October 22, 2010

The joy of the past

There may be plenty of well-known problems inherent in picking all-time XIs, but the exercise is still a worthwhile one

World XIs have a lot to recommend them in theory, not much to point to in practice. The idea of a team of the talents has a timeless appeal. Some are born to bat, others to bowl, but anyone and everyone, fans included, has a sneaking faith in their aptitude for selection. Yet somehow such ensembles have a tendency to punch below their collective weights.

Australia bowled a Rest of the World XI out in Perth for 59 in an hour and a half in December 1971. Dennis Lillee on a Perth greentop? Not a job for the semi-committed. The ICC, in their perennial unwisdom, gave official Test and ODI status to the games of the World XI who visited Australia five years ago, in an effort to stir players to their best. The ensuing shambles made a mockery of the players' expectation of star treatment. Abiding memories of that visit will be Shoaib Akhtar expending more energy on the dance floor than in the nets, and Inzamam ul-Haq strolling around the covers because there was no room for him in the costive cordon of slips.

Is there any reason to expect better of Cricinfo's all-time World XI? Perhaps the selectors should be thankful we will never find out. But from the fortunes of those prior units can be deduced a hint of the challenges of bringing together a team from all over both the world and the decades. Lists of great players are static; teams are dynamic and must be designed with their functioning in mind. Who will provide the strokes and who the stability? Who will catch, at slip and at bat-pad? There's no point picking four new-ball bowlers if only two can share it; no need to pick three spinners if you're playing on seaming tracks or under cloud cover.

That's even before you come to the dilemmas involved in choosing from across the generations. Which version of the player, for instance, would one be choosing? The Viv Richards circa 1976 or circa 1990? The Sachin Tendulkar of 1998 or of today? The Imran Khan who bowled so thrillingly with the new ball, or the Imran Khan of thoroughbred batsmanship who bowled second change? And how does one factor the cost of war into those whose careers were carved up by it? An innings opened by the 1912 model Jack Hobbs would be very different to that begun by the 1930 model.

Questions nag. Under whose conditions would games be played? Would the pitch be uncovered? Would the Test be timeless? Whose lbw and no-ball law would be in force? Whose equipment would be in use? Imagine Garry Sobers with one of those modern bats that picks up like a swizzle stick but makes contact like a mace. Above all, in whose world, and according to whose values, would the team mobilise? Would Victor Trumper wish to play in a team listening to Javed Miandad sledge? Would Jack Hobbs be capable of maintaining the team omerta about Shane Warne's SMS habits?

Often all one has to judge are records, and records are only ever indicative, never definitive. Had George Headley and Graeme Pollock played 45 Tests each rather than 45 between them, would they have maintained their averages of 60? Would Richard Hadlee have been the same bowler in a stronger attack that competed for wickets with him more strenuously? Batting averages of 50 today seem almost as common as averages of 40 in the 1980s: this debasement of the currency of runs must mean something.

The game is now more global, more various. Given that Sir Donald Bradman made all his Test runs and Dennis Lillee claimed all but 28 of his Test wickets at home or in England, is there sufficient evidence of their versatility and adaptability? Can one be confident that they would have prospered in other conditions and in an era of many more games far closer together?

To adjust for the briefer, less concentrated careers of past players involves a discrimination against the present. Ricky Ponting has had the good fortune to play in a fully professional era in which cricket could be his be-all and end-all, one in which conditions were stacked in batsmen's favour and there were few bowlers of express pace. But how is one to pay homage to his great qualities, of fitness, resilience and unappeasable appetite for the game?

To lean towards the records of the moderns, swollen by constant competition, incentivised by rich financial baits, is to ignore how prestigious first-class cricket was even 20 years ago, and how handsome were the inducements of English league cricket - handsome enough to cause Sydney Barnes and Ted McDonald, two of history's greatest bowlers, to turn their backs on their countries and play comparatively little Test cricket.

