The XI August 28, 2009

What does this team tell us?

The jury's choice seems a comment on the reduced role of skill in the modern game

Cricinfo's all-time England XI: Jack Hobbs, Len Hutton, Wally Hammond, Ken Barrington, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Botham, Alan Knott, Derek Underwood, Harold Larwood, Fred Trueman, Sydney Barnes.

My congratulations to the adjudicators. Such a huge selection challenge was fraught with difficulty, but to my surprise there is no serious cause for dissatisfaction in this all-time England XI. The judges have considered some key factors, such as the challenging unprotected pitches upon which the earlier players played, particularly when the surfaces were almost unusable after rain. More than once Jack Hobbs and his celebrated England opening partner Herbert Sutcliffe batted for hours on bowlers' pitches, using their sensitive wrists and high skills to survive with "touch" batting, playing the dead bat or punishing the poor delivery or withdrawing their lightweight bats from danger. For about 40 years pitches have been protected. Worse still, they are prepared today with the blatant intention of promoting the batsman's welfare in order to maximise gate takings. How we smiled when two Test matches in England this summer finished in three days.

Batsmen like Walter Hammond and Len Hutton made some mighty scores, but they were also famous for some of their shorter innings, played in extremely difficult circumstances after rain. It may be frustrating for the moderns to be denied the chance to display that vital extra skill when the ball is leaping and shooting off imperfect surfaces. Perhaps some of them might have developed that special technique to survive. We shall never know. It's their bad luck - and ours.

The one modern with a place in the top five, Kevin Pietersen, thoroughly deserves his place, though I suspect there are doubters out there. It seems to me that the feeling of anticipation as well as confidence felt by England fans when he strides out to bat compares with that felt in the 1930s when the great Hammond went to the middle. KP has been dominant in the same way, even if he hasn't (yet) put so many double- and triple-centuries in the book. Watching him in that first phenomenal Ashes series of 2005 caused me to wonder just how he did it. I think the key is that long torso. He can lean some way further forward than other men of his height: the hips are comparatively low. He commands a bowler's length for him. Hammond was the perfectly shaped cricketer. KP perhaps owes his success to being unusually built.

Ken Barrington is often forgotten when England's best are being discussed - a criminal oversight. Originally a dasher, he reclaimed his Test spot and became the concrete foundation. Tough, vigilant and good-humoured, he is the batsman most of us long for whenever today's England team flounder.

Such desperate thought also often embraces one who failed to make the all-time XI, Geoffrey Boycott, who simply had too much competition for a place here as an opener. Barrington too had many rivals for the No. 4 or 5 position, including the wonderful Maurice Leyland and Patsy Hendren and, saddest of omissions, Denis Compton. This is the sort of dilemma that has judges pleading for extension: might it perhaps have been the all-time best fifteen?

It may be frustrating for the moderns to be denied the chance to display that vital extra skill when the ball is leaping and shooting off imperfect surfaces. Perhaps some of them might have developed that special technique to survive. We shall never know. It's their bad luck - and ours

I can imagine the outcry had Ian Botham not made it. He can't have been chosen on the basis of that one amazing 1981 Ashes summer alone, for nobody else was selected on such a narrow basis. You need to be quite young not to have vivid personal memories of how English spirits were lifted when this chap charged at the "enemy" with bat or ball in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His was a robust and highly patriotic brand of cricket, and while somebody who is still regarded as The Greatest Cricketer - WG Grace (downgrade him at your peril) - did not play in quite such a nakedly physical way, he would have nodded in approval at the defiant, aggressive overtones.

Alan Knott is an informed inclusion. He was not only seemingly the perfect wicketkeeper but he made runs, which is now regarded as an essential requirement. His Kent and England colleague Derek Underwood was lethal on a rain-affected pitch and tight on a batsman's paradise, so irrespective of where and when this ethereal cricket team takes the field, it hardly matters.

A frontline attack of Larwood, Barnes and Trueman is the stuff of nightmares. Sydney Barnes had the advantage of uncovered pitches, but was not allowed lbws to balls pitching outside the line of the off stump. It's reasonable to assume that he would have been just as phenomenally successful today as 100 years ago. Certainly his force of character was overwhelming, on a par with Dennis Lillee's, if you can visualise it.

Harold Larwood, another who bowled when lbws were so limited, has often been voted as the greatest fast bowler of all time, so it would have been a major shock had he missed selection. Indeed, it would have discredited the exercise.

From the other end: FS Trueman. Not much in it between him and Larwood, though Fred had the gift of the gab. Since cricket these days is played as much with the mouth as the bat and ball, FST would flourish. And like the other bowlers, he would also have relished the drinks and towels provided at third man between his overs. Modern cricketers are pampered, though that is not precisely the language Fred would have employed.

With only two of these elite cricketers having played for England in the past 27 years, the adjudicators seem to have concluded that skills have diminished. Or might it be that the modern players have been denied the chance to demonstrate their fullest potential, now that, with lifeless pitches and slow over-rates, the game has undergone a form of anaesthesia?

More on the XI here

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • shirazu on August 30, 2009, 1:22 GMT

    Those old school players would get crushed by today's teams. I would take today's Bangaldesh side against this team and lay odds and feel very confident. The modern cricketer is far better coached, is paid enough to focus full time on his game, and is in general in much better shape with better training and eating habits. There are more people playing cricket these days and more wealth in general giving more people access to cricket, so naturally the overall level is going to be higher - there could easily be 100 times more people playing cricket now than there was 50 years ago. This is not to say that none of these players would not be modern stars if they had access to today's training.

