Openers July 28, 2009

The hardest picks

Few tasks in cricket are tougher than opening the batting in England, and picking openers for an all-time England XI is hardly easy either

The Australian nominations are out of the way; time now to turn to the men who will meet them in our Ashes cyber-clash. To assist our search for Cricinfo's best England XI of all time (and it's not a quest we've undertaken lightly) we've called upon the services of 10 of the most respected pundits in the country - a medley of editors, correspondents, columnists and historians, charged with condensing 132 years of Test history into 11 good men and true.

From Tom Armitage in 1877 to Graham Onions in 2009, a grand total of 644 men have answered their country's call, making this particular XI the toughest pick of all. Some names you'd imagine would be shoo-ins for one and all, but not a single one of the jury's final selection received 100% of the votes. The net has been cast as wide as possible, and the debate will doubtless rage regardless of the names involved.

We launch this search with perhaps the most crucial combination of all - the opening batsmen. Is there any tougher task than repelling the new ball in England? The heat of the subcontinent or an Australian summer may sap the concentration more, but in terms of a full examination of technique and temperament, there's nothing quite like the variety of conditions on offer in Blighty.

From the early-season greentops that cause the ball to spit off the seam, through the often overcast conditions that enable medium-pacers to hoop the ball round corners, and for the older generation the challenge of uncovered wickets and all the spite contained therein, to succeed as an opener in England is the surest confirmation of class.

The old adage of "A strong Yorkshire is a strong England" could scarcely ring more true when it comes to this crucial role in the team. Three of the eight contenders hail from "God's own country", including Geoffrey Boycott and Sir Len Hutton.

The Contenders

Jack Hobbs The original "Master", and arguably the greatest batsman of the pre-Bradman era. Scored 199 first-class centuries in a three-decade career, and often got himself out after reaching three figures to give his team-mates a go

Herbert Sutcliffe Hobbs' legendary opening partner. Scored eight Test centuries against Australia alone. Separating them in this all-time XI will be as tough as it was at the crease.

Len Hutton Another Yorkshire great, who overcame a debilitating wartime injury to score 19 centuries in 79 Tests. Reclaimed the Ashes in 1953, and defended them Down Under two years later.

Geoffrey Boycott Yorkshire's favourite son of the 1960s and 70s, and obdurate rock of England's batting. Stubborn, opinionated and immoveable - traits he has carried into his career in broadcasting.

Mike Brearley A modest Test average of 22.88, but worthy of consideration for his captaincy alone. His "degree in people" brought the best out of his players, most notably the young Ian Botham

Graham Gooch Went toe to toe with some of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, most notably the 1980s West Indians. A weakness against swing bowling undermined his mighty record.

Mike Atherton Ambrose and Walsh, Donald and Pollock, Wasim and Waqar, McGrath and Warne. There was scarcely a cheap run available during his tough decade at the top.

Michael Vaughan The man who reclaimed the Ashes in 2005, but it was as an eye-catching opener three years earlier that he really made his mark, with 633 runs in a 4-1 series defeat.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo