Raucous and freakish
"Mainly Aussie", read the headline for the teams selected by Cricinfo staff at the end of 2007. This time around, the piece could be titled "No Aussies" (though that may not be quite an accurate indicator of the way cricket has gone in the last year): there isn't one Australian in either of the sides. However, the lists are not dominated by players from the team of the year, South Africa. Although a couple of their players are among the most popular choices in the Test team, the only South Africa-born player in the ODI team is Kevin Pietersen. The one team dominating the XIs this year is India: their openers, their captain, their new-ball bowlers, and one of their veterans all make it to the teams.
TestsOne of the easiest choices - and the most mouth-watering prospect - when selecting a team for 2008 has to be the Test openers. Maverick madman Virender Sehwag joining Iron Man Graeme Smith opens up possibilities. One knows no textbook, no pressure, no decorum for certain situations. The other knows no pain, loves the pressure, and is usually the last man standing. What a year the two have had: Smith leads the run-scorers, followed by Sehwag. Between them they have 3118 runs, nine centuries, and four match-winning innings that will be talked of for a long time. (Smith at Edgbaston and in Perth, Sehwag in Galle and Chennai).
Gautam Gambhir had such a great year in Tests (only eight of which he played) that most at Cricinfo thought a place needed to be made for him. And place he gets, at No. 3, ahead of Ricky Ponting and the artistic Hashim Amla. Over the last year Gambhir averaged 70.87 in scoring 1134 runs, and his sheer productivity was hard to ignore.
He is followed by the India No. 4, who exorcised a big ghost, in his 20th year in international cricket, by scoring a match-winning century in the fourth innings of a match. Sachin Tendulkar started the year with a classy century in Sydney and finished with the Chennai victory, and he is still going strong.
What is a Test World XI if it cannot produce a switch-hit or two that goes for a six over the long-off boundary? It feels like yesterday that Kevin Pietersen made his debut, but he already has 15 centuries to his name. In every full year he has played since his debut, he has managed 1000 runs. This year he crossed the mark during one of the most audacious hundreds by a visiting batsman in India.
What if this line-up fails? Who does the rescue job then? If you have had a streak that started mid-2007 and reads 50, 116 not out, 136 not out, 70, 104, 8, 65 not out, 70 not out, 0, absent, 23, 3, 18, 86 not out, 118, 11, 107 not out, 77 not out, 79 not out, 50, 76, 126 not out and 0, you are Shivnarine Chanderpaul and are welcome to join the Test XI. There couldn't be any other man to bat for your life.
Prasanna Jayawardene was good to watch, Brendon McCullum played good knocks here and there, but Mahendra Singh Dhoni - for the second year running - remains the Cricinfo staffers' choice for the wicketkeeping job. The scrapping qualities he brings with the bat could well have tilted the scales in his favour.
The bowling attack is refreshing, with two newcomers, Ajantha Mendis and Ishant Sharma. Mendis played only three Tests, but his 26 wickets in those were enough to outshine Muttiah Muralitharan and Daniel Vettori. Ishant gets to keep the company of his friend, philosopher and guide from the Indian team - the more-versatile-than-ever Zaheer Khan. Neither of these last two is in the top 10 on the wicket-takers' list this year, but it's the impact they created on flat tracks in India that sees them through.
The bowling attack is capped by the most obvious choice of all: Dale Steyn, who can also rival Zaheer for a higher batting slot. Both of them have been a thorn in the Aussies' sides, both with ball and bat, and Steyn has the better numbers to show - 74 wickets at an average of 20. Pace, movement, mean streak - you don't want to run into him in a dark alley.
Graeme Smith (c), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar, Kevin Pietersen, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, MS Dhoni (wk), Zaheer Khan, Dale Steyn, Ajantha Mendis, Ishant Sharma
Near misses: AB de Villiers, Andrew Flintoff, Daniel Vettori
ODIsImagine Chris Gayle and Sehwag opening the innings. Both men have destroyed attacks individually; together will they complement each other? Will they compete? Any which way, the bowlers won't like it.
And what of Gautam Gambhir, the leading run-scorer in the year? Once again, like in the Test XI, and like in his early days, he drops down one spot. His performances from No. 3 in the CB Series provide evidence he can adjust.
The ODI middle order of this team is the capital of bonhomie. These bosom pals won't be chucking pies and one-liners at each other, so they could well get into a contest to prove who is more audacious instead. So much for relief from Gayle and Sehwag: Yuvraj Singh and Pietersen, both in prime form, make for an explosive middle order.
In Dhoni will follow stability. In many ways he has been the best ODI batsman of the year - and the second-highest run-getter, scoring runs in almost every situation, be it accumulation, rebuilding, or all-out attack.
Unlike the Test team, this one needs an allrounder, and Andrew Flintoff has done enough to make it. An economy of less than 4.5 an over and a strike-rate of close to 110 runs per 100 balls sounds good enough for a No. 7.
Mendis, who needs two wickets in his next four matches to become the fastest to 50 wickets, promises to be a handful. Unlike in Tests, he has had enough time to prove his credentials in ODIs, taking a wicket every 10 runs and giving away only 3.5 an over.
In what is a freak-meet-freak situation, Sohail Tanvir becomes the only Pakistani to make either team. His quick-arm action, accuracy and variations with the slower ball make him the best death bowler around currently. If he sounds suspiciously like Wasim Akram, what to make of Zaheer? Tight starts, breakthroughs in the middle, and asphyxiating stuff at the death. His economy-rate of 3.84 for the year, mostly in the subcontinent, says as much.
The final place is a difficult choice, because of a tie between Vettori and Stuart Broad. Vettori makes the cut because of his experience and the presence of three pace bowlers already.
Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Kevin Pietersen, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni (capt./wk), Andrew Flintoff, Sohail Tanvir, Daniel Vettori, Zaheer Khan, Ajantha Mendis
Near misses: Stuart Broad, Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Brendon McCullum
CaptaincyThe Test captaincy made for a good debate: Smith's conventional leadership from the front and implementation of plans versus the intuitive ways and individuality of Dhoni. Smith was such an overwhelming favourite to make the team that he came through as captain, and he has much more experience than Dhoni. In the ODI team, though, there is no Smith. The debate was between Dhoni, Pietersen, Gayle and Vettori. Dhoni got the majority of votes there.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo