How do you pick the ultimate Test cricket team from a cast of incredibly talented performers that must run into the hundreds who have excelled over the ages?
To coincide with the World Test Championship final that is currently taking place between India and New Zealand in Southampton, former England opening batsman and media pundit Geoffrey Boycott had a go in a recent article in The Telegraph and backed up his reasons why.
Feature photo: Gary Sobers of the West Indies. Supremely gifted all-rounder.
Geoff did not include one South African in his two teams, so I had a go at picking an All-Time SA Test match XI as well as two All-Time KZN Schools XI’s.
Geoff picked two match-day squads of 12 for an imaginary “Ultimate Test Match of Test Matches” and had to look at the candidates from all countries as well as the different eras. The 11 ultimately chosen out of the 12 would depend on the pitch – to opt for two spinners or one. He opted to not consider any current players.
And in his pragmatic way, Geoff made the following crucial distinction, which I think is the only way to compare players whose careers can be more than 100 years apart: “It is unfair to judge players only on figures. They all have great numbers, so to be fair I judge them against contemporaries from their own eras.” I tried to do the same with my teams.
When one considers that the likes of Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, Mike Procter, Ian Botham, Hashim Amla, Curtly Ambrose, Michael Holding and Kapil Dev didn’t get the nod in either of Geoff’s squads of 12, you can see the embarrassment of riches available.
Geoffrey’s Ultimate Test Team One
Opening batsmen (1) Jack Hobbs and (2) Herbert Sutcliffe: “The finest opening pair in history,” says Geoff. The pair opened the batting for England a total of 38 times and their average number of runs scored per innings was 85.81 before a wicket fell. No Test match opening pair has ever done better than that, says Geoff. “To get that sort of start – on average – is like winning the pools.”
3. Don Bradman (Australia, captain): “A run scorer, a unique genius who was twice as good as the rest of us and is captain of this team. There is nothing else to add.”
4. George Headley (West Indies): Headley only played in 22 Test matches over a 10-year period yet was able to peel off 10 Test match centuries. “The Aussies dubbed him the black Bradman,” says Geoff.
5. Sachin Tendulkar (India): “Technically superb, with the performances to match against all types of bowling,” says Geoff. “Mastered his era and handled the pressure of expectation from India’s fanatical supporters.”
6. Gary Sobers (West Indies): Significantly, Geoff describes this ultimate all-rounder as the best batsman he has ever seen. And apart from his batting, “He [Sobers] was originally selected as an orthodox left-arm spinner but later in his career bowled left-arm lively swing which could be devastating. A great catcher anywhere close in.”
7. Alan Knott (England): “Lovely hands. Missed very little,” says Geoff. “I judge wicketkeepers on what they miss, not just how many they catch. How many catches or stumpings a gloveman takes is dependent on how many catches and stumpings the bowlers create. Got important runs when his team was in trouble, too.”
8. Shane Warne (Australia): “Natural wicket taker with amazing control,” says Geoff. “Generated a huge amount of spin with very, very few bad balls. Before he hurt his shoulder his flipper was devastating.”
9. Jim Laker (England): “For balance, I want a spinner turning the ball the other way. If it spun, Laker [an off-spinner] bowled teams out. He didn’t bowl the doosra because he didn’t need it. On dry turning pitches or a wet pitch that was drying he was nigh-on unplayable. On flat pitches you still couldn’t get after him.”
10. Sydney (SF) Barnes (England): As Geoff says, Surrey and England wicketkeeper Herbert Strudwick describes Barnes thus: “He was the best I ever kept to. He sent down something different each ball and he could turn it either way in remarkable fashion.” The great Australian batsman Clem Hill said: “On a perfect pitch Barnes could swing the ball late, in and out, and spin it.”
11. Malcolm Marshall (West Indies): “Bowled very fast, with movement,” says Geoff. “Could and did sometimes cut his pace down and seam the ball around at a lively pace within himself. On subcontinent pitches he was highly successful because he was skiddy without losing pace. Tall guys banging it in on those pitches can have the life sucked out of the delivery.”
12. Dennis Lillee (Australia): “Very fast, very smart, very skilful – and he had a big heart,” says Geoff. “Wonderful control – a complete fast bowler.”
Geoffrey’s Ultimate Test Team Two
1. WG Grace (England): “Some people could say Grace played in an era of underarm bowling that evolved to round-arm bowling. But on poor pitches open to the British weather, the ball often jumped up at your face or shot along the deck! He took 3 000 first-class wickets and scored 54 896 runs with 126 hundreds. He was the first man to score 100 hundreds. Compare his deeds with his contemporaries and he was way above anyone else. He was a natural athlete and in 1866 won the National 440 yards title and two days later scored 244 not out for Gloucester against Surrey at the Oval.”
2. Len Hutton (England): “A great England and Yorkshire batsman but Hobbs and Sutcliffe as a pair have to play together, so Len opens the batting with WG,” says Geoff.
3. Viv Richards (West Indies): “The best at number 3 but even he can’t be above Bradman in the other XI,” says Geoff. “Brutal, devastating, a tremendous competitor who was a great of his era. A giant in a fantastic team.”
