Thursday, October 21, 2010
Problems of an All Time XI - (including With or Without Hair?)
I spent a large part of a year of excruciating cubicle existence by preparing and refining elevens made with each letters of the alphabet. Hard to believe? How about an A team comprising of Dennis Amiss, Saeed Anwar, Zaheer Abbas, Hashim Amla, Mohammed Azharuddin, Warwick Armstrong, Gubby Allen, Les Ames, Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose and Ghulam Ahmed. And a B XI – Geoff Boycott, Bill Brown, Don Bradman, Ken Barrington, Alan Border, Ian Botham, Mark Boucher, Richie Beanuad, Alec Bedser, Sid Barnes and Bishen Bedi.
I'll stop … it is addictive and never ending. Besides, I can never decide on the opening pair when I get to H. Hobbs, Hutton, Haynes, Hunte, Hanif, Hayden …. well …
However, after two and a half decades of cricket watching, I am slightly circumspect about this exercise. Putting names on paper is obviously always a pleasurable and sometimes passionate pastime, but as I have followed the career of players over decades and have seen them as evolving performers and not names staring out at me from a page of cricket writing, old scorecards or tables of statistics, I find some questions tugging at my fantasies as I etch elevens in imagination.
Cricketers, as any other human being, evolve over time. Some get better, some skills wane, some remain consistent over the years. If we look at truly great performers, we find more or less the same career average graph over the span of his exploits. However, with the passing of time, the mind, body and spirit undergo invariable change. The speed of the eye is slowed down that wee bit by the weight of the years and is compensated by that extra experience. The nimble feet become more economic in motion and the mercurial movements lean more towards safety rather than scintillation.
When I see a Sachin Tendulkar in an all time eleven, I pause to wonder which edition of the champion we will see on the fictional field. Will it be the irrepressible eighteen year old stroking his way to a century on the fast and furious Perth, the mature middle order maestro in mid twenties as he marauds over Shane Warne provoking nightmares, the sedate, sober, secure statesman of Sidney 2003 concentrating along to 241 or the relentless run machine in his late thirties who continues to score double hundreds more frequently than ever before?
With time, Kumble added venom to his orthodox leg break even as his shoulder became weary from the toils. Warne kept proclaiming new mystery deliveries, Viv Richards walked out with the same swagger with varying results.
Even fielding positions need to be thought of with care. Should Dravid be the youthful, agile newcomer – hovering in the short leg? Or should he be the eternal poker faced first slip, serene and still, occasionally taking time off to snap up blinders that leave others speechless but not him?
Should we have in our team a young electric Clive Lloyd patrolling the covers, the lone man in front of the wicket as the four fast bowlers torment the opposition batting with six slips, leg slip and short leg? Or will he be the giant of a man standing in the slips, waiting to gobble up those fast and frequent edges.
For someone like Sehwag, I may get away asking whether it will be the version with hair or without. But for most of the other names that one is likely to encounter on an all time list, there needs to be a time stamp as well to qualify which snapshot of the evolving career we are including in our team.
If we decide on players with time stamps, can we not pick those super successful streaks? In the time stamped Indian team that we were just making – and I find the Cricinfo choice of Hazare and Mankad at 5 and 6 surprising to the point of inanity – should we go for Laxman 2003, when our wristy wizard was perhaps manufacturing his best masterpieces? Or should we pick Dilip Vengsarkar of 1986-87, who was acknowledged as the best batsman of the world during that period - averaging over 100 in 16 tests, and rated by the computer to be ahead of contemporaries Gavaskar, Richards, Border, Gower and Miandad?
Should we go for Zaheer Abbas of 1982 or Yousuf Youhana of 2006? Erapalli Prasanna of 1967 or Harbhajan Singh of 2001?
Too many complications.
We can keep it simple by agreeing on the following steps.
1. The greatness of a cricketer is stamped when he succeeds over a long, long period of time … a testimony to his longevity, consistency and class. (Takes care of the short peaks of good but not great players)
2. Each of these long serving players need to be tagged with a date stamp to enable us to decide the exact entity we are including in our eleven.
3. We need to live with the fact that the player is limited to the time stamp.
So, as the first step, we will definitely go ahead and choose Dravid and Laxman ahead of Vengsarkar of 86 and Amarnath of 82.
Next, we will tag 1998 against the name of Tendulkar. (It can be any other vintage year of the maestro, 1998 is just an example)
And finally we need to remember that he will have the ability to smack Warne out of the ground even with a mistimed loft over mid on against the spin, but will be prone to guide an innocuous ball down the throat of the point fielder much more often than the run machine of 2010. There will be spectacular centuries, but most often they will not mature into epic double hundreds.
The task of choosing elevens is so fascinating that I can keep writing on and on … While there are several people who ask questions about the utility of such diversions, my answer is the following. If we can use our imagination to move forward and backward in time, and then follow it up by bringing together some of the men in white who have captured our fancy over the ages, why not indulge ourselves?