The grittiest XI
Should a sportsman want to be thought of as talented? It's a more difficult question than it seems. Young players, inevitably, want to be considered talented because talent leads to opportunity. Coaches and selectors "invest" in talent - or that's the theory, anyway.
But by the end of a player's career, being talked about as "talented" implies a hint of underachievement. By then there is - or should be - a proper body of evidence. The worth of a player can be measured in runs and wickets, not in estimations of innate athletic ability.
"Talented" can even be used as a term of reproach. In fact, it is. I saw one disruptive senior player constantly undermine his captain by beginning each sentence to him with, "Don't you think, given all your natural talent…" What he meant was that the captain was an underachiever (he wasn't, by the way.)
In my last column I celebrated talent - beginning with the Brazilian footballer Socrates and then analysing dazzlingly talented cricketers. I was fascinated that the comments made by readers quickly moved towards a discussion of nature versus nurture. It has become a controversial subject within sport. In Bounce, the English sportswriter Matthew Syed calls talent a "myth", an illusion created by hours of dedicated practice.
I am not so dismissive of talent. I am convinced that some elite sportsmen are exceptionally gifted - the gods dealt them a good hand, if you like. But it is also true that some top sportsmen owe their success more to dedication and will power than to the accidents of genetically inherited ability. (Another time we will look into whether will power is also determined by innate talent.)
Having celebrated Socrates and Co last time, this column will look at the other type of sporting greatness: the fighter who succeeds against the odds. Put differently, which cricketers can look back on their careers without any sense of guilt for wasting the gifts conferred at birth? Who made the very best of themselves? Who can look in the mirror without regret?
As this list is certain to prove controversial, let me define my terms. First, it is a personal rather than an objective list. I have only picked players who I personally watched a great deal, even if statistics suggest others may be more deserving. Secondly, some players are excluded on the grounds that they are just a bit too brilliant. That rules out Allan Border, even though he embodied guts and spirit, and also Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid, even though many people believe they owe their colossal achievements more to concentration and technique than Lara-style genius. Thirdly, it must be a balanced side of batsmen and bowlers. Fourthly, please forgive me for picking three Englishmen and no Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Zimbabweans or Bangladeshis (see premise one).
All that said, here it is, my grittiest World XI of recent decades:
1. Justin Langer
I'm not sure if it is physically possible to have your jaw jutting out while keeping your head down. But that was the impression given by Langer. Resilient and brave, he always seemed happiest when confronted with almost insurmountable odds. Being the underdog suited him just fine. In fact, it inspired him.
Being an Australian batsman in the 1990s was brutally competitive. Greg Blewett was a brilliant natural athlete; Darren Lehmann a deft, sublime talent; the imperious Stuart Law played some of the most handsome shots I ever saw. And yet Langer kept them all out of the team for long periods. He didn't just endure and survive, he grew and adapted. He never lost the air of a man being pursued by a pack of hungry dogs - or, more accurately, a pack of sublimely gifted rival Australian batsmen.
He wasn't just a scrapper, of course. He could hit a long ball and attack fiercely. But even Langer's most expansive innings grew out of his relentless willpower.
2. Gary Kirsten
Like his opening partner here, Kirsten combined physical bravery with extraordinary powers of concentration. His 130 at Headingley in 2003 was a model of how to absorb pressure - like Muhammad Ali on the ropes. Kirsten allowed himself to let loose only on his highest percentage blows, with cuts and deflections when the ball was above bail height. It was a masterclass in Test match batting: always playing within himself.
He was also mild-mannered, modest and dignified - proof that some of the toughest fighters don't like to shout about it. (Kirsten just edges out John Wright, a terrific fighter and brilliant bloke, and Mark Richardson, who averaged a stellar 44 in Test cricket.)
3. Gautam Gambhir
Gambhir is one of the most underrated players in the world. It was Gambhir who soaked up the pressure when India were rocking in the World Cup final. It was Gambhir who prepared the stage for MS Dhoni's brilliance.
The purist may argue that Gambhir "chokes" the ball with a closed bat face. When he aims for extra cover, it seems to go through mid-off - like a golfer with a closed grip turning a seven into a five iron.
He is hard to characterise as a player because he is so versatile, mixing up defensive deflections with decisive attack. He brilliantly judges how to change his tempo: just when you think he is retreating into his shell, he dances down the wicket to the first ball by a spin bowler.
He is the pragmatist in a batting order of princes. If you are batting with Sehwag, Laxman and Co, there is no point trying to match them shot for shot. But it takes a distinct kind of self-confidence to be your own man and play in your own style.