4. Wally Hammond (England): “Hammond and Bradman didn’t get on during the 1946 friendship tour of Australia,” says Geoff. “You can’t have two players who hate each other causing disunity, so I’ve separated them. Hammond took 700 first-class wickets bowling medium pace and was a great slip catcher. He scored 167 centuries and in 1928-29 he outscored Bradman in Australia.”
5. Brian Lara (West Indies): “A wonderful stroke player,” says Geoff. “Making the world Test match record score of 375 for West Indies vs England in 1994 would be the supreme achievement for most batsmen, but to do it twice is mind blowing – and that’s what he did when he made 400 not out in 2004. He also scored the highest individual score in first-class cricket – 501 not out for Warwickshire against Durham in 1994 – and from only 427 balls. Wow. Every cricketer would be happy to have just one of those records. Excellent judge of length and a huge range of shots.”
6. Imran Khan (Pakistan, captain): “Anyone who can handle the politics, tempestuous nature and talent of a team of Pakistani players has to be outstanding at handling people. A fast bowler who was a great exponent of reverse swing on dry or low slow pitches, he also batted well. Excellent all-rounder, a great leader of men.”
7. Adam Gilchrist (Australia): “Alan Knott was a better wicketkeeper but Gilchrist’s glovework was good enough. For a stumper, his batting was on another planet,” says Geoff. “Changed the role of keepers and a long line of fine keeper-batters have followed trying to emulate him.”
8. Bill O’Reilly (Australia): “Very tall, and a faster-than-normal wrist spinner,” says Geoff. “He didn’t toss it up much but created enormous pressure on batsmen by giving little to hit. Bradman said Bill O’Reilly was the best bowler he ever faced and was better than Barnes because he could bowl every ball that Barnes bowled, plus the googly. Barnes’s reply was, “I never needed it.” Barnes was a bit faster than Bill and swung the ball too, which Bill didn’t do much.”
9. Wasim Akram (Pakistan): “It is handy to have left-arm seam from a different angle,” says Geoff. “A tall man, he generated lots of pace and awkward bounce. Swung the new ball and could reverse swing the old ball devastatingly.”
10. Harold Larwood (England): “I must have Larwood in the opposition,” says Geoff. “Why? If Bradman is allowed to play his best, he can bat his side into a winning position. The only man to have cut Bradman down to half size was Larwood in the 1932-33 series in Australia. Larwood unsettled Bradman and also did some psychological damage to the great player because after that series they didn’t speak. There was too much feeling. It was personal. And regardless of all that, he was very fast and very accurate.”
11. Freddie Trueman (England): “Hardly ever got injured and took 307 Test wickets at 21.57 with a strike rate of 49, which is tremendous,” says Geoff. “Fred was not selected for 29 Tests because the ‘Establishment’ at that time were wary of characters. [England captain] Peter May said at the end of a long tiring day in the field Fred was the one bowler he could call on to come back and do the business.”
12. Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka): “Lovely lad and very likeable but my professional opinion is he threw it with that action. Anyway, I have to accept the ICC cleared it, so with his wickets and match-winning performances he has to be in. Great skill and huge spin either way with the doosra. Wonderful to watch.”
I then decided to have a go at picking an All-Time South Africa Test match XI and this is what I came up with. Please note that I didn’t spend hours on this, researching reports, averages and the like, so it is purely a squad of 12 that pretty much immediately came to mind. No doubt I probably have forgotten a player or two.
Possible All-Time SA Test match squad of 12
1 Barry Richards
2 Graeme Smith (captain)
3 Hashim Amla
4 Graeme Pollock
5 Jacques Kallis
6 AB de Villiers (wicketkeeper)
7 Shaun Pollock
8 Mike Procter
9 Hugh Tayfield
10 Dale Steyn
11 Alan Donald
12 Imran Tahir
* The Test match squads of 12 below are by no means the definitive squads either, as there have been so many outstanding players from our KZN schools. It was just a quick thumb suck. Guaranteed I have forgotten a name for a minute and left someone out.
Possible All-Time KZN Schools squad of 12
1 Barry Richards (DHS)
2 Jackie McGlew (Maritzburg College, captain)
3 Hashim Amla (DHS)
4 Kevin Pietersen (Maritzburg College)
5 Robin Smith (Northlands, now Northwood)
6 Lee Irvine wicketkeeper (DHS)
7 Shaun Pollock (Northlands, now Northwood)
8 Mike Procter (Hilton College)
9 Keshav Maharaj (Northwood
10 Hugh Tayfield (DHS)
11 Lungi Ngidi (Hilton College)
12 Richard Snell (DHS)
And I would love to see them play a Test match against this KZN Schools squad, which is:
1 Chris Smith (Northlands, now Northwood)
2 Trevor Goddard (DHS)
3 Wayne Madsen (Kearsney College)
4 Roy McLean (Hilton College)
5 Dale Benkenstein (Michaelhouse, captain)
6 Jonty Rhodes (Maritzburg College)
7 David Miller (Maritzburg College)
8 Trevor Madsen (Glenwood, wicketkeeper)
9 Richard McGlashan (Beachwood, now Northwood)
10 Trevor Packer (Alexandra)
11 Daryn Dupavillon (Maritzburg College)
12 Derek Crookes (Hilton College)
13 Errol Stewart (Westville)
I bet there are names I have forgotten. It is just a team I came up with. I tried not to include players I have written about in recent years. They have got enough to contend with in these challenging times.