Openers November 19, 2009

Barry, Biff, Bruce and Bunter

The quest for South Africa's all-time Test XI kicks off with a look at the contenders for the openers' slots

How might we compare pomegranates and hand grenades? Battleships and baobabs? The perfect cappuccino and the purr of a Cadillac? Welcome to the fascinating but vexing challenge of choosing a South African all-time XI.

Other countries fret about gifted individuals falling through the cracks in their systems, but South Africa has wilfully consigned entire races and generations to obscurity. Such is life when sport has politics for a brutish big brother. What do we make of a clearly gifted player who had the door to a Test career kept firmly shut in his face by apartheid? What of those who played during the rebel era?

Complications, we've had a few. The ghosts swirled even after we decided to focus exclusively on those who had played official Test cricket for South Africa. For instance, can we hail Barry Richards as great on the evidence of just four Test matches?

Of course, our jury also had to contend with more conventional selectorial headaches. South Africa produces quality fast bowlers by the bushel, and there must be something in the water that makes every second or third cricketer at least a semi-genuine allrounder. But decent spinners are thin on the ground, what with pitches that often refuse to deteriorate and captains who regard the art of tweaking and twirling as something best confined to those mysterious places where women get their hair done. South African batsmen have tended towards bloody-mindedness. Not for most of them the unfurling of grand strokes that catch the breath of all who feel privileged to see them. South Africans regard the crease as a trench from which to wage war, and they couldn't be bothered with how unpretty it gets. The truly brilliant batsman who is able to not get out and score runs attractively is a rare and underappreciated thing in these parts.

Brave souls are needed to come with 11 names out of all that. Fortunately South Africans tend to be born brave: our jury has done its duty with due consideration and thoughtfulness. We now present their findings, starting with the contenders for the opening berths.

The contenders

Barry Richards
The merest suggestion that he does not belong among the definitive all-time greats will spark violence in most bars in South Africa. A batsman who had it all, except a meaningful Test career.

Bruce Mitchell
For 20 years an immovable presence in the South African team, of which he was heart, mind and soul. Regarded the cricket ground as his personal zen garden and zoned everything out, to the chagrin of the opposition.

Graeme Smith
In a word, "Biff". In other words, crushing, dominant, aggressive, huge, courageous, influential, confident (arrogant?), gregarious, liked, loved, and despised. As a player, a man to go to war with. As a captain, a man to lead others into battle.

Eddie Barlow
Perfectly nicknamed "Bunter" after the chubby, bespectacled, exuberant, ever-scheming schoolboy of British fiction fame. Innovative, ambitious and possessed of a fierce competitive spirit. A fine player who endeared himself to all, including opponents.

Herschelle Gibbs
To see him practising cutting fast bowlers for six was to see supreme confidence on the hoof. Capable of producing the most emphatic strokes, but also of the most damaging errors of judgment.

Gary Kirsten
Devoid of almost all traces of the sportsman's ego. In short, exceedingly human in the most decent way. Scavenged and accumulated his runs, unlike his more purely talented half-brother, Peter.

Jackie McGlew
Not for nothing does his surname rhyme with glue. Accordingly, held the record for the slowest first-class century - 105 in 545 minutes - for 20 years. A man more committed to his cause will never be found.

We'll be publishing an all-time South Africa XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your openers click here

Telford Vice made his Test debut as a cricket writer in Barbados in 1992 - the match that marked the end of South Africa's isolation

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • A J on November 22, 2009, 17:27 GMT

    Cannot early cricketers from the golden age be included? Again we see evidence of under-rating older players. The great Herby Taylor was South Africa's finest opener until the greatest of all openers, Barry Richards. It was one of cricinfo's best England XI, Sidney Barnes, who rated Taylor higher than any other. And Taylor's test record compares very favourably with others of his era. He should have been in the shortlist.

