Pretty cricket: An Aesthetic XI
- Barry Richards
There are a number of South African cricketers whose numbers will never be what they should be. Political upheaval and South Africa’s sporting isolation meant that Richards has to his name just four Test matches, although his average of 72 — 508 runs compiled in 1970 against Bill Lawry’s Australians — should tell you enough to know he knew which end of the bat to hold.
Unlike his below partner, Richards was an out-and-out aggressor. An atypical opener, particularly in the 60s and 70s, nine times he sat down to lunch with a hundred already to his name; his maiden Test ton, a score of 140, came off just 164 balls. He seemed to be able to put the ball in gaps as though he were throwing it there, and his 15 seasons of more than 1000 runs attest to his ability to score over and over again.
His 28,358 first-class runs came at over 50, and as such he as an ideal man to lead the batting for this most attractive of teams.
2. Rahul Dravid
‘The Wall’ was not best known as an opener, although he does have a pretty enviable record in Test cricket at the top of the order, having scored four hundreds and averaged 42 while opening the batting, so he is well qualified enough to take his place alongside Richards.
He is not a conventionally attractive batsman to watch: as his nickname suggests, he found defence more natural than attack, but Dravid was still able to fill seats. However, his ability to remain and to deflect was legendary, and it was a joy to watch him repel a fearsome barrage from a Walsh or a McGrath, to then calmly drive an ever-so-slightly misjudged yorker to the cover boundary for four.
Any Englishman who saw India’s 2011 tour of England, when India were whitewashed in the Test series, will remember that Dravid was the stoic torch holder as darkness descended on the side. His last Test match in England was marked in fitting style, when he carried his bat for over six hours, and an unbeaten hundred.
3. David Gower
Gower’s first ball in Test cricket is often talked about: Waqar Younis’ express pace pulled dismissively for four, off barely anything short of a length. He started as he meant to go on.
A man with more nicknames than you could shake a shooting stick at, he is best known by Beefy and Beaky (Ian Botham and Nasser Hussain) as Lord Gower. It no doubt comes from his plummy accent, familial ancestry, and public school education, but his batting too was truly imperial.
At times, his sheer arrogance at the crease got him into trouble. On one memorable occasion in Australia, moments before a break in play, the Aussies set two men back on the hook, sending a telegraph to Gower about what to do. Gower promptly pulled the ball in the air into the leg side, fortuitously landing safe. Cue a stern look from Graeme Gooch at the non-striker’s end. Next ball, Gower does the exact same thing, and is caught. If Gooch had had a gun, he would have shot him. Thankfully, he didn’t so he couldn’t, allowing Gower to take his place at first drop in our side.
4. Mark Waugh
It must be difficult when one of the competitors for your spot also happens to be your twin brother. It never seemed to bother either of them though, and while Mark may be the less celebrated of the two, he has the stats and the tape to prove that he is one of the world’s best batsman.
20 Test hundreds, 18 ODI hundreds, nearly 27,000 first-class runs: there’s no doubting his ability to accumulate runs. They say it matters not how, but how many, but with Waugh, it seemed to be both. There can be few better innings and shows of control than his 82 made against the West Indies. There isn’t a shot he didn’t play.
5. VVS Laxman
Lord Gower is a good one, but Very Very Special Laxman might be my favourite nickname in cricket, and as I think you can tell, a good nickname is an important part of being a pretty cricketer.
Laxman was every bit the stereotype a subcontinental batsman should be. His wristy strokeplay gave him an ability to move a ball from back of a length and offside to the midwicket boundary in a matter of seconds, and yet his spindly physique made it seem as though he did so with an economy of effort.
No appraisal of VVS is complete without a mention of his ten-and-a-half hour 281: an innings that started with India still 222 runs behind and following on. It set up a victory in Kolkata over a Steve Waugh Australian side in search of a its 17th consecutive win. Invincible? Not to a very very special batsman.
6. Viv Richards
I don’t know if I will every hear the name Viv and not think Richards. As a keen stats man, it saddens me a touch that we don’t have all of his ‘balls faced’ stats, because I would love to know how fast he batted in Test cricket.
Of course he took his time getting there. It never ceases to amaze that Sir Viv was never timed out. Once he was there however, it was scintillating. A magician on the front foot, Sir Viv could place his left foot down the pitch, and from the same position he could hoist it anywhere from fine leg round to backward point. He scored more than 8,000 Test runs at an average of 50, and in an era when one-day cricket was still something of a novelty, he averaged 47 at a strike rate of 90. He was Hayden before Hayden, Sehwag before Sehwag. He was the front foot bully to end all bullies. And boy did you want to watch him bat.