4. Shiv Chanderpaul
He is edging towards the too-good-for-this-team zone. But I'll let him in because his average is still just a fraction under 50 (what a relief for him). His style is all elbows and knees rather than elegant drives. But he has defied the world's best bowlers - as well as the MCC coaching manual - for nearly 20 years and over 9000 Test runs.
5. Paul Collingwood
Few contemporaries talked about the young Collingwood as a man who would play 68 Tests and average over 40. Like Langer, he was at his best when he was being doubted. A spate of critical newspaper articles always seemed to produce a Collingwood hundred. Perhaps he should have asked the press to have a go at him more often.
6. Alec Stewart
Surely Stewart's natural gift for timing - his deft flicks off his pads and pivot hook shots - marks him out as a creature of innate ability? But he gets into this XI for his wicketkeeping as well as his batting. His phenomenal work ethic and professionalism turned him from a batsman who could keep into a world-class allrounder. Batting surely came more naturally to him than keeping, but by the high point of his career you would never have guessed because his keeping was so neat and proficient.
Stewart was relentlessly organised, in every respect. "The more prepared you are, the less there is to worry about." That was his mantra.
7. Ravi Shastri
Mumbai has produced a stream of sublimely gifted batsmen. Shastri, in contrast, talked about himself as not being especially talented. But he played 80 Tests, providing stability and consistency as either an opener or in the middle order. Handily, he also gets in as a reliable second spinner.
8. Daniel Vettori
Left-arm spinners are usually a volatile bunch. Philippe Edmonds was a joy to watch, but not always to captain. Vettori stands out for his calmness, durability and consistency. New Zealand fans will know how rarely his ten overs go for more than 50 in ODIs. Like another durable finger-spinner, John Emburey, Vettori has gone up the batting order rather than slid down it (he now averages over 30) - a mark of his commitment to self-improvement.
9. Makhaya Ntini
People said you couldn't bowl for long with an action like Ntini's - first angling in, then falling away. Three hundred and ninety wickets later, they have to think again. Ntini was relentless in body and mind - incredibly fit, competitive, energetic and hopeful (perhaps the most important quality a bowler can possess). He looked like he ran up mountains between Test matches, just for fun. In fact, that's exactly what he did.
10. Matthew Hoggard
England has produced a good number of seam bowlers who are prepared to run up the hill and into the wind. Hoggard just shades Angus Fraser in this XI. I played with Hoggard for England Under-19s. He was already a serious prospect. But he wasn't ahead of Jimmy Ormond or Ben Hollioake (who bowled quickly as an 18-year-old) in terms of pure talent. Many swing bowlers are prone to disappear when the ball isn't swinging. But Hoggard always stuck at it, making himself useful to the team even when conditions were against him.
11. Chris Martin
Not many fast bowlers fancy turning up for a day's hard work in their 38th year. But Martin is still at it, helping New Zealand win tight Test matches (he took 3 for 46 in their recent defeat of Australia in Hobart.) Usually it is batsmen who get better with age and fast bowlers who fizzle out. In contrast, Martin has had the rare pleasure of surviving while many batting contemporaries have faded away.
I'm not sure whether these extraordinary performers will thank me for picking them in my grittiest XI. But I've no doubt that this team would have got the job done - no matter how talented the opposition.
Postscript Added 17:15 GMT, 21 Dec
It's always good to get the views of ESPNcricinfo readers but some don't seem to have read the whole article. This is not meant to be the greatest ever XI; it is not even supposed to be the mentally toughest XI. Instead, it is a balanced team of players I've watched who - in my opinion - have come close to maximising their ability.
As I wrote in the piece: "Some players are excluded on the grounds that they are just a bit too brilliant. That rules out Allan Border, even though he embodied guts and spirit, and also Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid, even though many people believe they owe their colossal achievements more to concentration and technique than Lara-style genius."
As a rule of thumb, I've excluded anyone who averages over 50 with the bat (Graeme Smith, Steve Waugh, Dravid, Kallis). And bowlers who average mid-20s or lower.
Some reader suggestions (like the name of Mark Richardson) are very persuasive. But others are clearly not relevant for my criteria. After all, as the editor rightly pointed out to me, you could argue that Bradman maximised his ability. But somehow it doesn't sound quite right, in my role as hypothetical chief selector, to announce a team that begins: Collingwood, Martin, er, Bradman...
I'm sure you understand.