May 10, 2013

XIs

The no-honours XI

Andy Zaltzman
Brian Close avoids a short ball from Michael Holding, England v West Indies, 2nd Test, Lord's, 1st day, June 17, 1976
Brian Close: fended off milestones like he did bouncers  © PA Photos
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Apropos of not much, other than musing on Brendon McCullum being the only player to have twice been out in the 90s at Lord's without also making an appearance on the honours board there for scoring a hundred, he is in he Confectionery Stall All-Time Honours Board Avoidance Test XI - the best players who never scored a century or took a five-for in Test cricket.

(Qualification: ten Tests minimum. No time-wasters. All complaints regarding selection to be directed to the Confectionery Stall via the ICC, the UN, or a recognised industrial conciliation agency. And no arguments about whether or not there are actually honours boards at all grounds. Or whether the honours boards from defunct grounds still count. It is quite clear what I mean. No hundreds, no five-fors, ten Tests or more.)

1. Bruce Laird (Australia, 1979-82): 21 Tests, average 35.2, 11 half-centuries, highest score 92
When a player scores 92 and 75 on Test debut, you would generally expect him to proceed to a stellar career, replete with a bundle of centuries. When a player scores 92 and 75 on debut against Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft, you might expect him to tear up the record books like an obstreperous lion tearing up a giant origami wildebeest. Bruce Laird was that player, but he proceeded to do neither of those two things.

He scored four more half-centuries in five Tests against the sleep-hauntingly fearsome West Indies - of the 65 players who batted ten or more times against the Caribbean Colossi from the time of Laird's debut in December 1979 until the end of the 1980s, his average of exactly 45 was bettered only by Martin Crowe, fractionally ahead of him at 45.33.

However, despite a total of nine more fifties after his stellar debut, Laird never experienced the irremovable nirvana of a Test century. His average remains the highest by anyone who has scored more than 750 runs without a hundred in Tests.

2. Chetan Chauhan (India, 1969-81): 40 Tests, average 31.5, 16 half-centuries, highest score 97
No one has waggled their bat in celebration of a Test half-century more often without ever repeating the gesture 50 runs later than India's late-'70s rock. After three unsuccessful Tests in 1969-70, and two more in 1972-73, Chauhan was recalled late in 1977, and missed only one of India's next 36 Tests. In that time, he recorded 11 century partnerships with Gavaskar, and reached 50 at least once in every series he played, scored almost 2000 runs at a creditable mid-30s average, but ended with the same number of Test hundreds as Ashish Nehra. He is still India's third-highest-scoring No. 2, behind Sehwag and Sidhu.

3. Ali Bacher (captain) (South Africa, 1965-1970): 12 Tests, average 32.3, 6 half-centuries, highest score 73
Several renowned captains qualify for this XI - foremost amongst them England's philosopher-king Mike Brearley, who played 39 Tests without troubling the honours board engravers, but still managed to carve his name indelibly into the history of English cricket. But Bacher was a superior batsman, passing 50 twice in each of the three series he played, and he led South Africa to one of cricket's most striking series wins - the 4-0 stroganoffing of Bill Lawry's Australia - in their final series before the nation took a 22-year sabbatical from Tests to deal with some rather significant off-the-field issues.

Bacher's son Adam followed in the proud family tradition by playing 19 Tests without posting a century. Scientists are currently studying their DNA in attempt to locate the gene for not converting fifties into hundreds.

4. William Bruce (Australia, 1885-95): 14 Tests, average 29.2, 5 half-centuries, highest score 80
Unspectacular stats by modern standards, but of the players who played for Australia in more than five Tests over the span of his career, Bruce had the highest average. And the most patriotic surname. He was "a real dasher", according to no less a source than this very website, and a useful change bowler, meaning that, as I write, he is presumably chuckling melancholically in his long-occupied grave at his misfortune in missing out on untold IPL riches by just 120 years. Cruel, cruel fate.

5. Graham Roope (England, 1973-78): 21 Tests, average 30.7, 7 half-centuries, highest score 77
Stunning slip fielder, admirable 1970s mane, useful batsman. Roope specialised in (a) making slip-catching look as easy as spotting a sleeping rhinoceros in an unoccupied bouncy castle, and (b) not converting good starts into big scores. After a dodgy beginning to his Test career, he averaged a creditable 36 in his final 16 Tests, in which time he scored all of his seven half-centuries. He reached 30 on 13 occasions, but managed a top score of just 77. His 35 catches in 21 Tests gave him a snaffles-per-innings rate of 0.945, second only to India's legendary Picasso of Pouch, Eknath Solkar, among fielders who have played 20 Tests or more.

