Amongst the joys of watching test cricket (and there are many), one that ranks quite high is simple aesthetic pleasure.
The perfect cover drive, the wristy flick through leg, the curve of the spinner’s loop, the bowler’s back drive showing the bat maker’s label, the derring-do of the hook shot, the fast bowler in his delivery stride, the keeper diving away towards leg to claim a catch — every one of these moments remains imprinted in the mind, long after the specifics of the match in question are forgotten.
And there are some players across the ages that have made the sheer style with which they play the game their calling card. Yes, matches and series are mostly about results, but amidst the grim business of making runs and snaring wickets, there are players who light up the game just by being there. They may make only 10, they may cross a hundred (and part of their charm is you never know which), but while they’re there, they bring a smile to your lips. People pay good money to just see them come down from the pavilion steps and stride to the middle.
This list is a tribute to their tribe.
A word about the selection: There is no currently active player included in this list. Further, I have, in general, tended to go back a bit more into the past than players of more recent vintage, as the whole point of this list is a bit of nostalgia. And my aesthetic preference is always for the rapier over the broadsword.
1. Victor Trumper (Australia)
Bradman had all the records, but Trumper was the man the Aussies of the time most adored. “Never another like Vic.” That classic photograph of Vic jumping out to drive, the stories around the man’s class and generosity of spirit...He was almost the first name I put down for this list.
2. Majid Khan (Pakistan)
A dashing opening bat, at a time when opening batsmen tended to be mostly dull dogs tasked with the onerous burden of seeing off the new ball. His batting was all style and elegance — in full flow, he was quite a sight. Scored a century before lunch on the first day of a Test Match against the visiting New Zealanders in 1976, hooking Hadlee and Cairns with abandon. It was the first time anyone had done that since Bradman in 1930. Only five players have managed it, in all the long history of Test Cricket.
MIDDLE ORDER BATSMEN
3. K C Sangakkara (Sri Lanka) (also Wicket Keeper)
I picked a relatively recent master of style for the crucial No. 3 position. In selecting him over many others who could have graced this team, I have included him as a wicket-keeper. The keeper and the No.3 are both key roles, and I’m confident Sanga would carry them off with elan. He adds a bit of steel to the line-up, amidst all the potential variability.
Bonus points to Sanga for erudition and representing the spirit of cricket in a most positive way throughout his long and stellar career.
Note: Andy Flower of Zimbabwe would have been an equally worthy choice, fulfilling both requirements. Sanga gets the nod on style points alone (though it’s a fair argument that Andy had every shot in the book and then some, just that his team’s predicament often didn’t allow him that luxury)
4. GR Vishwanath (India)
In Vishy’s hands, the bat was a wand, the ball almost coaxed to the fence with a gentle word of command. Vishy, with his square cuts and late cuts, with his nonchalance in dealing with serious pace (exemplified by his magical innings at Chepauk and Calcutta against the Windies) would certainly fit the bill at No.4.
His approach and attitude to the game could be seen in his decision to recall Bob Taylor in the Jubilee Test of 1980, when captaining India, a match we went on to lose. It is one I consider an embellishment to the spirit of my team.
5. Martin Crowe (New Zealand)
A classical Test batsman with a purists’ technique, the tall, languid Crowe under his white floppy hat was living proof that technique and stodginess needn’t necessarily be synonymous. He always played correct, yet he always scored quickly. A Martin Crowe cover drive always made me gasp at the momentary beauty unfurled in front of my eyes.
He was also a remarkably innovative captain, introducing pinch hitters and spin bowlers to open the bowling in the 1990 ODI World Cup, well before the commentators had even coined words for these things.
6. Aravinda Da Silva (Sri Lanka)
Mad Max was a pint-sized cricketer, standing only 5 feet 3 inches, but what a punch he packed! Where he generated that power from, we’ll never know. When he cut or pulled the ball, there was usually only one outcome — the ball would smash into the advertising hoardings with undue violence. Yet, Aravinda, especially in his mature years knew how to harness that power. He could caress the ball into the gaps as well as anyone else, he could cut and glance with finesse, he could nudge and nurdle when needed…and you always knew that power was lurking under the surface waiting to be unleashed.
His match-winning knocks in the 1996 World Cup semis and finals are the stuff of legend. Yet, I remember one Aravinda knock much more clearly, though the match itself was of little consequence. At the Princess of Wales Memorial Match at Lords in 1998 against the MCC XI, Aravinda and Sachin Tendulkar were involved in a near 200 run stand (Sachin made a century that day, Aravinda made 80 odd). It was a treat for cricket fans, just seeing the way two all-time great players in their primes went about constructing their innings. Sachin was majestic; Mad Max was simply indescribable that day.
