(Clockwise from top left): Graeme Smith, Barry Richards, Jacques Kallis, Graeme Pollock, AB de Villiers, Aubrey Faulkner, Mark Boucher, Hugh Tayfield, Dale Steyn, Allan Donald, Neil Adcock. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons (Faulkner); © Getty Images (others)
(Clockwise from top left): Graeme Smith, Barry Richards, Jacques Kallis, Graeme Pollock, AB de Villiers, Aubrey Faulkner, Mark Boucher, Hugh Tayfield, Dale Steyn, Allan Donald, Neil Adcock. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons (Faulkner); © Getty Images (others)

South Africa are all set to take on India at their den. On the eve of the contest, Arunabha Sengupta and Abhishek Mukherjee create, amidst much deliberation and argument, an all-time South African XI.

South Africa’s cricket history is different from that of any other country. They started off in the 19th century as rank minnows. It took time, but they rose into temporary prominence in the noughties thanks to Aubrey Faulkner and his googly-bowling mates that beat England. Once again they plummeted when cricket resumed after The Great War. There was a steady rise after that, thanks to an excellent bowling attack. They kept on competing with the best, which culminated in a 4-0 whitewash over Australia in 1969-70. Then came the ban, which kept them away for over two decades, ruining careers of a cohort of champions like Barry Richards, Graeme and Peter Pollock, Mike Procter, Clive Rice, Vintcent van der Bijl, and Garth le Roux. READ: West Indies all-time XI

Once they were back, South Africa rose at a rapid rate, thanks to a pace battery led by Allan Donald. Jonty Rhodes revolutionised fielding. In Kepler Wessels and Hansie Cronje they had two excellent captains. Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis kept the all-rounders’ torch burning bright. Mark Boucher broke one record after another behind the stumps. In Dale Steyn they found a rampant spearhead; in AB de Villiers, a freak of nature; and in Graeme Smith, a man who led them to the summit of world cricket during a decade of leading from the front. READ: A Pakistan all-time XI: A galaxy of captains

We get together to create an all-time XI for a side with perhaps the most brilliant fielders, a seemingly endless supply of world-class all-rounders, and two decades’ worth of talent lost in the darkness of politics. READ: New Zealand all-time XI: The masters of perseverance

Arunabha Sengupta (AS): There are two major issues when we sit down to form the All Time South African XI.

First, the overabundance of all-rounders; they seem to produce them by the dozen.

Secondly, the Apartheid Era: What do we do with those splendidly gifted men who were sundials in the shade?

Abhishek Mukherjee (AM): Oh, there is also the pre-War era. Faulkner stands out, but the likes of Jimmy Sinclair or the other three of the googly quartet (which was actually a trinity) may not make it on sheer numbers. But then, he played his cricket when South Africa was its lowest…

AS: Yet, perhaps, if we look at their history, we need to focus more on the 1960s and then the modern era. They were one of the weaker sides for most of the early days well into the 1950s, and then suddenly became quite a cricketing superpower.

AM: Barring the brief phase in the 1900 (the decade, not the century), that is.

AS: Yes, they were good enough to beat England with their battery of googly bowlers… and as always, their all-round strength.

AM: Even if we try to go by the five batsmen men-five bowler combination, we may end up picking up six or so all-rounders.

AS: Yes. We need to forego the one-all-rounder restriction for this team. We play five batsmen and five bowlers, and will find that most of them can double up as both. To start with the openers…

AM: I think we will have to leave Wessels out: despite his contributions he would not even make it to the post-isolation team; neither would Herschelle Gibbs. From the modern era we can shortlist Kirsten and, of course, Smith.

AS: Yes, agreed. But we have quite a group to choose from. From the isolation period, we of course have Barry Richards; before that, Bruce Mitchell, Trevor Goddard (the first all-rounder in the mix) and Jimmy Sinclair; and, of course, Eddie Barlow (the second all-rounder).

AM: Yes, not to forget Bernard Tancred. Here is a curious observation, by the way: contrary to popular beliefs, Gibbs averages 47 as opener, compared to Kirsten’s 41.

AS: And if we look at his performance as opener, Mitchell (2,390 runs at 57) has the most mindboggling record.

AM: As does Melville (708 runs at 64.36), albeit over a small sample.

AS: Yes, we can perhaps ignore Melville due to just the 7 Tests, but what do we do about Barry Richards? He played 4 Tests and has scored 508 runs at 73.

