St Peter is obviously a patient man and he waited until he felt that the odds were in his favour before he finally issued that long awaited challenge that we had all been waiting for. The event that precipitated his action was the sad but inevitable death of Sir Donald Bradman who passed away at his home in Adelaide at the age of 92, seven runs shy of his batting average.
The challenge in question was the match between St Peter's XI comprising those who have served their time on earth and the Living Legends who are still gracing us with their presence. The two parties carrying out the negotiations had to initially decide on the format of the game. The Living Legends, in keeping with the breakneck pace of life on Planet Earth, opted for a one-day game while St Peter (unsurprisingly for a person for whom time was not of the essence), was in favour of a timeless Test match.
Heated discussions ensued and it was finally agreed that the match would be played over four days and would consist of two innings per team with each innings restricted to a maximum of 100 overs. The Living Legends felt that it would be asking too much to expect a team to bowl more than 90 overs on a day but that notion was rejected scornfully by the Non-Living who claimed that 110 overs per day was the norm during their time. The two teams compromised on 100 overs per day with no restrictions on the number of overs per bowler and the psychological battle-lines had been drawn.
Having decided on the format, the next major issue was the venue and it was agreed that one team would host the first innings while the second innings would be hosted by the other. The Living Legends short-listed Lords, Melbourne Cricket Grounds and Eden Gardens in Calcutta as the most suitable grounds and eventually plumped for Eden Gardens on the basis that a) it could hold a capacity crowd of 110,000, b) St Peter's XI would find it difficult to get to grips with the humidity of Calcutta and c) the atmosphere and the noise levels at Eden Gardens would not sit well with the Non-Living who had been accustomed to a more serene and ethereal atmosphere. St Peter's XI in a poetic quirk of fate chose the picturesque Garden of Eden as their home venue with its apple tree within the boundary ropes, a la Kent.
The Living Legends insisted on playing in coloured clothing and decided on light brown and red signifying flesh and blood while St Peter's XI opted for white to depict the colour of their souls. Each team was called upon to provide an umpire and 'Dickie' Bird was asked to stand with Arthur Fagg.
The respective panels of selectors then had the unenviable tasks of picking their teams for this the Ultimate Challenge. As this game was to an extent timeless in nature, the concept of picking in-form players did not apply. The old adage "form is temporary, class is permanent" was particularly appropriate for this selection process. The selectors for the Living Legends also had to be careful in that candidates who did not make the final XI could be driven to take drastic action and cross over to the other side if they felt that they could make it to the other team, a choice unfortunately not open to those who failed to gain selection to St Peter's XI.
Sunil Gavaskar was an unanimous choice to open the batting for the Living Legends but choosing an opening partner for him was not an easy decision. Gordon Greenidge, Barry Richards, Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch, Arthur Morris, Bobby Simpson and Sanath Jayasuriya were all considered but none of them had an outstanding claim on that position with Barry Richards's lack of experience at the highest level unfortunately counting against him and the decision was deferred.
There were plenty of candidates for the three middle order slots and the final shortlist consisted of Greg Chappell, Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Neil Harvey, Sir Viv Richards, Everton Weekes, Brian Lara, Graeme Pollock, Sachin Tendulkar, Hanif Mohammad and Javed Miandad. The selectors eventually went for Sir Viv Richards, Graeme Pollock and Sir Everton Weekes. Graeme Pollock who was unfortunate to miss out on Test cricket at the height of his powers due to the apartheid issue had the highest batting average among all living players and was second only to Bradman in the all time list. Sir Viv Richards had an aura about him and his majestic presence instilled fear in the ranks of the opposition. Sir Everton Weekes got the nod over his rivals through sheer weight of runs as well as the elegance with which he acquired them at an average that was only bettered by Graeme Pollock among the living. The depth of talent among the middle order batsmen also prompted the selectors to pick Sachin Tendulkar to open the batting with Sunil Gavaskar as he had shown that he was more than capable of playing that role in limited over matches.
The role of allrounder was again a unanimous choice with Sir Gary Sobers head and shoulders above his peers although Keith Miller, Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Richie Benaud and Kapil Dev all had impressive credentials. The wicket keeping position again had plenty of candidates and the likes of Alan Knott, Rod Marsh, Ian Healy and Jeff Dujon could all consider themselves unlucky to lose out to the burgeoning young talent of Adam Gilchrist.
Dennis Lillee was an automatic choice for one of the fast bowling slots but there was a lot of debate for the second slot. Wesley Hall, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Keith Miller, Alan Davidson, Jeff Thomson, Sir Richard Hadlee, Fred Trueman, Imran Khan and Wasim Akram were among those who staked strong claims. However, the place went to Glenn McGrath who although lacking some of the charisma of his rivals, was deemed to be the ideal choice with his record proving his versatility on all surfaces. Shane Warne, who was picked as one of the five cricketers of the century, got one of the spin bowling slots. The selectors were divided whether to play another fast bowler in the shape of Keith Miller or a second specialist spinner but eventually decided to go for spin as the wicket at Eden Gardens was expected to favour spin. The right to be Warne's spin partner attracted much argument before off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan with his prodigious turn got the nod over Lance Gibbs and Bishen Singh Bedi. Jonty Rhodes was a popular choice as 12th man having fought off the challenge of his fellow South African Colin Bland.