7. Sir Garfield Sobers (West Indies) (Captain)
Is there anything that anyone can say about Garry Sobers that hasn’t been said before? Purely as a batsman, he will comfortably make an all-time Test XI. That’s even without taking the style with which he made his runs into consideration. As a fast bowler, he was merely very, very good. He could operate as a good change spinner too, and he bowled both left-arm orthodox and wrist spin. As fielder, he was electric. The word genius seems to be much used (and frequently abused) and I usually don’t like using it—but in Garry’s case, it is entirely justified.
There are many candidates for captaining this team (as should already be apparent) and many of my picks have handled that privilege with dignity and fair success. Garry as captain enjoyed many successes too, but he was a risk-taker. His sporting declaration against England in 1968 with the series in balance (he declared at 92 / 2 on the fifth day setting England 215 to win in just under three hours), led to a famous run chase and a series loss. He was heavily criticised for the series loss, but this is what the great man had to say:
‘’I made that declaration for cricket. If I had not done so the game would have died. This way the West Indies could have won. England had never scored at forty runs an hour during the tour and I did not expect them to do so then.”
Garry as captain would be entirely fitting for this side.
8. Ray Lindwall (Australia)
As cricket sights go, Ray Lindwall opening the bowling in a Test match has to be up there.
Modelled on Harold Larwood’s, his was the classic side-on bowling action — the smooth, rhythmic approach to the wicket, the sudden increase in acceleration ending with front leg extended, the bowling arm in a perfect cartwheel at the point of release. He had great control on length and swing. Down the order, he was a pretty good bat too as his two Test centuries indicate.
9. Michael Holding (West Indies)
The Rolls Royce of fast bowlers.
Other pacemen may have arguably been quicker, had greater variation or control of swing, or inspired greater terror in batsmen’s minds. Heck, the mighty West Indies teams of his period alone had pace batteries with all three — Sylvester Clarke and Patrick Patterson were surely faster in their heyday, Malcolm Marshall was the complete fast bowler, and Curtly Ambrose or Marshall probably more feared by batsmen.
But few inspired such viewing pleasure as Mike Holding did. That long run-up, the smoothness of his approach and delivery, and the devastation at the end of it —without it ever seeming that he was exerting himself. I could watch Holding bowl all day long.
10. Sydney Barnes (England)
This team is full of nice guys, perfect gentlemen. Only Holding, perhaps, had a bit of a hard streak in him, and that too showed up rarely. At a stretch, Sangakkara and Aravinda could probably mix it up if required.
In Sydney Barnes, my team has a bowler that many regard the greatest bowler of all time. He was a master of swing, seam and spin — when he bowled, batsmen would often find it difficult to distinguish one from the other. But stunning as his figures are (189 wickets from 27 Tests at an average of 16!), it is the enigma around the man and his notoriously difficult temperament that appealed to me.
In a team packed with idealists, Barnes’ hard-headedness, cynicism about monetizing his worth (his non-gentleman professional status had a lot to do with it) and undoubted quality would be something worth seeing. He’d certainly give Garry Sobers lots to think about both on and off the field!
11. Subhash Gupte (India)
Picking a spinner, I found, was one of my toughest decisions, for I had four truly great and supremely aesthetic Indian spinners alone on my longlist (not to speak of a few others from other countries).
I went with Subhash Gupte — the man Sobers regarded as the finest leg spinner he had ever seen or played against (and that was after he’d seen most of Warne’s career). He remains a strangely low profile and under-appreciated figure in our country. The manner of his eviction from the team and his migration to the Caribbean still rankles. A master bowler and a gentleman by all accounts. It would be a pleasure watching him practice his art.
12. Jonty Rhodes (South Africa)
The Twelfth man is usually called on as a substitute fielder, and there really was only one choice in my mind – has to be Jonty Rhodes.
So that’s the final XI in batting order:
1. Victor Trumper
2. Majid Khan
3. KC Sangakkara (Wk)
4. GR Vishwanath
5. Martin Crowe
6. Aravinda da Silva
7. GS Sobers (C)
8. Ray Lindwall
9. Michael Holding
10. SF Barnes
11. Subhash Gupte
12th Man: Jonty Rhodes
As a match-winning team, I suppose there would be others that are superior. For pure viewing pleasure, this one would be tough to beat!
PS: The bowler selection to a fair extent depends on the pitch and batting conditions. In conditions heavily favouring fast / swing bowling, Wasim Akram comes in ahead of Subhash Gupte, with Sobers and Barnes providing adequate spin options if required.
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