If we consider the SuperTests of the Packer era he was comfortably the best batsman against the toughest bowling — and that is better than Greg Chappell and Viv Richards by a huge margin.

AM: Yes, we will have to delve into domestic numbers to evaluate Richards. There is no other option.

AS: If we consider SuperTests and the matches played by World XIs in the 1970s Richards’ career numbers read 1,359 runs from 14 Tests (4 Tests + 10 ‘Tests’) at an average of 65.

AM: I think that is a more than significant statistic.

AS: While Greg Chappell had an average of 57 in the Packer SuperTests and Viv Richards 56, Barry scored 554 in 5 ‘Tests’ at 79. Leaving him out will be piling on the injustice he has already had to deal with due to the isolation.

AM: I agree. Additionally, one must remember that these were overseas venues, and against the toughest oppositions. Add to that the fact that he was also incredible in that sole home series.

AS: From 1968 to 1977 Richards piled up 15,843 runs in England at 51. In this decade he played for Hampshire and passed 1,000 runs in all the seasons but his very last —when he fell short by 73.

AM: He also did all this at an astounding pace. Remember that 381-ball 356 for South Australia? He scored 325 on Day One, and the bowling attack consisted of Graham McKenzie, Dennis Lillee, and Tony Lock.

AS: Once he even took up a challenge and played only with the edge of his bat. He was outstanding in every sense of the word.

I guess we can proceed with Barry Richards for this. For supporting statistics we do have the SuperTests and the World XI games.

About the others, in spite of Bruce Mitchell’s fabulous average, he was one of the slowest Test batsmen ever.

AM: That may make him the perfect foil to Richards. However, if you ask me, over a sustained period of time, of course none can match Smith, more so because of his Bradmanesque fourth-innings numbers. While 1,611 runs at 63 make incredible reading, his 1,141 runs at 88 with 4 hundreds in successful chases is nothing short of phenomenal.

Kirsten, on the other hand, was a crucial cog in South Africa’s resurgence in the 1990s, but an average of 41 as opener does not justify his place.

AS: And then right-hand-left-hand combination: I guess Richards and Smith should be a formidable opening duo. Mitchell’s 31 runs per hundred balls will perhaps be out of place in an aggressive South African side.

AM: I suppose so, but a case can still be made for Melville. At the top he played a crucial role in the post-War South African side.

AS: And of course, we have to discuss the all-round claims of Goddard and Barlow as well, while Jackie McGlew does deserve more than a passing mention.

AM: Indeed. Sinclair can be left out. All his hundreds had come in the middle-order.

AS: Melville’s claims are based on 3 hundreds made in England in consecutive innings in 1947 (4 if you count the Durban century of 1939 before the War). But the English attack for the three post-War hundreds was not the best, with Bill Edrich being used as a pacer.

AM: I have to give that to you.

AS: Goddard was an excellent asset, especially when bowling with Hugh Tayfield to cut the runs down to a trickle — and he averaged 35 for his 2,460 runs as opener, which is great for an all-rounder. But perhaps for an all-time South African attack, his bowling will not be required as much as it had been in the 1950s and 1960s.

As for Barlow, his ability and deeds with the ball were perhaps not enough to add significantly to his batting heroics, and thus it is a little difficult for him to dislodge Smith.

Do we settle on Smith and Richards?

AM: I guess so.

OPENERS: GRAEME SMITH AND BARRY RICHARDS.

AS: We come to the men in the middle-order. Going by era, we have Dudley Nourse, Graeme Pollock, Kallis, Hashim Amla and de Villiers.

AM: Indeed, that should be the list, though Faulkner may have a claim.

AS: By the way, in the middle order, Gary Kirsten has 1,563 runs at 65 with 7 hundreds in 17 Tests.

AM: Interestingly, Faulkner also has an exceptional average in the top 5. It is almost the same as Amla’s, though Faulkner played on uncovered wickets.

AS: Between positions 3 to 5 batsman Faulkner has 1,393 runs at 54, and that even after a horrid end to the 1912 Triangular Tests with 66 runs in 7 innings.

AM: Yes, especially at No. 3, where he scored 622 runs at 69, all in overseas matches.

AS: Yes, and although we can make a case that his 122* against Australia at Old Trafford was against a mediocre attack, the rest of the innings as a middle-order batsman were against exceptionally good teams — especially his series in Aus in 1910-11.

AM: Getting Faulkner at No. 3 will make an exceptional middle-order. There is a problem, though: Kirsten averages more than Faulkner at that position.

AS: But Faulkner was a champion leg-break googly bowler as well, of the highest class.

