Middle order September 7, 2009

Multi-faceted dilemmas

The middle order is where the real competition is at, with 10 men fighting for the spots

The easy, and at the same time difficult, part of choosing a New Zealand all-time XI is the flexible roles their cricketers could generally play. Two of the nominees in this category who have strong chances of making it to the final XI, Bert Sutcliffe and John R Reid, can qualify elsewhere in the order too. Sutcliffe can open, Reid can be the allrounder; but they can just as well bat in the middle order and no one will complain.

So the middle-order selection can't be made keeping just the middle order in mind; the prospective openers and allrounders need to be considered too. There's a fine line between creating space and eating it.

Not that just these two make up the middle-order debate. Scroll down a little, and you have the two Martins, Crowe and Donnelly. One man a tortured genius who many bowlers of his era found the toughest to bowl to, the other believed to be so good that numbers (he played just seven Tests) are considered immaterial. New Zealanders didn't get to see much of Donnelly, but John F Reid wrote of him, "If we were in trouble, no one was more likely to pull the game round than Martin. If we were on top, few could demolish bowling so swiftly or surely as he did." What if it came down to picking just one of the Martins?

Between those two came Bev Congdon and John F Reid. After Crowe, two men made a strong case for themselves: the brave and persistent Andrew Jones, and the silken Stephen Fleming. And if the added bonus of captaincy was to tip the scales - although we are not nominating captains in this exercise - this is the category: any one of John R Reid, Fleming and Congdon could benefit from his captaincy credentials.

The contenders

John R Reid An allrounders' allrounder, he was a dashing batsman not afraid of hitting in the air, a bowler useful enough to take 466 first-class wickets at 22.6, an exceptional fielder at gully and cover, and good enough to captain the likes of Garry Sobers, Wes Hall, Wally Grout, Eddie Barlow and the Nawab of Pataudi in a World XI. Reid led New Zealand to their first three Test wins.

Bert Sutcliffe "Runs came to him as if by right… I cannot recall him playing an uncouth shot," wrote Reid of Sutcliffe. His most memorable innings, a "story every New Zealand boy should learn at his mother's knee" came in the middle order.

John F Reid Though fated to be the second-best John Reid in cricket, he averaged the most among New Zealanders who managed more than 1000 Test runs. Calm and orthodox, he scored six hundreds in the eight times he went past 50 in Tests.

Martin Donnelly His cricket a victim of war and the game's financial circumstance, Donnelly played just 13 of his 131 first-class matches at home. The slightly unorthodox thumper to Sutcliffe's artist, he did enough in seven Tests to make the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame. There is not a New Zealander who doesn't feel a sense of loss that he couldn't play more, and in the country.

Bev Congdon A fine all-round professional, he was a technically correct batsman, a safe fielder, a useful medium-pace bowler, and thrived when captain. Congdon led New Zealand to their first win over Australia, almost beat England for the first time on his own, and introduced a hard edge to their cricket.

Martin Crowe Had all the shots in the book - and the time to play them. Was labelled the best young batsman in the world when he made his debut at 19, and was one of the best in the world during the following years. Wasim Akram, one of the greatest bowlers of that era, rated him in the same bracket as Sunil Gavaskar and Brian Lara - and higher when it came to playing reverse swing.

Andrew Jones Crowe's sidekick, Jones had to wait until he was 28 for his Test debut, but he didn't let the cap go once it came his away. Not one for purists, he had a technique of his own, but his determination and ruthlessness stood out - as an average of 44.27 over 39 Tests testifies.

Stephen Fleming New Zealand's leading run-getter, most successful captain, and their most capped player. Numbers could say only so much about Fleming, though. His graceful batting brought joy, and also the feeling that he undershot as a batsman.

Nathan Astle His free spirit at times proved his downfall. An automatic selection if this were an ODI team, on his day he was as destructive a batsman as any. Astle holds the record for the fastest double-century in Tests.

Craig McMillan Abrasiveness, aggressiveness, improvisation and a relish for the difficult situation were McMillan's key features, suggesting there was more than his resemblance with Russell Crowe to his being nicknamed The Gladiator.

We'll be publishing an all-time New Zealand XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To vote for your top New Zealand middle-order batsmen click here

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo