The joy of the past
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