AM: Do note that Kirsten’s numbers are buoyed by his 310 runs from two innings against Bangladesh, both at home. However, throughout the England 2003 series he batted at No. 3 to accommodate Smith and Gibbs and averaged 66.

AS: Yes, and scored hundreds at Lord’s and Headingley, and 90 at The Oval. However, with Pollock, Kallis, Amla, Nourse, and de Villiers apart from Faulkner about to stake claims, do we still want to go with someone who is actually an opener?

AM: No, I suppose not, more so because if we take the Bangladesh matches away, the sample size becomes smaller.

AS: Yes, true. Now, do we want Faulkner to bat at No. 3? Or do we want him to come down the order and play more as an all-rounder? That will take some stress off him…

AM: He seems to be at his best at No. 3, which means we may have to do away with Amla, given that we already have AB, Kallis, and Nourse. But let us not hurry.

AS: We have not yet started on Pollock.

AM: Correct, and Pollock is not exactly a small sample.

AS: Yes, at No. 4 he averages 63 over 2,065 runs, and in any case, 23 Tests over 7 years is good enough. Add to that he scored 2 more hundreds for Rest of World in the 1970s and batted brilliantly for South Africa during the rebel tours (the 16 ‘Tests’ he played against Rebel sides saw him score 1376 runs at 66; this included a hundred and steady fifties against the West Indian attack as well, which was a formidable one). He was a top-notch player for more than 20 years.

AM: Yes; and all this, without ever playing County Championship.

AS: Pollock should be a shoo-in at No. 4.

AM: But then, there is the Kallis factor; he averages 62 at No. 4.

AS: We can perhaps assume that Pollock would have been successful at No. 5, though 191 runs at 48 amounts to little evidence.

AM: But No. 5 is de Villiers’ slot! He averages 64 at No. 5!

AS: Also, Pollock never batted in any other position in the rebel Tests. He might have had a Tendulkar-fixation for No. 4. Also, note that Kallis has 3,335 runs at 50 at No. 3.

AM: But our No. 3 is Faulkner, remember?

AS: This is a problem of plenty.

AM: Yes. Have we decided by now that we will leave Amla out?

AS: We have not even discussed him. If we do include two all-rounders — Faulkner and Kallis — of exceptional batting quality, the batting line up will, of course, grow longer.

AM: One must remember here that No. 4 was Nourse’s preference as well.

AS: Yes, he has 2,400 runs at 50 at No. 4. Okay, let us re-evaluate: At No. 3 Faulkner has 9 innings, 622 runs at 69; small sample?

AM: Let us think of it this way. We have six batsmen.

Faulkner and Amla fight for No. 3; Pollock, Nourse, and Kallis for No. 4; and de Villiers probably owns No. 5.

AS: We have forgotten a batsman called Herbie Taylor (1,544 runs at 43 in the middle-order, starting his career before World War I), but it’s perhaps better to forget him at the moment.

AM: To make things worse, we had discarded Sinclair from the opener’s slot because his performances came in the middle-order. He averaged 36 at No. 4, but at the turn of the previous century it was worth many more than that.

AS: And he scored the first three hundreds for South Africa from that position.

Anyway, let us think further. If we have men of the stature of Kallis and Faulkner, we can perhaps go in with one less bowler.

AM: Kallis does not merit that certificate, but Faulkner does. Faulkner can make it to this side as a bowler alone. He is probably the only one who can make to this side based on only one suit, and that is saying something, for we are discussing South African all-rounders.

AS: True. Let us check de Villiers, now. He currently averages 52 at No. 6, along with his superhuman numbers at No. 5. I think he can also bat at No. 6. Can we go Faulkner, Kallis, Pollock, and de Villiers?

AM: Leaving out Amla, Nourse, and Sinclair in the process?

AS: We can also go Kallis, Pollock, de Villiers, and Faulkner in that order. At No. 5 Faulkner has a pretty good record (655 runs at 47), but promoting him ahead of de Villiers would be difficult.

AM: True. And de Villiers walking out at 500 for 4 may be wasted.

AS: Also, for all his deeds as No. 3, Faulkner got those runs in 9 innings, so to reject the claims of Kallis and Amla in favour of Faulkner at No. 3 can be silly. Also, Pollock does score above Nourse at No. 4.

Kallis edges out Amla because he is one of the two extraordinary all-rounders to have played the game, although I abhor the idea of having a No. 3 score at 39 runs per hundred balls. But then, he gives you the extra bowler, and his numbers are comparable with Amla’s.