    The only reason why you see few modern players on this England XI is that England suck at cricket now when compared to the rest of the world. It is only natural as football is much bigger in that country than cricket nowadays whereas cricket is clearly still #1 in the subcontinent and Australia.

  • Engle on August 29, 2009, 19:11 GMT

    Too bad the Aus AT XI did not select Jeff Thomson. That would've made some battle between Larwood and Thommo going great guns; if only in our imagination

  • rbharath2 on August 29, 2009, 19:00 GMT

    Where is Denis Compton,where is Ted Dexter,where is David Gower,where is Geoffrey Boycott,where is Graham Gooch

    You should have probably gone for a 14/15 instead of 11

  • SridharSampath on August 29, 2009, 15:58 GMT

    I am surprised by those who feel that Underwood was lucky to get in. Really? Here's the facts: He got Sunny Gavaskar (arguably the greatest player of spin) and Greg Chappell out a dozen times each in Tests. And someone calls him a containment bowler, which is a joke. A 'containment' bowler doesn't take 297 wickets. He was effective not merely on wet wickets. I watched him run thru the famed Indian batting line up at Chepauk in the 70s and that wicket wasn't wet. Jim Laker took 130+ wickets out of 150+ in England. Never toured the sub-continent. Hedley Verity took Bradman's wicket 8 times. Fine! But Deadly took Sunny's & Greg Chappells's wicket a dozen times each. No mean achievement that. I am however disappointed at the jury's reasoning behind some of the selections. Larwood's is one such example. Waspsting put it quite accurately in this connection.

  • HOTCHA on August 29, 2009, 15:22 GMT

    I would go with the final team selected, but for one exception. I would have the left-handed elegance of David Gower, in place of Kevin Pietersen.

    My team would thus read - Len Hutton, Wally Hammond, Ken Barrington, David Gower, Ian Botham, Alan Knott, Derek Underwood, Harold Larwood, Fred Trueman, Sydney Barnes.

  • numptyville on August 29, 2009, 15:13 GMT

    I love the team! Particularly with the omissions of the usual suspects such as Boycott and Flintoff. Can't help but think that Gower should be in there with a shout, the guy managed good figures despite being baraged by the Windy pacemen for his entire test career, well only a series every couple of years. I would also add Voce to the mix. Both he and Larwood are part of the greatest bowling partnership surpassing Warne and McGrath in my opinion. The guys were so good together that Test Cricket rules had to be changed to give Bradman a chance!

  • clivenoble on August 29, 2009, 12:14 GMT

    Really enjoyed the team selection and subsequent comments and obviously we all have our own ideas and preferences but the major surprise to me are the negatives from people about Larwood-sure his test statistics do not stand on their own,but surely cricket fans must realise that his test career was effectively ended by the political fallout from Bodyline and some of his best bowling came after this.He is the only fast bowler in cricket history to top the First class bowling averages in 5 seasons,he was the only bowler during Bradmans career to make him look simply good and not a genius,bowling for Notts as well as England and he took nearly 1500 wickets at an average of less than 20.Combine all of this with watching the old footage of him and seeing the reaction times that the batsman seem to have against him-even with the old film slowing things down-and surely he must have been at the very least just about the fastest bowler of all time.He also made first class hundreds and a test 97

  • waspsting on August 29, 2009, 8:59 GMT

    MAIN PROBLEM with this team is the lack of balance. With 5 batsmen- the tail MUST carry its weight. Hence, I'd prefer Ames to Knott and Rhodes to Underwood, as that would strengthen the batting (which looks fragile - if 3 quick early wickets go down, as they occasionally do, this team would be in serious trouble) Team balance could be different if there were 6 batsmen. Knott over Ames, and Underwood or Laker over Rhodes is fine then, because the batting is more stable (if you believe as i do that Laker and Underwood were better bowlers than Rhodes).

    re: to several preceding comments. Barnes was a Bill O'Reily/Kumble type bowler, medium paced spin/cut. More a "spinner" than a "fast bowler" as we understand the terms. Agree that Pieterson hasn't proved himself over a long enough period to be included over Barrington or Compton. Agree that its an unnecessary restriction to limit selection by role - Sutcliffe, Hutton and Hobbs all belong in this team.

  • sunglassesron on August 29, 2009, 8:52 GMT

    For me the team is: Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Hutton, Compton, Hammond, WG Grace, Stewart, Botham, Laker, Trueman, S Barnes

    A bit heavy on battin compared to bowling, But Grace can bowl a bit. I suppose Hobbs, Hammond, Hutton,Botham and Barnes are shoo ins for me. I would always give Stewart he nod over Knott et all every time. I think he is second top English runscorer of all time, a very capable wicket keeper, Most test matches of any Englishman, and averaged about 40 - and he got those runs in an era awash with many of the greatest bowlers of all time (mcgrath, donald, warne, pollock, ambrose, walsh, wasim, waqar, murali etc etc). A most underrated player who arguably started much of what hussain, vaughan and finally strauss got the credit for - He captained us to a 2-1 win over south africa in 1998. I was 20 years old and it was the FIRST time I had ever known England win a proper 5 test series!!!! A real servant to his country imo

  • Quip on August 29, 2009, 7:49 GMT

    Mike index I note agrees that the restrictions of the popular selection are frustrating and somewhat compromise the exercise. I entirely agree with him about those who would seem compulsory selections - though I would add Knott to that group. He is also correct to query the astonishing absence of Evans from the top five wicket keepers and Grace among the batsmen - again, to be replaced by Brearley. It seems to me imperative to ensure these teams as far as possible include the best players - and Brearley could barely justify inclusion in his contemporary team let alone in its greatest.

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