Ranking cricketers from different eras, then, is a little like ranking inventions from history. Is the world wide web a greater innovation than the telephone? Quite possibly, but the former could not have arisen without the latter. It is possible when Tendulkar bats to see through him the whole history of batsmanship: WG Grace's playing back, Ranjitsinhji's playing to leg, Bradman's playing across the line, Gavaskar's stoic endurance, Richards' instinct to dominate. What does he owe their inspiriting qualities?

So why perform an exercise that seems meretricious, intellectually flawed and is almost bound to mislead? Two reasons. First, it cajoles us into contemplating the past, for which the modern game, which wants our money rather than our love, gives us little encouragement. Second, in superficially obscuring differences, it forces us to acknowledge them: we have to pretend that the world of cricket has not changed because we know it has. Oh, one other reason: because it's fun, and ultimately, although it is so easy to forget in this grim present, that is what we're here for.

ESPNcricinfo's all-time World XI will be announced on 25 October

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mars on October 25, 2010, 20:37 GMT

    For Billy: "Bill Tilden dominated the world of international tennis in the first half of the 1920s. During his 18 year amateur period of 1912-30, he won 138 of 192 tournaments, and had a match record of 907-62, a winning percentage of 93.6 percent" -Wikipedia This is what I meant by analogous to Bradman's record. Same kind of dominance and stats that would be difficult to match for next few generations. So he was Bradman of Tennis but do we really want to play him against with even a top 100 player of today. It will be mayhem.

  • Mars on October 25, 2010, 20:20 GMT

    Bradman was a great batsman and I really can not explain why he was so much better than his contemporaries except accept the fact that may be he was actually a freak of nature. But if someone ran 100 M in 11 seconds in 1930 he would be considered a genius too. Fast forward 70-80 years and this timing would not get you even in a decent university team! How much better he was compared to his peers can no way justify the claim of him being better than batsman of succeeding generation. That is against the nature and the laws of evolution. Thanks to TV you can actually see it in the action all the time. Jonny Mac-Borg great rivalry but both would not last 3 sets in a modern game and thats just 15-20 years ago. I mean all one has to do is to watch his videos on you tube and ask yourself if this guy played Marshal and Holding would he really do twice better than Sunny Gavaskar. It is quite improbable, is it not?

  • Richard on October 25, 2010, 10:23 GMT

    Hang on ....yes ground fielding has improved overall though it has less of an impact in test cricket than in one-dayers, as you can hide the slower guys in the slips. It would be a mistake to think that players back then were all poor fielders though. I can't comment properly on eras that I have not seen but in the pre-Packer 'unprofessional' early 70's Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Ross Edwards, Doug Walters and Paul Sheehan were all feared and respected ground fielders. Of the more modern players perhaps only Jonty Rhodes and Andrew Symonds would rate above these guys. For evaluations of other periods I have to rely on the opinions of people like Richie Benaud, who after all has played test cricket (does that apply to anyone here?) and is accepted generally accepted as being knowledgable and unbiased.

  • xeeshan on October 25, 2010, 9:30 GMT

    I think Lara is the best in test cricket. Only complete batsman in history of test cricket with each and every thing like century before lunch. Elegancy, situation including pressure cooker situations, finisher, records, master piece innings like 400 not out and 375, situational innings like 153 and 80 not out against Sri Lanka, ability to play spinners and fast bowlers at a time, ability to take pressure of main strikers, continent-wise average more than 40, complete domination over Murli and Warne, ability to score big knocks, ability to turn big knocks into further big scores like 400, 375 and 277. Only batsman in history of cricket who define century, double, triple and quadruple at at time in test and then only one with ability to define century, double, triple, quadruple and quintuple in first class cricket too. Only blame is his inconsistency, if so how he scored 11953 runs with the help of 34 centuries in which he scord 5889 runs means 25.38 runs per century.

  • Richard on October 25, 2010, 9:26 GMT

    @knowledge_eater- Well mate, I've been watching cricket since 1972 and I see no discernable improvement in the standard of play since then. If anything I think the standard of bowling is quite low at the moment except for Murali, and he's quit test cricket now.