So — Smith, Richards, Kallis, Pollock, de Villiers, Faulkner? Sounds good?

AM: I suppose yes.

MIDDLE-ORDER: JACQUES KALLIS, GRAEME POLLOCK, AB DE VILLIERS, AND AUBREY FAULKNER.

AM: Now for the wicketkeeper.

AS: The candidates: Percy Sherwell, John Waite, Denis Lindsay, Dave Richardson, Boucher.

Sherwell was the first victorious captain of South Africa; Waite, a pillar of the side in the 1950s; Lindsay, by far the best batsman of the lot; and Richardson, steady and reliable after their readmission.

AM: Boucher’s advantage lies in longevity. A thousand dismissals (999 as wicketkeeper) at international level is no joke. Wicketkeeping prowess is difficult to compare across eras, but I found Boucher faultless.

AS: I agree. Boucher is perhaps beyond compare as one of the all-time bests. I would go for Boucher.

AM: Indeed.

WICKETKEEPER: MARK BOUCHER.

AS: With Kallis and Faulkner in the team we don’t need to discuss any more all-rounders. Brian McMillan and Buck Llewellyn have to sit out, as is the case with Goddard.

AM: But then, Rice cannot be pushed aside just like that!

AS: Of course not! Rice was at par with Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev! A batting average of 40 and a bowling average of 22 in First-Class cricket speak for themselves. Unfortunately, he did not play even one Test.

AM: We may come back to Rice later. We still have Procter to think about: another career claimed by Apartheid.

AS: Yes, very true. If we take Procter’s Packer and World XI matches into consideration he has 70 wickets at 17, which is perhaps not negligible.

AM: Add to that his batting. Forget the six hundreds in a row — he would probably be the most savage hitters of the side barring de Villiers! He hit six sixes in six balls!

AS: As for Rice I can perhaps say he cannot get a look in the same way Lebrun Constantine cannot for West Indies or Fuller Pilch for England or Palwankar Baloo for India.

AM: I guess he will have to settle for that.

AS: Yes. The country, for whatever reason, was not playing Tests during his days.

AM: For the same reason we have to let go van der Bijl and le Roux.

AS: Let us forget the all-rounders for now. Of the conventional fast men who do we have?

AM: Donald, Steyn, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini from post-1990. I think Neil Adcock from the pre-1990 era, alongside Procter. Peter Heine played too few Tests (14, though his 58 wickets came at 25).

AS: Peter Pollock deserves a passing mention.

AM: Yes. Another of those men; sigh. Peter Kirsten’s career was similarly taken away, as was Jimmy Cook’s; and Donald’s and Richardson’s were delayed.

AS: Yes, but even in the Rebel Tests, Kirsten did not set the grounds on fire. Cook was a phenomenon in county cricket, but again Graeme Pollock was head and shoulders above them in terms of performance when the Rebel Tests were played.

But we are digressing. Looking at pace, strike rate and average Donald (330 wickets, average 22, strike rate 47) and Steyn (402 wickets, average 22, strike rate 42) get in easily as two of the all time greats across time and place. Their records are comparable to anyone of any era.

AM: They make obvious choices. Adcock (104 wickets at 21) was also lethal, probably meaner than these two.

AS: Yes, but strangely, his strike rate (61) is quite high, as was Heine’s (67).

AM: Yes, they were exceptionally economical, hence that strike rate.

AS: Yes… no one could get them away. They strangled oppositions in unison with Tayfield and Goddard.

AM: There is also the curious case of Fanie de Villiers, seldom mentioned in the list of greats

AS: Yes. I would include him in any limited-overs XI.

AM: Off-topic. Peter Pollock (average 24.18, economy 2.58, strike rate 56.2) and Fanie de Villiers (24.27, 2.57, 56.5) have almost identical numbers.

AS: By the way, for a spinner, Faulkner has a remarkable strike rate of 52. But then, that era was different. Bert Vogler (43) and Reggie Schwarz (48) had even better strike rates.

AM: In the post-Faulkner era, only Tayfield can qualify. Like Rice, van der Bijl, and le Roux, Denys Hobson never played a Test either.

AS: I think the choice for the third fast bowler boils down to a toss-up between Shaun Pollock and Adcock.

AM: But what to do with Vernon Philander? Are we ignoring Philander completely.

AS: With Philander perhaps it is still early to plump for him as an all-time great, though he has played 31 Tests.