6. Brian Close (England, 1949-1976): 22 Tests, batting average 25.3, highest score 70, 4 half-centuries; 18 wickets, bowling average 29.5, best figures 4 for 35
Close claims the allrounder's spot because of the frankly heroic length of his Test career - 27 years without registering a century or a five-for (he posted 52 and 43 of them respectively in first-class cricket), during which time he played 9% of England's Tests, at an average of 0.81 matches per year.

Close began his Test career as England's youngest-ever cricketer, and ended it as one of the oldest, bravest, and sorest, as he withstood hours and hours of West Indian pace battery armed only with a defiantly bald head. Notoriously tough, he gives this team a player unafraid to field insanely close to the bat, and actively enthusiastic about using his ribs and/or skull as means of protecting his bat. Dropped six times in his first seven Tests over three separate decades, Close could argue that he did not suffer from an excess of selectorial faith. And he could argue that convincingly.

7. Horace "Jock" Cameron (wicketkeeper) (South Africa, 1927-1935): 26 Tests, average 30.2, 10 half-centuries
Unsurprisingly, wicketkeeper is the most hotly contested position in this not-particularly-illustrious XI, with many of the top glovemen from the earliest days of Test history right up until the 1990s failing to post a Test hundred. More recently, a keeper who cannot score hundreds has been viewed as, to all practical intents, a sure-handed 12th man unlikely to spill too many drinks. (India's Kiran More was the last of the 20 wicketkeepers to have played more than 20 Tests without reaching three figures.)

Cameron edges out, among others, Deryck Murray, Bert Oldfield, Wasim Bari, Bob Taylor and Andy Zaltzman (whose early fumblings as the stump-tender for his school Under-10s revealed the natural uncoordination and innate fear of fast-moving, hard, round, red objects that would blight his cricketing career for the rest of time), thanks to his brilliant, aggressive batting, and the fact that he was called Horace.

His overall career average was exceeded only by England's Les Ames of pre-war stumpers, and, of the 27 visiting wicketkeepers who have batted ten or more times in Tests in England, only Gilchrist (40.0) and Dhoni (39.0) exceed Cameron's average of 38.5.

As a wicketkeeper, his stumpings "dazzled the eyesight", according to Wisden, the go-to resources for fans of (a) cricket and (b) almanacs. "In fact, his style may be described as the perfection of ease and rapidity without unnecessary show," lyricised the hallowed yellow tome in Cameron's tragically premature obituary. He died aged 30 after a rapid illness, just four months after his greatest innings, a boundary-battering 90 at Lord's in 1935, scored out of 126 in under two hours when South Africa were in first-innings trouble, to lay the foundations for his nation's first-ever victory in England.

8. Mashrafe Mortaza (Bangladesh, 2001-09): 36 Tests, 78 wickets, average 41.5, best figures 4 for 60
Other qualifying bowlers have better averages than Mashrafe, but none has such a strong claim to being his nation's greatest-ever paceman. Admittedly, Bangladesh's Greatest Ever Paceman is not the most hotly contested title. It is considerably less hotly contested, for example, than America's Brashest Boy, Dubai's Most Soulless Skyscraper, Stuart Broad's Most Optimistic Appeal, or The World's Most Bile-Filled Tweet. But Mashrafe often ploughed a heroically lone statistical furrow in a team for whom innings defeats were the norm, and was a useful lower-order slugger. None of the four other Tigers pacemen to take 25 Test wickets has averaged under 50, and, but for an all-you-can-eat buffet of injuries that have prevented him playing a Test since 2009, he would have been even further out on his own in the pantheon of Bangladesh quicks. If indeed you can have a pantheon of none.

Mashrafe edges out New Zealand's Dayle Hadlee, whose 71 wickets cost 33, and who loses the Hadlee family's annual Who Has Taken The Most Test Five-Fors contest 36-0 to his little brother Richard.

