Thursday, October 21, 2010

Problems of an All Time XI - (including With or Without Hair?)

In your all time XI, would you choose the young Sachin Tendulkar of 1998 or the vintage run machine of 2010?

Wouldn't it be a delight if those eternal entertainers on green ovals could travel across time and play in clashes across eras? Can any traditional cricket lover not be enthralled at the imagined sight of Virender Sehwag walking in to open the innings with Victor Trumper while Dennis Lillee limbers up with Harold Larwood?
These flights of flannelled fantasy leads to the fascination of All Time Elevens – a pastime every enthusiast has allowed his fancy to indulge in.

Neville Cardus, in articles of comparative levity – although no less delightful in perusal – often came up with weird teams across space and time, with criteria as macabre as 'Eleven with Odd Names'.

Sunil Gavaskar confesses that along with Peter Roebuck, he spent his hours in the slips for Somerset by creating all sorts of elevens. And the popularity of the recent project of Cricinfo, of choosing elevens for each nation, underlines the endearing and everlasting appeal of having our heroes of one era share dressing rooms with the stalwarts of others. Geoff Boycott has even written a four hundred page book on the best elevens of test playing nations.

I myself have been making up teams ever since cricket consciousness emerged over the horizon of my childhood and works by Cardus, Arlott, Beanaud and Cozier first infiltrated, and gradually ruled, my shelf space. From all time elevens for nations, I soon graduated to more complicated stuff. It took hold of my leisure hours in school and a great part of not so leisure hours of the college and professional years, to the extent of my coming up with all time Ranji teams, County elevens, Sheffield Shield sides … and soon teams that were actually bizarre.

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?

When Don Bradman returned to competitive cricket after the war, he piled on runs as ever, scoring his  customary centuries with metronomic regularity. However, even though his average improved over the second half of his career (a mind boggling feat that, considering a 99.94 career average), eye witnesses recounted that it was easier to make a trip to the tavern for a beer then than during the halcyon days of his early period, when missing a minute was akin to closing eyes to history.  So, which one of them plays in the Australian team? Someone we can count on to score three hundred in a day, or the other version who can bat for eternity as the innings grows around him?

It is more so with fast bowlers – whose trade is most savagely touched by time. Will we look at a Dennis Lillee of the mid seventies, the fiery tearaway whose very sight froze the best of batsmen at the crease? Or will it be the older wilier version sporting that headband, scary pace making way for clever variations, picking up wickets with similar frequency, in a slightly more humane manner.

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.

How can a captain decide on strategy or batting order or bowling options without knowing which brand of the great cricketer he was carrying in his team? Who will play the role of the innings builder, the stroke player, the stock bowler, the strike bowler to be used in short spells? Who will stand in slip and who will be in the covers?

So we start our team with Gavaskar (1971), Sehwag (with/without hair – the time does not  really matter), Dravid (2004), Sachin (1998) … Now we know exactly what we are talking about.
But, then we are faced with another dilemma.
There are some players who peaked at a particular period – during which sublime stage they were right at the top of the world. However, their time at the peak were short lived.
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?

Time is a dimension that flows forward forever. The relentless passage of the moments make the magic of the masters of the cricket field – as in any other experience of life – so precious. It is only in our imagination that the river can flow backward, from the sea to the source, picking the banks and shores where our memories linger the happiest.

When Mutthiah Muralitharan reached 800 wickets to bring about a fairytale end to his test career, could any genuine cricket lover have checked his secret tears at the sudden realisation that the master would never again trundle up to spin his web around helpless batsmen?

However, in the subconscious of my cricket loving psyche he will play on – as the supreme off spinning spearhead of the All Time Sri Lankan side, doubling up with Stuart McGill or Arthur Mailey as the spin twin of my M XI,  maybe bowling in tandem with Bill Bowes in the team composed of players with first and last names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, as Richie Richardson watches from the slips.

(Finally : Thanks a lot for your comments … I really appreciate it and they spur me on to write more. Let me know your feedback as usual and whether you would be interested in elevens of such curious compositions. If there is a great audience, I will be happy to oblige)


  1. Beautifully written.. and in a sense it justifies that making an all time XI is not possible in the real sense.. It would be injustice to a myriad of players... The only player who would be in the XI without any kind of objections from any living or non-living person is ofcourse Sachin Tendulkar...

  2. Wonderful...pure romance...its been a long time since i have seen someone in such deep love with the game. you are to cricket what gulzar is to movies !

  3. @ jegan - he he !!! finally Sachin appears in jegan's crictionary ;-)

  4. this is too good..i stumbled upon ur piece after finding the URL at 1 of d cricinfo comments...but i m so glad i read this piece...makes so much more sense than some of the articles from so called greats/professionals...plz keep writing...its a poetry in motion

  5. I stumbled upon your piece, just like Ankit, after going through the comments in Cricinfo and gone through your articles. After a long period came across a cricket romantic, who is adept at expressing his romance in words to his first love.

    Keep on putting words to describe the first love, cricket, so that us, mere mortals can savour and enjoy the poetry in prose.

    One more request, please start writing in Cricinfo blogs, wider span of readers will be able to enjoy your wonderful way with words and not be deprived.

    Wish you best of times writing more such poetry in prose.

    AD Prasad