited top-level success. Qualification: must have played Test cricket. Maximum batting average: 38. Minimum bowling average: 30.

1. Gerhardus Liebenberg (five Tests, average 13.00) I have written before about the soul-crackingly harrowing experience of watching Gary Kirsten stodgegrind his way to what Cambridge scientists have confirmed as the dullest double-hundred in human history, at Old Trafford in 1998. Two days of unremitting misery for which I am still awaiting an apology. Opening the batting with Completely Tedious Of Cape Town was Liebenberg. Statuesque, stylish and rubbish – the polar opposite of his opening partner − Liebenberg stroked a couple of imperious boundaries, one leg-side flick finessed to the boundary with the confident flourish of a born batsman. He was then thoroughly bowled by Darren Gough for 16, and spent the rest of the summer being one of England’s key players, a guaranteed early breakthrough. His and Kirsten’s respective career statistics disprove the existence of God.

2. Sadagoppan Ramesh India has produced many great stylish batsmen. In his first seven Tests, studded with two centuries and five half-centuries (including 60 and 96 in a match against Wasim, Waqar, Saqlain and Mushtaq Ahmed), Ramesh languidly caressed his way to an average of 55 and seemed well on the road to becoming another one, albeit that he was travelling down that road without moving his feet very much. Sadly, that road diverted straight into a ditch. Twelve more Tests brought no more scores over 61, and an average of 26, and Ramesh was consigned to the selectorial shredder in August 2001. Over the next three years Das, Dravid, Dasgupta, Bangar, Jaffer, Patel and Chopra opened in 43 Tests between them, and generally poked about to no good purpose, collectively averaging 26. The latter part of Ramesh’s career suggests that he might not have done any better. But he would have done just as badly in a considerably more attractive manner. And more quickly. Life is full of contrasts. Seeing Sehwag open with Bangar was like seeing Beethoven team up with Miley Cyrus for a charity single. Wrong and confusing.

3. Xavier Marshall Included on the basis of one off-drive against Australia that I saw him play on the telly a couple of years ago. It was beyond perfect. Unlike his Test, ODI and first-class averages (20, 17, 24), which are beyond belief.

4. Greg Blewett After Mark Waugh, and possibly Damien Martyn, the most graceful Australian of his era. The panache of his back-to-back career launching hundreds against England in 1994-95 suggested Australia had unearthed a new world-class stylist. The rest of his career suggested they had unearthed a prettier version of Bruce Edgar.

5. Carl Hooper Hooper made batting look simple and majestic. He seemed to have enough time to write a letter home whilst waiting for the ball. Sadly, he often batted as if he was thinking of what he was going to write in it. He could hit forward-defensive shots for six, and get out to almost any bowler in the world given the chance. Not a total failure, but after 50 Tests he averaged 31, which was a sick joke by the same cricketing gods who allowed Gary Kirsten to average in the mid-40s. A hybrid of Hooper’s style and Chanderpaul’s concentration would have been one of the greatest batsmen of any era. A hybrid of Hooper’s concentration and Chanderpaul’s style could have led to cricket being outlawed.

6. Chris Lewis The allrounder who had it all – explosive, round-the-wicket strokeplay, and athletic, sometimes rapid, bowling. All that was missing were the performances to back it up. And the sense not to catch sunstroke on the eve of a Test match. And the ability not to be convicted of drug smuggling. Currently in jail, not looking quite as brilliant as when he smashed a century in India in 1992-93, or when he clean-bowled Tendulkar at Lord’s in 1996.

7. Geraint Jones Intermittently competent behind the stumps, taker of the most important catch in modern English history, and stroker of some of the purest off-side shots you could wish to see. Did not stroke as many of them as you would wish to see, admittedly, but on his very occasional day, he was an old-school stylist mixed with a modern improviser.

8. Alex Tudor Looked like a natural in all departments when he emerged in the late 1990s – a smooth action that generated pace that frightened the all-conquering Australians, and a flamboyance with the bat that immediately raised the suspicions of the England selectors. Tudor dismissed both Waughs, Ponting and Langer in a potent debut in Perth, then in his first home Test flayed his way to a match-winning 99 not out in the most brilliant night-watchman’s innings ever played by an Englishman, playing shots that many had assumed Geoffrey Boycott had officially outlawed from the English game. Then fizzled out like a once-promising sausage on a rain-hit barbecue. One of the lost talents of world cricket.

9. Brendon Julian Lithe left-armer with a sweeping action, and all set to be the long-awaited New Alan Davidson. Took a stunning caught-and-bowled to dismiss Robin Smith in his debut series in 1993, prompting no less a judge than Richie Benaud to eulogise (if memory serves): “That is the mark of a very fine young cricketer.” Unfortunately Benaud was wrong. Julian proved to be only a quite fine young cricketer – 15 Test wickets at a shade under 40, and 128 runs at 16, in just seven Tests.

10. Phil Tufnell His average was little different to Ashley Giles’. His action was from a different universe. Ashley Giles bowled like a broken combine harvester trying to restart itself. Tufnell had a natural fluency and rhythm that touched perfection on his occasional great days for England. Ashley Giles won the Ashes. And could bat. And field. Tufnell loses out in those three categories.

11. Mohammad Akram Richie Benaud said that Mohammad Akram reminded him of Michael Holding. Enough said. Mohammad Akram agreed. Michael Holding was unavailable for comment.

There is my XI. Apologies for the slight English bias, but many elegant but ineffective players from the rest of the world never have made it to these shores, so I could have missed the chance to appreciate both their elegance and their ineffectiveness. Please nominate your own suggestions for this XI.

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