The best we could do was to pen one solitary name into the team list. It read    Don Bradman       Getty Images
The best we could do was to pen one solitary name into the team list. It read Don Bradman Getty Images

As Australia gear up to play their 800th Test match, we face a problem. And it is a problem of plenty. It is customary for CricketCountry to come up with an All Time XI for the cricketing nation when she plays such a landmark Test. However, when it comes to a cricketing talent pool as produced by Australia in the last 140 years, the task is an incredibly difficult one. Arunabha Sengupta lays down the problems as a feast of cricketing greatness.

A problem of plenty

The readers familiar with these pages are aware that on the eve of a landmark Test played by different cricketing nations, Abhishek Mukherjee and Arunabha Sengupta, the Chief Editor and the Chief Cricket Writer of CricketCountry respectively, get together to discuss, deliberate and finally design an All-Time XI for that side.

We have done it for Pakistan, New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies and India.

And as Australia gear up to play the 800th Test of their glittering cricket history, it would have been an exceedingly opportune moment to relive the glory of the years to go through the same exercise for this great cricketing nation.

However, as we got our heads together to play the delightful role of a two-member selection panel deciding the virtual fate of a veritable roll-call of greatness, we got stuck with a problem. A seemingly insurmountable problem. A problem of wading neck-deep through the immense riches, trying to pick eleven of the most sparkling jewels from the gigantic Treasure Island of cricketing greatness.

Of course, we know that Bangladesh are also playing their 100th Test. And we were faced with a different problem when turning our thoughts in that direction. After spending half an hour in deep discussions, we looked at our All-Time XI team sheet, and in bold letters it read Shakib Al Hasan (though Abhishek kept insisting on Tamim Iqbal). Hence, we decided to shelve the endeavour for a few years.

In certain curious ways, the Australian quandary is similar. Try as hard as we could, the best we could do was to pen one solitary name into the team list. It read Don Bradman .

None of the other great cricketers could afford to walk into the side.

Not Dennis Lillee, not Ricky Ponting, not even Greg Chappell or Victor Trumper.

It says something about the incredible cricketing riches of this nation.

Opening quandary

Let us try to give you a glimpse of this problem by trying to select the opening batsmen.

We end up with a pool that can be an eleven in its own right.

It is not an idle hyperbole. We will show this by listing the great openers Australia has had till this day.

We need to start with the first run in Test cricket, with Charles Bannerman, and come right down to the modern-day exploits of David Warner.

In between we come across Victor Trumper, according to many one of the best batsmen of the world, followed by Herbie Collins, Bill Woodfull, Bill Ponsford, Bill Brown, Sid Barnes, Arthur Morris, Bill Lawry, Bobby Simpson, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. That list, along with Bannerman and Warner, contains 13 batsmen who would have walked into the All-Time XI of many of the other teams. When I said just the openers would form an XI, it was an underestimate.

And let me hasten to add that we have left some of the names we have left out of contention because their records and stature are slightly inferior in comparison.

And these happen to be Joe Darling, one of the early greats who was considered at par with the best of his time (including Trumper); Warren Bardsley, who was as good an opener as any during his era; Ian Redpath whose promising career was truncated by the Packer circus; David Boon, who did play several innings as a bulldozing opening batsman in the 1980s; Mark Taylor and Michael Slater, a pair immediate enough in the memory to forego any introduction; and Simon Katich, who may seem a surprise mention but whose numbers as an opener are better than both Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag!

Middle-order musings

Dare we venture into the area that is a whirlpool of cricketing sentiments? That of the middle order?

Yes, here we do have the comfort of one certainty. Bradman will be walking in at No. 3, regardless of who the remaining 10 men are.

Hence, with two opening batsmen and five bowlers to choose from a legion of legends, there remain two spots in the middle-order.

And to fill these slots, how many names can we rattle off who are veritable giants of the history of batsmanship?

We have to start from Billy Murdoch, the man who scored the first overseas hundred for Australia, and then the first double-hundred in Test cricket. We have to traverse Clem Hill, whose numbers were at least as good as Trumper s, even better against tougher oppositions. We need to consider Charlie Macartney, a batsman grand enough to be nicknamed Governor-General. We need to go across the genius of Stan McCabe, stumble across the name of Lindsay Hassett, glance at the deeds of Neil Harvey, rejoice in the pristine class of Greg Chappell, come up against the solidity of Allan Border, remember the steadfast stolidity of Steve Waugh all that before we get to the brilliance of Ricky Ponting. And then we are left with the modern sensations of Michael Clarke and Steven Smith.

That makes a nice round eleven itself, just to get to the cream of middle-order talent in order to choose who will accompany Bradman in the line-up.

And, oh yes, we have left some great names out of contention because perhaps they were not as good, or in some cases as fortunate, as the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph.

We have not discussed Jack Ryder, the first captain of Bradman who averaged 51 in Test cricket; or Bob Cowper, triple centurion who preferred the world of business rather than cricket, the maverick Doug Walters, the brilliant Norman O Neill, the iconic Ian Chappell, the elegant duo of Mark Waugh and Damien Martyn, and Mr Cricket himself in Michael Hussey (let us forget Adam Voges for a while now). Even here, the pool of reserves combines to form a mouth-watering combination to be lapped up by any team with lesser gifts.