AM: He has been on the wane of late (2014 and 2015). Till 2013 his numbers read 105 wickets from 20 Tests (average 18, strike rate 40); in the last two years he has 18 from 11 (average 46, strike rate 97).

AS: Yes. His away figures are not as lethal as his phenomenal home numbers either. He may end up as a bowling Michael Hussey at the end of his career — an incomparable start down to a very good but not exceptional career. I think we should ignore him.

As far as Adcock and Pollock are concerned, should one go for the steadily brilliant or add a touch of nastiness as well? Pollock obviously proved himself over 108 Tests, but Adcock troubled the best of them and was a nasty customer.

AM: We can, of course, include both, but that would rule Procter out as well as a second spinner.

AS: I was thinking of Tayfield as a second spinner. He was one of the best off-spinners ever. That will lend a perfect balance to the attack with a battery of pacers, Kallis providing back-up, an off-spinner and a leg-spinner.

AM: The question is: do we need a bowler to tie the opposition down?

AS: Tayfield and Adcock can do that exceptionally well if required. Even Pollock can do that.

AM: We are having one of Pollock and Adcock, remember?

AS: Correct. For his era, Pollock’s economy (2.39) was superb. It is, thus, very little to choose between Adcock and Pollock.

AM: In that case it comes down to batting.

AS: Also, if helmets were not there, perhaps Pollock could have been nasty as well. Pollock will perhaps lend the final all-round touch to a South African line up: three all-rounders seems perfect justice for such a country.

AM: I guess Procter’s sample size was too small, though we know what he was capable of, and had done at a level below.

AS: Yes, compared to the others.

AM: Pollock, however, did not do exceptionally against Australians, the team to beat for him except that marathon 7 for 87. In fact, take that innings away, and Pollock has never taken more than 3 in an innings, and averages 42 across 33 wickets.

AS: True.

AM: In his later days the Australians went after him, actually.

AS: Adcock, on the other hand, did not do too well against Australia either, but was exceptional against England; and for much of that time England were the best team of the world. Besides, he had a couple of very good series in England but played Australia only once.

The other thing in his favour — and a big, big thing — is that he did not get to bowl against India and Pakistan of that era.

AM: Yes. Then again, that was balanced by the fact that he did not have to bowl to the Ws, Garry Sobers, or Rohan Kanhai.

AS: True.

AM: But then, Everton Weekes averaged 24 in Australia and 33 in England, Clyde Walcott 14 and 34, and Frank Worrell 36 in Australia.

AS: I do not feel bowling to the Ws would have made a lot of difference. We know what Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller did to West Indies including the Ws. Heine and Adcock could have done the same damage.

AM: Correct. I think we should go for Adcock ahead of Pollock.

AS: I think Adcock playing only against England and Australia tilts it in his favour. But somehow we end up with a reasonably long tail, which is fine.

AM: Yes, though it is odd, given that South Africa is the country of all-rounders.

AS: Let us now evaluate Tayfield: an off-spinner with 170 wickets at 26 and an economy of 1.94. We cannot ignore such riches.

AM: Yes, he should be our 11th man. He is too good a spinner to miss out on; and what if we play on dustbowls?

AM: By the way, the tail is seriously long: Donald will bat above Adcock.

AS: But Tayfield is a decent No. 8, and Steyn at 9 is not bad either.

BOWLERS: DALE STEYN, HUGH TAYFIELD, ALLAN DONALD, AND NEIL ADCOCK.

AS: Let Jonty Rhodes and Colin Bland be the substitutes. Choosing one is impossible.

AM: Since Smith is the only bona-fide captain in the side, he gets to lead.

AS: Yes, Smith will obviously be the captain.

AM: We need a coach.

AS: Gary Kirsten?

AM: Yes, a World Cup-winning one will do just fine. As for the manager, there are two choices: Dave Nourse and Ali Bacher.

AS: Or Procter. He has experience as match referee, and could be a good manager; or Jack Cheetham, maybe. Jackie McGlew was not bad either

AM: Yes, but Bacher, I suppose, has to be the choice. He helped organise the rebel tours, and more significantly, played a stellar role in South Africa’s readmission.

FINAL TEAM:
Graeme Smith (c)
Barry Richards
Jacques Kallis
Graeme Pollock
AB de Villiers
Aubrey Faulkner
Mark Boucher (wk)
Hugh Tayfield
Dale Steyn
Alan Donald
Neil Adcock
12th men (alternating duties): Jonty Rhodes and Colin Bland
Coach: Gary Kirsten
Manager: Ali Bacher

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)