  • Souvik on November 22, 2009, 2:04 GMT

    i must say i am surprised beyond measure ... yes this article is about the openers and comments ideally shd be confined to those two spots. but given 56 comments and over 75% of them naming a full xi .... i am surprised that no one considers a career of 99 tests, 388 wickets at less than 30 in this day and age of covered wickets, flat tracks, and maces for cricket bats, even worthy of mention in the squad let alone the first xi. speaks volumes of the mindset of sa cricket fans who wd rather keep kallis, barlow, and lord knows who as a genuine bowling option without bothering to mention Makhaya Ntini. totally baffling.

  • Rob on November 21, 2009, 20:32 GMT

    No Alan Melville? And yet there's Gibbs and McGlew? Are they serious? These so-called "all time" teams are a joke. Do any of you know anything about the history of South African cricket? How about you find someone at cricinfo who has a clue about cricket history?

  • Reynold on November 21, 2009, 13:26 GMT

    All the players nominated have merit but one I think has been overlooked is Neil Adcock.There is actually not that much to choose between him and Donald.Adcoc averaged 21.10 runs per wicket against Donald's22.25 in Tests:Adcock's economy rate was 2.06 versus Donald's2.83.Donald however has a much better strike rate(47.0 to Adcock's 61.4).Not much to choose,really and I have no problem with Donald's selection but find it strange that Acdcock merits no mention.

  • Shom on November 21, 2009, 9:18 GMT

    Tayfield... was he all that good? His record is good but not really outstanding. Would you rather have Aubrey Faulkner as an allrounder, rather than Tayfield? He was a quality spinner too.

  • louis on November 21, 2009, 4:24 GMT

    one great opener that comes to mind is the tenatious Eric Rowan, together with his off spin brother Athol.

  • Bennett on November 20, 2009, 22:45 GMT

    Amazing, how folks are straining at the leash to name their AT Xi.

    The cricketers that unquestionably walk into the side are B.Richards, J.Kallis, G.Pollock, A.Faulkner, A.Donald and H.Tayfield. Faulkner is probably the most under rated of cricketers, but as a LB bowler and All-rounder, he adds variety to the attack. While the Saf cricketers are chock full of all-rounders, it makes no sense loading the team with them. They cant all bowl. You need two different spinners (Tayfield and Faulkner), 1 medium pacer (Kallis) and 2 speedsters (Donald and ?). I'd lean towards Procter to partner Donald, his unorthodox action complements Donald.

  • Phil on November 20, 2009, 22:14 GMT

    In answer to bis_d - Sobers. I agree with you about Cook, but as "they" didn't make him available, I couldn't pick him, which made it easier to pick Barlow to open. An incidental advantage of this is that I won't have to fit him in as a middle order player or all-rounder where (apart from one in each of those categories whose selections in this side are as easy as Richards') its going to be very difficult to choose. Given carte-blanche, I'd pick Cook with Barlow at five or six (or possibly three?). But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

  • Craig on November 20, 2009, 21:04 GMT

    1. Barry Richards 2. Graeme Smith/Jimmy Cook 3. Jacques Kallis 4. Graeme Pollock 5. Eddie Barlow 6. Clive Rice 7. Aubrey Faulkner 8. Mike Proctor 9. Mark Boucher/Denis Lindsey 10. Hugh Tayfield 11. Allan Donald

    12th Man: Trevor Goddard

  • Reynold on November 20, 2009, 19:22 GMT

    I was surprised at ther omission of Trevor Goddard as a candidate for one of the opening slots.Purely as a batsman he trails the four"B's" but add to his resume the facy that he was a left arm quickish medium bowler with one of the best economy rates ever and he should be considered for some role. As was the case with New Zealand a large number of South Africa's leading cricketers are/were all-rounders and pigeon-holing them into roles might not produce the country's strongest team. Could any country's all-rounders beat5 this one:Trevor Goddard,Eddie Barlow,Jacques Kallis,Aubrey Faulkner,Clive Rice,A.B.deVilliers(wkpr),Mike Proctor,Lance Klusener,Shaun Pollock,Brian Mc Millan,Rodney Ontong?

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