Stumped for a stumper

In the wicketkeeping department, we start with Jack Blackham, the prince of the trade. We need to move on to JJ Kelly, who kept so brilliantly to the pace of Ernie Jones. The next name to consider is Sammy Carter, the first man to crouch behind the stumps. It is followed by the brilliance of Bert Oldfield.

 

Going past the Second World War we find the mastery of Don Tallon, whom Bradman marked as the best he had ever seen. Moving along the ages we find the nonpareil Wally Grout, the incredible Rod Marsh, the supreme Ian Healy and finally the all-round excellence and destructive ability of Adam Gilchrist. Add the solidity of Gil Langley and Barry Jarman and you have got yourself the most agile eleven in the pool.

Bowling blues

The all-rounder s spot is not without contention as well.

The flamboyant greatness of Keith Miller may have been made popular by the Messerschmitt tale and the stories of the escapades, but there are the early names of George Giffen and Monty Noble that cast their giant shadows. And then there is the colossus himself in the form of Warwick Armstrong. And that too if we consider the likes of JJ Ferris, Ray Lindwall, Alan Davidson and Richie Benaud for their bowling alone.

The leg-spinner s slot, for there needs to be at least one in this team from the land that produces them by the dozen, is another that has to be filled after sifting through mines of sparkling gold.

Ranji Hordern was the one who used the googly for the first time in Australia, and though he was perhaps happier playing in Philadelphia, he did do brilliantly when he turned out for the national side. Arthur Mailey was perhaps a bit too expensive with his romantic notions of flight. But Clarrie Grimmett was stingy enough to rectify any wavering in the history of Australian leg-spinners. Then there arrived Bill O Reilly, the daddy of them all according to Bradman.

After the Second World War, the mysteries of Jack Iverson won Australia an Ashes series, but perhaps he would be considered an off-spinner and too transient for All-Time consideration. There are, however, no such doubts about Benaud, one of the greatest figures of Australian cricket.

 

And then of course there is Shane Warne, the best leggie of modern times, and perhaps the best ever. Besides, we cannot afford to forget Stuart MacGill either, the unconventional wine-sipping Aussie, who, unlike Warne, had a googly, and used the Warne-free slots well enough to capture 208 wickets.

It is in the area of finger-spin that we find Australia approaching normality in this blinding array of brilliance. But a short stroll down history gives us Ashley Mallett, a longer walk brings us across Bert Ironmonger and a further saunter across the timelines reveals Hugh Trumble not to speak of the recent rise of Nathan Lyon.

But, finally we come to the slots of quick bowlers. Fast bowlers hunting in pairs are an Australian invention. The degree and concept of speed have changed from the early days, but the principle has been the same.

Be it Fred Spofforth and Harry Boyle, or Charlie Turner and JJ Ferris, or Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald, or Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, or Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, the Australian pairs have hunted down the best of batsmen.

Occasionally the great pacemen have not been matched at the other end by an equally great name, but, nevertheless, they have delivered in their goods in various ways and formed other combinations.

Tibby Cotter often burst through line ups alone; Davidson did so alongside Benaud; Glenn McGrath elevated Jason Gillespie to realms of greatness whenever he bowled at the other end, and otherwise combined to form the most potent double edged weapon with Warne or Craig McDermott, but for a brief period of support had to do it alone as did Mitchell Johnson.

And some, like Ernie Toshack, Bill Johnston and Max Walker, had to come in first-change because of the exceptional quality of the opening bowlers. This pool again, as one can see, is well beyond an eleven.

And the men we have left out, from Garth McKenzie to Len Pascoe to Rodney Hogg to Terry Alderman or Merv Hughes to Brett Lee to Michael Starc, would perhaps walk into several all-time elevens of many other countries.

Divide and conquer

The treasures are limitless.

Even if we restrict ourselves to the first two letters of the alphabet we come up with an exceptional All-Time XI. Just look at it:

Bannerman, Barnes, Bradman, Border, Boon, Armstrong, Benaud, Archer, Blackham, Boyle, Alderman. And we had to leave Brown and Bichel out of the team. Not one of these players is undeserving.

Try it with C and D, and you will find an equally formidable team.

Collins, Darling, Ian Chappell, Greg Chappell, Clarke, Cowper, Davidson, Carter, Cotter, Stuart Clark, Alan Connolly.

Making a great team from any cross section of Australian cricketers is easy enough. And such a surfeit of riches makes an All Time XI an extremely difficult task.

It simply cannot be done at one go.

 

So, we have decided to break things down to manageable proportions.

During the next few days we will be forming three teams.

Australia before First World War (1877 to 1914)

Australia after First World War and up to the Packer Revolution (1919 to 1977)

Australia after the Packer Revolution (1977 to present day)

The event driven categories do a good job in dividing the 140 years, and give us an opportunity to split up the talent pool into workable groups.

And once these three elevens are ready, we can take a shot at the ultimate Australian All Time XI.

Hence, read on