9. Jack Alabaster (New Zealand, 1955-72): 21 Tests, 49 wickets, average 38.0, best figures 4 for 46
Is the title of New Zealand's Greatest Ever Legspinner more or less volcanically contested than that of Bangladesh's Greatest Ever Paceman? Or about the same? That is for greater scientific minds than mine to determine. Alabaster is widely considered to own that title, however, and took more Test wickets than any other spinner without a five-wicket haul. He also has one of Test cricket's more striking names, which is always likely to sway this selection panel, and had an outstanding series in South Africa in 1961-62, taking 22 wickets at 28. No visiting spinner has snared more scalps in a series in South Africa since. Admittedly, few visiting spinners have played a five-Test series, as Alabaster did, but the point stands. It wobbles, but it stands.

10. Wayne Clark (Australia, 1977-79): 10 Tests, 44 wickets, average 28.7, best figures 4 for 46
Clark would probably never have played Tests but for World Series Cricket, and his impressive record was acquired partly against a Packer-cauterised West Indies team. However, it was mostly due to taking 28 wickets in five Tests against a strong Indian batting line-up (including Gavaskar, Viswanath, Amarnath, Vengsarkar, and Clark's Honours-Board Avoidance XI team-mate Chauhan), in a series in which he claimed six more victims than Jeff Thomson, and in which he evidently developed a psychotic fear of odd numbers - he took two or four wickets in all nine innings in which he bowled.

Clark also qualifies ahead of other contenders such as Winston Benjamin (61 wickets at 27), because he holds the record for most four-fors without a five-for. Seven times in his ten Tests he took four in an innings - three times he took four in both innings of a Test - without snaring that precious fifth victim. This places him two clear of his nearest challengers, Mike Hendrick (see below) and Dayle Hadlee, who needed 30 and 26 Tests respectively to acquire their five four-wicket hauls.

11. Mike Hendrick (England, 1974-81): 30 Tests, 87 wickets, average 25.8, best figures 4 for 28
The epitome of English seam bowling, the Midlands Metronome's economy rate of 2.17 makes him one of the most parsimonious pacemen of the last 50 years. He made major contributions to England's two late-70s Ashes triumphs, and to the cavalcade of beards that participated in the 1981 series that surely marked a high point for cricketing hirsutery. No one has taken more Test wickets without a five-for. A certifiable No. 11, he comfortably avoided blemishing his honours-board absence with the bat - his highest score in 35 Test innings was 15.

A full list of the 199 cricketers who have played ten or more Tests without making it onto an honours board is here

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

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Posted by Sir_Francis on (May 11, 2013, 8:59 GMT)

Recall watching Laird's debut 92 on TV. He was a tad unlucky in that he was given out caught behind without actually hitting the ball. This was, of course, before the days of international umpires and you know what australian umpires were like back then.

Posted by   on (May 10, 2013, 15:25 GMT)

Would love to see a ODI equivalent, which bowlers without a 4 wicket haul. I am sure Graham Thorpe, Andrew Jones and Misbah-ul-Haq will qualify easily

Posted by   on (May 10, 2013, 14:24 GMT)

Mike Brearley comes to mind 39 tests HS 91, excellent slip fielded outstanding captain.

Posted by Vivek.Bhandari on (May 10, 2013, 13:53 GMT)

Reg the Bacher family "Scientists are currently studying their DNA in attempt to locate the gene for not converting fifties into hundreds."

Hilarious.

Posted by japdb on (May 10, 2013, 13:31 GMT)

Bruce Laird: Bruce was always behind Turner, Dyson and Wood for some reason even though his results were better. Dyson occasionally made big slow centuries which the selectors hoped would become frequent but ended average +/-26, Woods average +31 or so just behind Laird so an each way bet, Turner well he was NSW so got first choice

Posted by DrRichie on (May 10, 2013, 10:42 GMT)

Disappointing Matryn Moxon didn't make the list. 99 at Lords, with two "runs" incorrctly given as leg byes. While not as long or stellar a career as the other batsmen, certainly the player who got closest.

Posted by BobFleming on (May 10, 2013, 10:17 GMT)

A stellar display of wit and statistical geekery Mr Z.

Posted by zero_knowledge on (May 10, 2013, 7:59 GMT)

narrowly missing it are Alex Tudor 10 tests highest score of 99* and one five-for. and Sir Ajit Agarkar with 26(i think) tests one out of the blue century in Lord's (no less) and totally out of the blue five-for 6/40+ runs in Adelaide.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on ESPNcricinfo.

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