Team of the year
The Wisden Test XI of 2009 was chosen with no fundamental disagreements among the selectors, although some countries played too little Test cricket to supply much evidence of individual worth. There was an unhealthy lack of contact between West and East: New Zealand were the only non-Asian country to complete a Test series against an Asian one in 2009 (excluding Bangladesh's victories over a below-strength West Indies). Direct comparisons were therefore more difficult in the absence of head-to-head confrontations. Our Test XI consists of the eleven cricketers who received either two or three votes from the panel of three selectors, all of them prominent commentators. This year they were the West Indian fast bowler Ian Bishop; Ian Chappell, who captained Australia in the 1970s; and the former Indian allrounder Ravi Shastri.
Four members of the Wisden Test XI were unanimous choices: Kumar Sangakkara, although his position in the batting order was the subject of dispute; Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the wicketkeeper, captain and No. 7, like last year; Mitchell Johnson, the one unanimous selection among the world's fast bowlers; and Graeme Swann, unopposed as the first-choice spinner, a fine achievement for one who was virtually a newcomer to Test cricket.
Bishop, always on the look-out for new talent, did not select the sometimes injured Virender Sehwag to open for the Wisden Test XI, which is based more on form than the Leading Cricketer of the World, where class dictates. But the others did. Shastri defines Sehwag as "simply the most destructive opener"; to Chappell, Sehwag is "the type of player who keeps opposing captains awake at night, and he produced the feat of the year in scoring 284 off 79 overs against Sri Lanka in Mumbai."
Andrew Strauss was selected by Bishop and Chappell as the second opening batsman, but not by Shastri, who preferred Gautam Gambhir. Chappell notes that Strauss in 2009 enhanced his reputation as a batsman and skipper; Bishop says he led England with "distinction", and his team depended on his batting and captaincy, while observing that Chris Gayle and Simon Katich had been "very impressive" too. As for Graeme Smith, he enjoyed a wonderful year in 2008, and at the start of 2010, but not in between.
As Gautam Gambhir - who got two votes, like Sehwag and Strauss - is a fine player of spin, he is the opener who has to drop down to No. 3, in the opinion of the convenor, the editor. Shastri believes Gambhir is the finest player of spin among all contemporary openers: this was demonstrated not least when India had to follow on in New Zealand and Gambhir batted India to safety over ten hours in scoring 137 against Daniel Vettori. He hit four centuries in his nine Test innings in 2009.
Sachin Tendulkar still holds on to the No. 4 position, in the eyes of Bishop and Shastri. In fact Shastri, who has probably seen more of Tendulkar's batting - as team-mate and commentator - than anybody, thinks he is better than ever: "His hunger hasn't diminished after 20 years in the game, and he seems to have more time for his shots than a few years ago." Tendulkar, he says, is "more relaxed" too, or at least he gives the impression that the pressure on him affects him less.
Kumar Sangakkara, the only unanimous choice among the batsmen, was No. 3 in the eyes of Bishop - who thinks the Sri Lankan is "a class act the world over" - and of Chappell, who rates Sangakkara "an ideal No. 3 who can recover a poor start or counter-attack". Somebody, however, has to drop down and Shastri, who had opted for Ricky Ponting as his No. 3, voted for Sangakkara as his No. 5, just ahead of Mahela Jayawardene, "one of the best timers on a slow wicket of all time". Sangakkara has had relativelymore success outside Asia than his team-mate, and can act as reserve wicketkeeper.
Although his normal position is No. 4, Jacques Kallis has to give way to Tendulkar and drop to No. 6. There, as Shastri says, "Kallis's technique can counter the second new ball, and his hunger - like Sachin's - has not diminished, and he is batting more aggressively." Chappell, who would have had Kallis at No. 4, calls him "one of the most underrated quiet achievers in the game". Chappell would also have had Tillekeratne Dilshan, as "perhaps the most improved performer of the year. He has benefited from a promotion to the top of Sri Lanka's order but in this side he could move things along quickly at No. 6."
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the unanimous choice as captain and keeper, led India to No. 1 in the Test rankings last year, for the first time. Indeed, by the end of 2009 Dhoni had yet to lose a Test match, let alone a series while in charge. "A man who handles multiple roles with aplomb and always seems to make runs when they are needed," Chappell calls him. Shastri, who has watched him so often, observes that Dhoni "is a superb leader of men as he can look after egos".
Although he was wayward in the Ashes series, shunning the limelight and the new ball, the fast left-handed Mitchell Johnson was still the one unanimous selection among the world's pace bowlers. "By sheer numbers he is the leading fast bowler of the year," Bishop notes: Johnson took 63 Test wickets in his 13 Tests. "At times he is inaccurate and inconsistent, but even during those periods he still takes wickets," says Chappell, "and he has the great attribute of taking wickets in groups."
Graeme Swann was unanimously selected as the specialist spinner, supplanting Harbhajan Singh from last year's XI. Shastri, a former spinner himself, said that playing so much 50- and 20-over cricket during the year made Harbhajan lose his flight and pitch too short. He admires Swann's attitude: "He is aggressive and likes the big stage, and he is improving all the time." Chappell remarks that Swann "would challenge Dilshan as the year's biggest improver. A wicket-taking spinner with good flight and variation who thinks aggressively in all departments of the game." For good measure, as Bishop says, Swann is "a valuable lower-order batsman".
Bishop, the fast-bowling expert on the panel, went for Peter Siddle's "durability and aggression over the year, which has been impressive for a relatively young international player". Chappell was tempted to give the West Indian newcomer Kemar Roach a spot, but settled for Siddle because he "is strong, relentless and always gives everything he's got". Shastri opted for Dale Steyn, but the South African was too often below par in 2009, and as the Wisden Test XI pays heed to form, Siddle with 45 Test wickets beats Steyn with 22 at an average of 32.
James Anderson takes the final position on the strength of the votes of Bishop and Shastri: and he would take the new ball with Siddle, allowing Johnson to be more comfortable as first change. According to Bishop: "Ben Hilfenhaus has grown and carried himself admirably in 2009. However, I feel Anderson as England's leader in the bowling department has moved to the top of his game." Shastri, who considered Mohammad Asif but thought he had not bowled quite enough, went for Anderson as "a match-winner in overcast conditions".
THE WISDEN TEST XI OF 2009
V. Sehwag (India) A. J. Strauss (England) G. Gambhir (India) S. R. Tendulkar (India) K. C. Sangakkara (Sri Lanka) J. H. Kallis (South Africa) *†M. S. Dhoni (India) M. G. Johnson (Australia) G. P. Swann (England) P. M. Siddle (Australia) J. M. Anderson (England)