Having selected the team, the captain had to be picked from among the final XI and Sir Gary Sobers was the obvious choice with Sir Viv Richards being the only other possibility. Thus the Living Legends team read as follows:
Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Sir Vivian Richards, Sir Everton Weekes, Graeme Pollock, Sir Gary Sobers (Captain), Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Dennis Lillee, Muttiah Muralitharan and Glenn McGrath. 12th Man - Jonty Rhodes.
St Peter had a plethora of outstanding opening batsmen with the likes of Dr. W.G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Sir Len Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe and Victor Trumper from whom he had to make the final pick and it was not an easy decision to leave out Hutton, Sutcliffe and Trumper. Sir Donald Bradman was a shoo-in for the Number 3 berth but the two other middle order slots attracted plenty of discussion.
Lord Colin Cowdrey who was a fairly recent entrant through the Pearly Gates was one of the front runners with his weight of runs but there was also a fair deal of support for Peter May, Wally Hammond, Ken Barrington, Denis Compton, Archie Jackson, Stan McCabe and George Headley. The notion of playing Hutton or Trumper in the middle order was also given due consideration before the selectors eventually settled on the elegant Hammond and the mercurial Headley whose Test average is only surpassed by Bradman and Pollock.
The all-rounders slot was again widely debated with Charlie Macartney, Monty Noble, Frank Woolley, Wilfred Rhodes and Sir Frank Worrell making the final shortlist before the last named prevailed on the basis of his superior batting skills. There were plenty of wicket-keepers who were worthy contenders with Bert Oldfield, Wally Grout and Godfrey Evans being the pick. The selectors initially selected Oldfield on the grounds that he was the best wicket-keeper. However, after having selected the bowlers, they revisited the issue and decided on Godfrey Evans for his batting in order to give the side a better balance.
Malcolm Marshall who recently lost his battle against cancer spearheaded the shortlist of quicks which included the likes of Fred Spofforth, Ray Lindwall, Harold Larwood, Brian Statham, George Lohmann and Sydney Barnes. The variety offered by this group was unparalleled and the selectors showed courage in plumping for Marshall, Lindwall and Barnes with the last named giving his team an extra dimension with his ability to bowl leg-breaks and off-breaks in addition to his fast medium pace. A ball with which Barnes bowled Vic Trumper was described by the non-striker Charlie Macartney as "the sort of ball a sick man might see in his dreams". The ball was fast on the leg stump, moved late in the air to the off stump before cutting off the pitch to take the leg stump out of the ground! Ray Lindwall's marvelously fluent and flowing run up and clever changes of pace made him a connoisseur's fast bowler and the sight of him opening the bowling was one of cricket's greatest joys. Malcolm Marshall, the baby of the team, brought to his side the vital experience gained from having played alongside many of the Living Legends.
The selection of three pacemen left only one place open for a genuine spinner and this was fought between Jim Laker, Hugh Trumble, Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly with O'Reilly gaining preference over his rivals for his sheer aggression combined with subtlety, variation and impeccable accuracy. Lord Learie Constantine was the unanimous choice as 12th man.
Sir Don Bradman was the obvious choice to lead his team although there was some concern as to how Dr. W.G Grace would react to being a mere "player". The doctor was counseled on the importance of team spirit and thus St.Peter's XI to meet the Living Legends read as follows:
Dr. W.G. Grace, Sir Jack Hobbs, Sir Don Bradman (Captain), George Headley, Wally Hammond, Sir Frank Worrell, Godfrey Evans, Malcolm Marshall, Ray Lindwall, Bill O'Reilly and Sydney Barnes. 12th man - Lord Learie Constantine
The stage was set for the final curtain call as heroes of the past and present congregated to do battle. Would the Living Legends prevail or would St.Peter's galaxy of stars prove that there was life after death? How would The Don cope with the pace of Lillee and McGrath and would he score sufficient runs to bring his average to 100? Would Dr W.G. Grace be able to come to terms with players who had no qualms about looking him in the eye and who would not tolerate his gamesmanship? How would the cavalier George Headley cope with the twin spin threat of Warne and Muralitharan? Would Malcolm Marshall be given due respect by his former skipper Sir Viv Richards?
22 cricketers who strode the earth as gladiators during their respective eras were being brought to battle in the arenas of Eden Gardens and the Garden of Eden which would house the greatest ever gathering of cricketing talent. The entire world was agog with excitement as fans around the world were finally being given the opportunity to compare giants from different eras. The Great Scorer in the sky took his position in front of his score book and the cricketing fraternity was set for this the final showdown.