October 25, 2010

A match-up made in heaven

The notion of a face-off between Trueman and Tendulkar and Lillee and Lara is mouth-watering, to say the least. Who'll win in a contest between ESPNcricinfo's World XI and the Second XI?

Four Australians, three West Indians, two Anglo-Saxons and one apiece from India and Pakistan (viva diplomacy!). It is exceedingly hard to imagine anyone whose loyalties lie beyond New Zealand, South Africa or Sri Lanka issuing writs over the names or distribution of nationalities in the Cricinfo all-time World XI - though Dream-On XI might be nearer the mark.

This not a team designed to cock snooks, contradict tradition or court controversy - but then neither is it altogether predictable. There were, after all, only two shoo-ins: Don Bradman and Garry Sobers.

Wisden's quintessential 20th-century quintet is all present and correct (Bradman, Jack Hobbs, Viv Richards, Sobers and Shane Warne). Ditto eight of Richie Benaud's all-timers (with Sunil Gavaskar, Imran Khan and SF Barnes for Len Hutton, Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram here) and Harold Pinter's favourite cricketer (Hutton). In a 2001 poll for The New Ball, a panel culled from half a dozen nations - including Ted Dexter, four Wisden editors and the game's pre-eminent historian, David Frith - showered most of their votes for our Heaven's XI on Sobers (29), followed by Warne (26), Richards (25), Bradman (22) and Dennis Lillee (18).

Then again, just three members of Our Richie's 2nd XI made either of the Cricinfo models, while only Lillee, Richards and Sobers graduated from the longlist in Gavaskar's 1984 book, Icons. Doughtily as he doubtless battled for his hero, Ian Chappell's failure to win even an also-ran's role for Keith Miller will have cut him to the quick.

In most cases it all boils down, or should do, to those we have seen and on whom we can thus legitimately pass judgement (and Ajit Wadekar, 70 next April, is the most venerable of our eight ex-captain-selectors). Proximity is key. Bypassing ancients such as George Lohmann, George Giffen, Ranji and The Demon Spofforth, the jury have named only three men on the basis of figures, reputation and trust - Bradman, Hobbs and Hutton. That said, Richards only just nosed past George Headley, Victor Trumper was the jury's sixth-most popular opener, and Barnes will be burrowing out of his grave as we speak to throttle each and every voter who had the gall and downright ignorance to tout any bowler as his superior.

Bar one, the remainder all began their international careers after 1969, and Sobers, the odd man out, was still playing in 1974. The implication, that global professionalism left the final quarter of the 20th century blessed with more brilliant hand-eye coordinators than any other generation, seems far from unreasonable.

He may have been the bowler Brian Lara feared most, but many will object with especial vehemence to the presence of Wasim (is he there strictly for variety?), not least since Sobers also offers southpaw swing. As is the way with the unproveable, the hairline calls are endless. Bradman, Sobers and Tendulkar all rated Muttiah Muralitharan above Warne; Glenn McGrath, Warne and Gavaskar back Tendulkar over Lara, Murali and Barry Richards go the other way - and Wasim reckons Martin Crowe better than both.

One decision, though, sticks out as strategically unsound. With a top six as superlative as this on tap, nominating Gilchrist seems excessively cautious. Those to whom glovemanship is first, last and everything - i.e. the bowlers - would surely have preferred Alan Knott or Ian Healy. Tellingly, only two of our selectors, Tony Greig and Intikhab Alam, belong to that particular species.

SO, PITTED AGAINST their understudies in the Second XI, how, with every player in his pomp and fittest circumstance, would this exalted collective perform? Granted, there isn't all that much head-to-head evidence to go on, and even what there is may be distorted by duellists crossing swords at different stages of their careers, but let's have a stab.

The absence of extreme pace is good news for the top three. Hutton hit 100 and 364 in his four innings against Bill "Tiger" O'Reilly, who defeated him twice, once for 5. No lover of quick singles, or of competing for roars and awe, Richards might even be a teensy bit intimidated by Bradman, but the competitive juices would surely flow, with terrifying consequences for any bowler.

Whet appetites? The notion of a face-off between those lordly scrappers Richards and Imran is enough to soak them: in 14 Tests in opposition, Richards on 11 occasions passed 40, with two centuries, while Imran snared him on five occasions, four times for 30 or fewer. But what most tickles this fanciful fancy, narrowly ahead of the Bradman-Barnes bout, is the clash of wits, egos and temperament between those prickly colleagues-in-name-only, The Don and The Tiger. And while we're letting our imaginations run riot, lips should also be licked avidly at the prospect of other confrontations hitherto denied by motherland (Lara v Marshall, Hobbs v Barnes) or Father Time (Hutton v Lillee, Bradman v Murali, Richards v Trueman, Sobers v Hammond).

The obvious problems come lower down. Gilchrist failed to pass 22 in three of his four Test dismissals by Murali, who also took care of Tendulkar for fewer than 30 on no fewer than six occasions - in all, he ejected him eight times, more than any other bowler. Twice, however, Tendulkar had already pocketed a century. Trueman, similarly, was Sobers' bete noir, felling him seven times, but three single-figure scores were balanced by four hundreds, including a 226, when opposed by the self-anointed Finest Ruddy Fast Bowler That Ever Drew Breath.

How do you tell Warne to field at short leg or teach Bradman the headlong boundary dive? How do you coax Hutton to let his hair down and set up a declaration? How do you exhort Hobbs to improve his sledging? How do you curb Sobers' enthusiasm?

As for the bowlers, Warne was often rumbled by Lara - seven dismissals, yes, four of them for 45 or fewer, countered by seven fifties and five hundreds, three of them doubles and four of them match-winners, led by those back-to-back 1999 masterpieces in Kingston and Bridgetown. Marshall frequently made merry at Gavaskar's expense, sending him back eight times, all for under 41, including four single-figure scores, and 12, 18 and 20, but their 14 five-day collisions also saw the opener rack up five hundreds and a 90, including a career-best 236 not out in Madras in 1983.

Two years before that Lillee bested Gavaskar twice in the one series in which they went toe-to-toe, for 0 and 70, the latter Sunny's only innings of substance in the three matches. Wasim, moreover, dismissed Lara for next to nothing twice in successive Tests in 1997, the Prince of Port-of-Spain passing fifty (51 and 96) just twice in their seven encounters. No shortage of scores for the settling, then.

LEADING THIS LITTLE LOT, on the face of it, ought to be about as straightforward as running a recruitment scheme for apprentice chocolate-tasters. Call correctly and contain the egos: that's about the size of it. Admittedly the second task might be a tad more problematic.

Whose wrath can you most safely risk incurring when deciding on your new-ballers? How do you tell Warne to field at short leg or teach Bradman the headlong boundary dive? How do you coax Hutton to let his hair down and set up a declaration? How do you exhort Hobbs to improve his sledging? How do you curb Sobers' enthusiasm? How do you convince him to resist bowling fast, swinging chinamen while fielding at slip and leg slip?

Given that profound inability to take a backward step, and that his ego is almost certainly the biggest in our time-honoured, time-proof dressing room, Warnie's my boy.

World XI: Jack Hobbs, Len Hutton, Don Bradman, Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards, Garry Sobers, Adam Gilchrist, Malcolm Marshall, Shane Warne, Wasim Akram, Dennis Lillee

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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