7. Kumar Sangakkara
Surrey fans do not have to go back far to remember the sheer elegance of Kumar Sangakkara. The evergreen Sri Lankan wicketkeeper-batsman spent last summer playing at the Oval, and proved himself worth every penny.
The 38-year-old scored five County Championship hundreds, a feat equalled only by Ashwell Prince, Jonny Bairstow, and Nick Browne last year, but his 166 from 138 balls in the semi-final of the Royal London One Day Cup should be remembered as one of the great domestic white-ball innings. That performance alone could have got him into this side, but his often-seamless wicketkeeping, his authoritative batting, and gentlemanly manner, make him a key member on and off the pitch.
8. Shane Warne
Spin bowling is the magic potion of cricket. No-one quite understands it, it takes all sorts of weird and wonderful ingredients, and when it goes wrong it can be catastrophically bad.
Anyone who has ever tried to bowl a leg break knows how hard it is. For those of us who have come to understand at least that delivery, the idea of bowling a googly is a scary one; a flipper or a zooter are just witchcraft. Warne had all of these and could produce them almost at will.
Warne was more than just a bowler though, which is why he makes the team. His bowling was sheer drama. Every wicket was a battle won, every Test victory a war. He was a marvellous tactician. The wicket that sticks in my mind is that of Michael Vaughan in 2005, when the England captain was near the height of his powers. Warne took an age to set the field. He consulted with his wicketkeeper Gilchrist, with captain Ponting, with his oft-tugged earlobe; eventually he settled. About to bowl, he made one last change, taking out his midwicket fielder and moving him across to gully. Vaughan could not fail to notice. Warne tossed up a leg break, and Vaughan attempted to drive it against the turn into the gap at midwicket, but succeeded only in a thick edge to gulley. Warne raised his finger and smiled. Game, set, match.
9. Wasim Akram
The story of Wasim Akram’s selection for Pakistan is not an orthodox one. An awkward, skinny 18-year-old, he jogged in with now familiar grace and slipped a couple of deliveries down to the Test team as a net bowler. Mudassar Nazar had one Akram ball fly past his nose off a length, and a few days later, the young left-armer was given his first-class debut against the touring New Zealand side. He took 9-30 across the two innings, and two months later, he had Kiwi opener John Wright caught at gully to give him his first Test wicket in January 1985. There were 413 more to come like it over the next 17 years.
Watching Wasim’s mastery was mesmerising. In partnership with Waqar Younis, he could take apart a batting line up, each wicket totally different from the last. He mastered bowling around the wicket, interchanging one delivery that would hold outside the off stump with another that would zero in on middle stump. His ability to swing new and, most famously, the old ball made him one of the great exponents of reverse swing, and his yorkers were near unplayable. It is only sad that his last appearance for Pakistan, at the 2003 World Cup, was rained off before he could even bowl a ball. There was no swan song for the most elegant of bowlers.
10. Curtly Ambrose
Like Akram, Ambrose is perhaps best known for his work in one of fast bowling’s great partnerships: as good as Akram and Younis were, so too were Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.
Sir Curtly finds himself fewer than ten Test wickets behind Akram, but the similarities in their careers do not end there. Like the Pakistani, Ambrose was unnaturally tall, standing at 6ft7, but then tall West Indian fast bowlers were nothing new when he made his debut, against a Pakistan side including Akram. However, Ambrose had more than just height on his size. Unlike some of his predecessors, his action was smooth, like a trebuchet, propelling the ball from 10ft above the ground at tremendous pace. Even later in his career, when the pace had gone, the West Indian’s canny ability to nibble the ball off a length brought him in many ways more success than the pace.
Every bit a fast bowler, he rarely talked to the press: “Curtly talk to no man” he would say as he breezed past. It only made him a more ferocious prospect with ball in hand.
11. Glenn McGrath
There are few XIs into which you could not justify slipping Glenn McGrath at No 11. Certainly he merited that position with his batting, which rarely impressed anyone (except the crowd at Brisbane in 2004, who saw him make 61, and hit his only Test 6). His bowling on the other hand, was exceptional.
75% of Englishmen still cannot look any many named Glenn in the eye out of the sheer fear that the Australian fast bowler instilled in them: Mike Atherton has refused to acknowledge his very existence.
Joking aside, McGrath, like our other two fast bowlers, was smooth as silk from the moment he hit his mark to the familiar arm in the air celebrating a wicket. He had a 14-year Test career, a formidable achievement for a bowler who would regularly bowl 60 overs a game, and in that time he racked up 563 Test wickets — the most by any fast bowler in history — World Cup wins, Ashes victories, and really every award and trophy there is in cricket.
His array of out-swingers and in-swingers were mightily impressive — just ask Athers — and his ruthlessly efficient action, smooth-as-silk mechanics, and — crucially — nice plain hair, made him perhaps my favourite bowler to watch of all.