  • xeeshan on October 25, 2010, 7:50 GMT

    Sir Don is the best is not true even he was only one of the best batsman of his era as Herbert, Hammond, Headley and Hobbs had same or more impact on game as compare to him like Headley batting average was 91.38 at home versus England before world war II as compare to Sir Don only 72.78. Then again Headley had not timeless matches like Sir Don had several. If had then he easily went for average more than 100 at home versus England. Overall 71.23 and him 89.78 but Headley came from W. Indies and he had to adopt conditions in England which was entire different region.Headley batting average was 37.3 against Australia and Herbert 66.85. It means he was almost twice better average than him against Australia. After 1932, Hammond average declined from 78.28 to 66.85 due to Bill O Reilly. If he could maintain 78.28 with facing Mailey, Grimmett (Flipper Specialist). Without facing them, he could also went for 89.78 or more which is actual average of Sir Don against England.

  • Richard on October 25, 2010, 7:04 GMT

    @MartinHooks-Yes, I agree that the game has changed. Let me clear the air first. I love to watch the modern masters of cricket- Tendulkar, Richards, Ponting, Warne, Murali, Roberts, Holding etc. Too many to list. What I do object to greatly is this nationalistic nastiness that is becoming all too common, allied with a "I didn't see him so he can't be any good" attitude. Some of the comments I have seen trying to explain Bradman's dominance are beyond ridiculous, and betray a cavernous lack of knowledge of the game. How would he have fared in today's game? Who can tell. I suspect pretty well-he didn't smoke or drink and was a very fit and focused man. Cricket has a past, a present, and a future. We should honour and respect the past, enjoy the present, and envision the future. Someone has to take a stand on this mud-slinging. Now who's with me?

  • Billy on October 25, 2010, 6:37 GMT

    Martin Hooks, Roger Federer has won more slams than Tilden even taking into account the period when Tilden turned pro. So I'm not sure what you're referring to there. If you're talking about overall winning record, then that's irrelevant. Tennis is about the grand slams first and foremost, just as cricket is about Test cricket first and foremost. And I think you misunderstood Biggus. He is asking people to suggest reasons why no cricketer in any generation has outperformed the next best player by such a large margin except for one instance (Bradman). So far, you haven't come up with any reasons.

  • Harsh on October 25, 2010, 3:39 GMT

    Where Sachin Tendulkar makes it is his completeness.He posesses all the ingredients of a great batsman,be it consistency,temperamemt,technique,ability to dominate bowling,winning and saving games etc.In pure test match cricket Lara perhaps would be rated better considering his brilliant mammoth scores and his bearing the brunt of the weakest of batting sides.At his best in test Cricket Lara has beaten Sachin,like when scoring a match-winning 153 not out out of 308in 1999 against Australia at Barbados .

    Gary Sobers,to me is the most complete batsman in the post -war era,with the ability to play like a champion when the chips were down ,win matches ,master any conditions,and destroy the greatest bowling attacks.Viv Richards from 1977-1981,was perhaps the best since Bradman infact the greatest ever player of fast bowling.Sadly later he became inconsistent. Had Rohan Kanhai,done justice to his ability he may well have been the best of all.

  • Harsh on October 25, 2010, 3:38 GMT

    I agree with Martin_Hooks about Cricketers are better today than they were in past 100%. It looks odd. But in any field you go anywhere any sports, we are improved, smarter, healthier (except cardiac problems), faster, knowledgeable and very athletics (despite tons of pollutants around. The reason why some people think no no quality is not good anymore, I say its better but its in very very very large numbers. Thats why it buffers out whole stats. Our Cricket community is much larger than we had it in past. And when talented Cricketers Fight with Lot other talented Cricketer and with so frequently they bound to loose more energy and skill compare to few bunch of talented with few bunch not so frequently! May be someone can steal my idea and write an article on that. hahaha

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