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By Suresh Menon
First, there is the fun of naming the world’s best-ever. Then there is the even greater fun (and joy) of naming an alternative lot which is as good as the original. List-making is not restricted to casual, amateur fan – it is the bedrock of fandom itself. Friendships have been broken over the choice of this or that player in an imaginary World XI brought together in an otherwise pointless exercise to take on an equally imaginary eleven from Mars or Jupiter, assuming for the purposes of the exercise that regardless of lack of life on these planets, they are still able to raise a cricket team.
Yet even in the worst such lists of the world’s greatest (‘worst’ being defined by teams that do no agree with your own), some players are certainties. Just like it would be impossible to drop William Shakespeare from any list of the greatest writers in the English language, it would be impossible to leave out two players from any all-time Earth XI. Don Bradman and Garry Sobers. You could say Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis – and they have the range of figures that make a case for their replacing Bradman and Sobers respectively – but still…
The latest such exercise, Wisden’s World XI includes them. The team, in batting order, is Jack Hobbs, W G Grace, Bradman, Tendulkar, Viv Richards, Sobers, Alan Knott, Wasim Akram, Shane Warne, Malcolm Marshall, Sydney Barnes.
That is almost perfect. Almost. Five pure batsmen at the top, two all rounders, a left arm fast bowler, a right arm fast bowler, a leg spinner and the man considered to be the greatest bowler of all time, Barnes, who claimed 189 wickets from just 27 Tests. Barnes could swing and seam, spin from leg and his 17 wickets in a Test was the record till Jim Laker’s 19 for 90. Barnes played his last Test in 1913-14 (he finished the series against South Africa with 49 wickets, still a record).
What is fascinating about Wisden’s list is that seven of the team played during or after the 1970s, so perhaps the golden age of the game was closer to our times than we like to acknowledge. It is generally believed the era in which Grace and Barnes played was the golden era of the game; Hobbs who began his career in 1907-08 played till 1930, Bradman’s best year when he made 974 runs in a single series.
Interestingly, when Bradman named his dream eleven more than a decade ago, he had no place in it for eight of the Wisden XI. His team had Barry Richards and Arthur Morris opening, Don Tallon behind the wickets, Ray Lindwall, Dennis Lillee, Alec Bedser, Bill O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett. The three common names in the two teams are Bradman himself, Sobers and Tendulkar. Bradman’s team had seven Australians – he probably knew them better than players from other teams, but more interestingly, only four of them had played in the 1970s or beyond.
All of this proves nothing, of course. Except, one can’t help feeling that Bradman’s bowling attack might have been stronger than Wisden’s. Two genuine quicks, a medium pacer and two spinners who worked beautifully in tandem.
It is unlikely that the ‘selectors’ of the Wisden XI saw Barnes, Grace or Hobbs in action, and would have had to rely on records, both statistical and literary to make those picks. This is both the drawback and the charm of all-time XIs. Test cricket is 138 years old, and even if we begin by assuming that W G Grace was the first great cricketer (in the modern sense), there could still be an argument for Ranjitsinhji and all those wonderful players brought alive in the pages of Neville Cardus and Robertson-Glasgow.
It is a truism in sport that no team can bring universal satisfaction. Was Warne a better bowler than O’Reilly? Whom would you pick among Marshall, Lillee, Lindwall, Larwood, Roberts, Akram, Imran Khan, Waqar Younis – the list is long and impressive.
And so – for purely mischievous reasons – here’s an alternative list to both the Wisden XI as well as the Bradman XI: Sunil Gavaskar, Victor Trumper, Brian Lara, Ranjitsinhji, George Headley, Jacques Kallis, Adam Gilchrist, Andy Roberts, Dale Steyn, Wilfred Rhodes, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar.
Later, I will have an alternative to the alternative. And so it goes on…