Eleven of the best
There have been teams of the year and sides of the century, but honours don't come much greater than being part of the greatest collection of players a country has produced. So with much satisfaction and a large dose of fear, Cricinfo is introducing the definitive search for the all-time greatest teams from all the Test-playing countries.
It is now far enough into the millennium to build on the outfits of the 20th century, while those considering line-ups for England, Australia and South Africa must extend their search to the 1800s to avoid omitting a vital missing link. This is a field that doesn't belong to merely the very good. In starting a series on the All-time XIs, we know there will be horrifying absences.
The lists will be as much about who misses out as who wins a place. Can Victor Trumper get into Australia's side on reputation instead of irrefutable numbers? Are India's Fab Four so fab that they can all make it? Will enough people remember Wally Hammond and George Headley to push them to the top of their country's lists? Can voters detach themselves from the muscle of the modern age and resist piling their order with the freshest names? Picking sides like these come with heavy responsibility.
This is not a task to be completed in one session. In early discussions with our expert panelists, who are historians and print and radio journalists (but not Test players, to avoid potential conflicts), they flagged the wrenching decisions. It seems that being in the position of Andrew Hilditch, Australia's chairman of selectors, over the past year is more attractive than scratching a pencil through a true great of the game. We sympathised while handing them a red pen and pressuring them to make a choice.
In Australia the great spinners are Shane Warne, Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett, but picking three slow bowlers is a terrible misjudgment of team balance. New Zealand have one amazing allrounder in Richard Hadlee, but does that rule out a spot for Chris Cairns, the second-best multi-tasker in that country's history? Just thinking of which fast bowlers to consider for the Pakistan and West Indies outfits makes you feel like reaching for Panadol.
A couple of bowlers seem certain selections in Sri Lanka's collection, but the batting is more of a problem area, despite the country having been a full-fledged member for only three decades. Finalising a top order in England is as tricky as choosing India's best spinners. How good is Harbhajan Singh compared to those almost mythical twirlers of the 1970s? Down in South Africa the scenario is made more difficult by the age-old argument involving the generations who missed out on Test action due to apartheid. How do Clive Rice and Barry Richards stand up against Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith and the country's pioneers?
Wisden chose a Test XI for 2008 in its latest edition, and even that looked decidedly difficult. This assignment ranges from 132 years for Australia and England down to less than 10 for Bangladesh, who didn't debut until the 11th month of the 21st century. Pointers as to who have been among the game's best have been given throughout Wisden's history, and it bravely at the end of the millennium selected the five greatest performers of the previous 100 years. Don Bradman, Jack Hobbs, Viv Richards, Garry Sobers and Warne made that list.
By adding more positions and more choices, we feel this task is even harder. Digging into our records section might help, along with asking Statsguru for assistance, but in the end many spots will depend on the strength of your stomach. Or the toss of a coin.
So with arguments commencing and panelists and voters wincing at leaving out their modern favourites and the greats of yesteryear, Cricinfo opens the polls for the All-Time XIs of the Test-playing nations. Australia will be first, starting later this week, with the brutal task of reducing 410 baggy greens to 11, followed by England. By the end of the year the best of the best from the Test nations will hang proudly on these pages, along with the readers' choices. Until then, enjoy the strain, pain and satisfaction of choosing your finest.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo