Merge-Test

The year 2015 saw a number of engaging Test matches which produced some incredible individual performances. Runs were scored in tough conditions, wickets were taken against all odds, high run-chases were pulled off brilliantly and low scores defended successfully. Shiamak Unwalla and Suvajit Mustafi join forces for a tough task: to discuss — and argue — about the best possible playing XI of the year. NOTE: These are not necessarily the leading run-scorers or wicket-takers of the year, but those who have been the most consistent across trying conditions and in tough match situations. That said, most of the leading run-scorers and wicket-takers will probably feature anyway.

Shiamak Unwalla:  (SU): This has been a good year for Test cricket…

Suvajit Mustafi:  (SM): Yes, it has. England have played most Tests.

SU: Followed by Australia. It stands to reason that the top four leading run-scorers belong to either country.

SM: Yes, so we can expect our side to have a lot of players from these two teams

SU: Yes, but I can foresee Kane Williamson being in the side. Let’s go in order though. Shall we start with the openers?

SM: Yes. I think we will have an interesting pair. Their styles are quite contrasting, but I will go with Alastair Cook and David Warner.

SU: Yes there isn’t really anyone else that comes to mind. Murali Vijay and Mohammad Hafeez are the only realistic contenders.

SM: Shikhar Dhawan and Chris Rogers, maybe?

SU: Rogers had just one good series though, the Ashes.

SM: True. Shikhar Dhawan too has had an average close to 54 but Vijay has been more consistent.

SU: Yes, Dhawan did better than what we would have thought. Still, I don’t think he will make the cut. Cook scored his runs in England, West Indies, and then UAE.

SM: Three very crucial hundreds including the big 263.

SU: Warner scored his runs in England, West Indies, and Australia.

SM: He has had some impact!

SU: Warner did not score a century in England but scored a lot of fifties. Five to be exact.

SM: Yes, he was getting those good starts.

SU: He was unstoppable at home though; four centuries including the 253.

SM: A big one from him at England could have changed Australia’s fortunes in The Ashes. But I think he has done enough to be in the dream side. What do you think? Tough on Hafeez, but mind you Warner’s runs have come at a strike-rate of over 80!

SU: Yes, 1,213 runs in 21 innings at 57.76, and not to forget the strike rate of 80.11. No question actually. So we have our openers, Warner and Cook.

OPENERS: DAVID WARNER, ALASTAIR COOK

David Warner and Alastair Cook (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
David Warner and Alastair Cook (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

SM: No. 3 should be an easy one.

SU: I will push for Williamson at No. 3 ahead of Steven Smith and everyone else.

SM: Williamson, any day. His double century against Sri Lanka at Wellington earlier this year is probably one of the greatest played by a New Zealander. Also, the innings at Brisbane was a lone hand. Read more: Yearender 2015: Top 15 knocks in Test cricket

SU: Williamson scored 1,172 runs at 90.15 with five tons and four fifties. Just eight Tests!

SM: Yes, no question. We have our No. 3.

SU: The rest of the middle order is a tough choice though: Steven Smith, Joe Root, Younis Khan, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Misbah-ul-Haq, Dinesh Chandimal, and Asad Shafiq to name a few. Am I missing out on anyone?

SM: With due respect to Rahane and co. I think Smith, Root, and Younis have done better. Smith and Root pick themselves, though Root didn’t do much in UAE.

SU: Yes, but don’t forget Rahane scored a brilliant 98 against Bangladesh and excellent centuries on tough surfaces against Sri Lanka and South Africa. Dinesh Chandimal’s whirlwind ton at Galle almost single-handedly beat India. He scored two hundreds and three fifties in nine matches. And that was before the New Zealand series, where he again did well. Also, we aren’t even mentioning Azhar Ali and Ross Taylor…

SM: Agreed, but were they consistent enough? Rahane was brilliant in the Delhi Test. The 127 will surely feature in one of the best knocks of the year but he also had nine scores of less than 20.

SU: Yes, but on tracks on which few others scored runs. Remember, he also got a great hundred in Sri Lanka. Contrast that with, say, Warner. He had the likes of Chris Rogers, Steven Smith, Joe Burns, and Usman Khawaja scoring heavily alongside him.

SM: Agreed, but will you pick Rahane over Younis?

SU: That depends. How many batsmen are we looking at in our line-up? Wicketkeeper at No. 7, or do we have an all-rounder?

SM: 6-1-4 is an ideal combination. Has there been any all-rounder who has really had a great year? Ben Stokes took a fifer but averages close to 48 with the ball.

SU: We have Stuart Binny…

SM: Let India have him in their XI on a regular basis first.

SU: Jokes aside, Shakib Al Hasan averaged over 50 with the bat; sadly he averaged over 70 with the ball.

SM: Mathews has averaged over 46 with the bat and just over 30 with the ball, but the fact is he hasn’t really bowled much.

SU: Yeah Mathews doesn’t really bowl much these days. I don’t think that warrants a spot in the XI. So we have no all-rounder in our side? That’s sad, I’m partial toward all-rounders.

SM: Yes. So we have six batsmen, a wicketkeeper, and four bowlers.

SU: Fair enough. Now we get back to batsmen Nos 4, 5, and 6. I think Steven Smith is a certainty with 1,270 runs at 63.50 with five hundreds and four fifties.

SM: Yes, he certainly is. So is Root.

SU: Yes, even Root. He has 1,288 runs at 61.33 with three centuries and nine half-centuries. Runs in every country he played in.

SM: AB de Villiers hasn’t played enough this year and still manages to average over 50.

SU: Yes, sadly. He was a class apart when everyone was falling around him in India. But just five Tests, four of which were in one series, aren’t enough to break through.

SM: True. I think the No. 6 position should be a toss-up between Younis Khan and Ajinkya Rahane.

SU: Younis played most of his matches in UAE, but he was by far more consistent than Rahane. Rahane scored his runs under more difficult conditions though.

SM: Plus, there was that match-winning 4th innings 171 not out at Pallekele.

SU: Yes, that was a tremendous innings. And it isn’t Younis’ fault they did not travel much.

SM: Exactly. Younis was one of the reasons for Pakistan to reach the No. 2 spot in the ICC Test rankings, even if it was briefly. He has scored more runs and been more consistent. Tough on Rahane, but I will go with Younis here. Read more: Yearender 2015: Top 10 batsmen in Test cricket

SU: I think I agree. My heart goes out to Rahane. But he will probably be the 12th man.

SM: Rahane has to be the 12th man. He catches everything. Remember Galle?

SU: Absolutely. He might just be the best slip fielder in the world at the moment.

SM: Agreed.

SU: So we have Williamson at No. 3, Smith at 4, Younis at 5, and Root at 6?

SM: Yes.

MIDDLE ORDER: KANE WILLIAMSON, STEVEN SMITH, YOUNIS KHAN, JOE ROOT

Kane Williamson and Steven Smith (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Kane Williamson and Steven Smith (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Younis Khan and Joe Root (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Younis Khan and Joe Root (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

SM: Now to the wicketkeeper’s slot. Our contenders are BJ Watling, Dinesh Chandimal, and Sarfraz Ahmed.

SU: What about Mushfiqur Rahim and Peter Nevill? Are we looking at pure wicketkeeping or also batting?

SM: Batting as well as ‘keeping. Peter Nevill has kept wickets well and has been decent with the bat too.

SU: In terms of batting I don’t think anyone out-does Sarfraz. Apart from the 50-plus average he has a strike rate of over 80 as well!

SM: Sarfraz has kept Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar pretty well. Also Pakistan have a decent bunch of fast bowlers. I would like to believe that his skills were challenged most.

SU: BJ Watling has not kept to quality spin, but he is quite safe behind the stumps as well. And he averages well over 50 too.

SM: Watling has played some brilliant knocks but Sarfraz has 33 dismissals in 16 innings, more than two dismissals per innings. The only one who has more dismissals per innings is Nevill and that too by decimals. Sarfraz hasn’t kept wickets in conditions very alien to him but again like Younis, it’s not his fault. I think we have our No. 7 in Sarfraz.

SU: True. But the thing about wicketkeepers and dismissals is that it relies a lot more on the bowlers. For instance, Watling is likelier to get a catch off Tim Southee’s bowling than Trent Boult’s, but that isn’t his fault. So if a wicketkeeper has bowlers who get a lot of bowled or LBWs, it doesn’t mean he has not kept wickets well.

SM: True. But again, looking at the team composition, we have four solid batsmen coming in the middle-order and then someone coming and scoring at a quick rate will help the side more. Chandimal, in time to come, will surely compete. He played some wonderful knocks but I think again he falls in terms of consistency.

SU: Williamson, Smith, and Root can score mighty quickly if needed. True, and Chandimal’s ‘keeping was certainly not as good as Watling’s or Sarfraz’s.

SM: True, it’s a tough pick between Sarfraz and Watling. Watling is good enough to play purely as a batsman and a New Zealand fan that I am, I will like to have him in the side. But we will have some quality spinners in the side, so I will go with experience and give the nod to Sarfraz. What about you?

SU: I like Sarfraz for the role as well, but like with Rahane I want to go with Watling. The problem is that as wicketkeepers they are comparable but as batsmen they are completely different. I always prefer the aggressive approach to Test cricket, so for that reason I will go for Sarfraz as well.

WICKETKEEPER: SARFRAZ AHMED

Sarfraz Ahmed (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Sarfraz Ahmed (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

SU: Now for the bowling attack. I don’t think there’s any question that Ravichandran Ashwin and James Anderson waltz into the side.

SM: Ashwin for sure. Anderson’s position will be challenged by his new ball partner Stuart Broad, Josh Hazlewood, and Mitchell Starc.

SU: I don’t think Starc and Hazlewood were as consistent as Broad and Anderson. Starc was disappointing in England and Hazlewood did not stand out either. I would actually consider Dhammika Prasad and Jerome Taylor.

SM: Lucky for these pacers that Dale Steyn played only 4 Tests. Rains washed out the Bangladesh games and injury kept him out in India Tests. Going by his subcontinent record, had he played he would have walked in. No question.

SU: True, in the four matches Steyn played he took 13 wickets at 22.38. Also bear in mind, Broad and Anderson were brilliant in UAE. Did not pick up a load of wickets, but given the unresponsive surfaces Anderson averaged just around 15 and Broad around 27.

SM: Anderson picks himself. Let us also consider Taylor and Prasad.

SU: Prasad took 41 wickets in nine matches at 24.95, and Taylor 26 scalps in seven Tests at 23.34. Prasad has played almost exclusively in Sri Lanka, where pacers have rarely prospered. Another question is, are we picking two spinners and two pacers, or three pacers and one spinner? As good as Yasir Shah was, I will pause before adding his name. Given that we have the likes of Root, Williamson, and Steven Smith who can turn their arms over if needed I would want three pacers in the side.

SM: Yes but it’s unthinkable to not include Yasir. Just for the sheer impact he has. But yes, ideally, we should have three  pacers and one spinner. I agree to that.

SU: Ashwin had more of an impact, as the numbers suggest; Ashwin has 62 wickets at 17.20 as opposed to Yasir’s 49 wickets at 23. He is also by far the leading wicket-taker of the year. Read more: Yearender 2015: Top 10 Test spells of the year

SM: Ashwin is there for sure. No question about that. If it has to be one spinner then it’s Ashwin. Leg-spinners usually go for runs and pick wickets and Yasir has kept things in check, picked wickets and more importantly won games for his side. Pakistan have only lost one Test this year.

SU: True. I suppose a lot depends on where they are playing. If it is in the subcontinent then I will definitely go for two spinners. But if it’s South Africa or Australia I will prefer three seamers. How about this, we have Ashwin, Broad, and Anderson for sure, and then shuffle between Yasir and either Dhammika, Taylor, Starc, or Hazlewood, depending on the surface?

SM: Yes. Let’s do that. Prasad has played mainly in Sri Lanka, Taylor has played in different conditions and excelled, and Starc and Hazlewood were great everywhere but inconsistent in England.

SU: True, but we can’t write off Hazlewood and Starc.

SM: The advantage with Starc is that he is a left-armer and that will add some variety to the attack.

SU: Anderson, Broad, and Taylor are fairly different bowlers. And Starc was wayward in England, where conditions ought to have been best for him.

SM: On the other hand, Prasad has been very consistent. He has 41 wickets at 24.95. There has been no five-wicket haul in an innings for him. That shows his consistency. However, if we pick him as the third seamer for outside subcontinent conditions, what goes against him is he has played most of his games in Sri Lanka.

SU: That is true. I would go for Taylor in that case. That said Hazlewood has numbers that are tough to ignore. His numbers are actually better than Broad’s. I would probably pick him as my third seamer.

SM: Same here.

SU: So I think we have our XI.

BOWLERS: RAVICHANDRAN ASHWIN, STUART BROAD, JAMES ANDERSON, YASIR SHAH/ JOSH HAZLEWOOD.

Ravichandran Ashwin, Stuart Broad and James Anderson (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Ravichandran Ashwin, Stuart Broad and James Anderson (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Josh Hazlewood and Yasir Shah (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Josh Hazlewood and Yasir Shah (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

SU: What we need now is the captain.

SM: Steve Smith hasn’t captained much. I will go with Cook

SU: England lost in Pakistan, and only managed a draw in West Indies. They didn’t beat New Zealand either. And The Ashes win was far from convincing. I fell the best captain this year was probably Kohli.

SM: I am not a great fan of Cook’s captaincy. He should have won in West Indies and he could have lost his captaincy after that. England weren’t expected to win in Pakistan but I think they fought well. Smith has just captained in four matches. For reclaiming the Ashes against all odds, I will give it to Cook.

SU: Was it really against all odds? With all due respect to Australia, they have not won an Ashes in England for well over a decade.

SM: Yes, but this time around they were expected to win. All pundits predicted so. Plus, there was the drama over Pietersen’s non-selection. England were in doldrums while Australia had the right momentum. Australia had a more settled team too.

SU: Be that as it may, I don’t think that merits Cook being captain. Though Smith did not captain much I will want to make him lead simply because there is no other option. My first choices would have been Kohli or maybe even Misbah-ul-Haq, but since neither of them are in this line-up we will have to settle for Smith.

SM: Personally, I like Smith’s leadership, but again we have to decide if the credentials of Smith and Cook, this year are comparable. Smith drew a Test against India and against New Zealand he won the series at home. And mind you, had it not for the controversial decision of Nathan Lyon, it would probably have been a drawn series.

SU: True. Frankly I don’t think either of them are particularly good as captains, but since we have no option I will agree with Cook. Mind you, he has a poor record as captain this year, and I am only giving him my vote because there is really no option.

SM: What about the coach? Waqar Younis?

SU: Ravi Shastri is not a coach, so yes, Waqar it is.

CricketCountry Test XI of 2015:

Alastair Cook (c) – England

David Warner – Australia

Kane Williamson – New Zealand

Steven Smith (vc) – Australia

Younis Khan – Pakistan

Joe Root – England

Sarfraz Ahmed (wk) – Pakistan

Ravichandran Ashwin – India

Stuart Broad – England

James Anderson – England

Yasir Shah/ Josh Hazlewood – Pakistan/ Australia

Ajinkya Rahane (12th man) – India

Waqar Younis (coach) – Pakistan

(Shiamak Unwalla, a reporter with CricketCountry, is a self-confessed Sci-Fi geek who loves cricket more than cricketers. His Twitter handle is @ShiamakUnwalla)

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India’s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer , strategist, entrepreneur,  philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it’s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he finds solace. He can be followed at @RibsGully and rivu7)