We cricket fans love a good selection, whether it’s Tom Graveney, summoned at 39 to have the time of his life, or Jos Buttler, flying in from the IPL to give today’s England more flair. We secretly love a bad selection too, as it gives us the chance to moan and mansplain. This summer, the process has become livelier still under a new selection supremo. Ed Smith has brought a spark of fresh thinking, driven half of Yorkshire to frothing rage, and made a bold selection for his own panel by signing up James Taylor, who is two years younger than Dawid Malan.
Now we armchair selectors have a bone to chew on that’s even meatier than the morality of Adil Rashid’s recall. The England and Wales Cricket Board has announced England’s all-time best Test XI, as chosen by 6,000 voters. And the winners are: Alastair Cook, Len Hutton, David Gower, Kevin Pietersen, Joe Root, Ian Botham, Alan Knott, Graeme Swann, Fred Trueman, Jimmy Anderson and Bob Willis.
This line-up has many strengths, not least appearing in batting order rather than alphabetical, which is the board’s usual mode. It finds room, romantically, for David Gower, even if putting him above Joe Root is like having ice cream before your main course. It welcomes the prodigal Pietersen, to play alongside Cook, who sent him into exile. It spans three generations, from England’s first professional captain, Hutton, to their present one, Root, who has reacted with typical decency, saying he might not have picked himself. Just call him Rooty McRootface.
This XI has serious pace from Trueman and Willis, sultans of swing in Anderson and Botham, a spinner with revs in Swann, and a melt-in-the-gloves keeper in Knott. With KP joining Gower, Root and Botham in the middle order, a grand day out is guaranteed, as long as Cook and Hutton don’t bat till tea.
There is just one problem: this is not England’s greatest-ever line-up. A committee with 6,000 members has produced a horse-camel hybrid.
The collective memory is just too short to cope with a 141–year history. There are three current players, from a middling England team, and two recent ones in Swann and Pietersen. Do we seriously believe that nearly half the all-time best XI have come along since 2000? Of the other six, three are current Sky pundits. Maybe it’s a sign that the cricket-loving public would rather watch Gower, Botham and Willis than have to listen to them.
As a player, Botham is an excellent choice, and so are Hutton and Trueman, but it’s not as hard as it should be to improve on their teammates. You could pick a rival XI that would beat this one more often than not – so here goes.
The shape of the side was dictated by the voting form, which means we’re stuck with five batsmen, one allrounder, a keeper, a spinner and three quicks. As an opener Cook, averaging 45, surely makes way for Jack Hobbs (56) or his partner Herbert Sutcliffe (60). The pair of them might squeeze out Hutton too, because chemistry, as we’ve seen with Cook’s many partners, is a crucial part of opening.
Gower (44) can be matched for nonchalance, and beaten for consistency, by Denis Compton (50). Pietersen (47) and Root (52), while prolific by today’s standards, are not in the same league as Wally Hammond or Kenny Barrington (both 58). Stats are never the whole story, but we’ve already added 38 to the team’s expected runs.
Lovely as it is to see Knott remembered, it isn’t easy to place all the batsmen-keepers behind him. He himself (averaging 32) often kept out an even neater keeper, Bob Taylor (16), so he would understand if he made way for Alec Stewart, a classy batsman (39) who slowly acquired the same excellence behind the stumps.
Swann had a fabulous, fast-forward Test career, taking far more wickets in five years than John Emburey managed in 17. But was he an all-time great? Jim Laker had a much better average (21, to Swann’s 29), and while he had help from uncovered pitches, he didn’t have Hawk-Eye on his side. Even if we factor in his cheery batting, Swann may be pipped by Hedley Verity (24 with the ball, 20 with the bat) or Wilfred Rhodes (26, 30), who featured in famous partnerships for both England’s last wicket and the first.
The public’s fast bowlers are hard to beat, but not impossible. For raw pace, we can trump Willis (25) with Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson (18). For craft, we can replace Anderson (27) with Alec Bedser (24), reputedly the first bowler to be knighted since Sir Francis Drake. And for sheer genius, we can give Fiery Fred (21) t’boot and send for SF Barnes (a sensational 16), who bowled fast leg-breaks, ate Australians for breakfast, and mostly avoided county cricket. Take that, Rashid-bashers.
Botham (28, and 33 with the bat) is a tough nut to better, but let’s have his predecessor, Tony Greig, a lesser bowler (32), steadier batsman (40) and handy part-time off-spinner, to complement Rhodes’s slow left-arm. So The Spin’s XI looks like this: Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Hammond, Compton, Barrington, Stewart, Greig, Rhodes, Bedser, Tyson, Barnes.
It would have been good to add Mike Brearley, pointedly included in the ECB’s drop-downs, but his batting (22) would have blown away most of this team’s extra runs. He can be the manager, and the captain is Greig, just as long as he promises not to make anyone grovel.
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