Beauty XI: 1. Mark Waugh, 2. Mahela Jayawardene, 3. VVS Laxman, 4. Brian Lara, 5. Damien Martyn, 6. Shaun Pollock, 7. Mark Boucher, 8. Shane Warne, 9. Glenn McGrath, 10. Dale Steyn, 11. Shane Bond, 12th man. Sachin Tendulkar © Getty Images


By Akash Kaware


Greg Chappell once said in an interview, “Cricket is a simple game, but it is not an easy game.”


As an Indian, it may be sacrilegious to agree with anything Guru Greg says, but it is hard to disagree with the man on this count. The game is deceptively simple. One man hurls a round object down a pitch, and a man standing 22 yards away tries to hit it the best he can while protecting three wooden sticks behind him. A few other men mill around the grassy fields doing nothing in particular, until the round object is in their vicinity. That is where the simplification ends, however. Batting, bowling and fielding are seriously taxing activities. You don’t have to take my word for it. Join a local cricket game of any standard, and the game can make a fool of you in no time.


For a game so simple, its practitioners have been remarkably varied. The objective of all willow-wielders is the same, yet the methods employed are vastly different. Some are sticklers to technique, who probably skip dinner on days they try to play – and miss – a ball they should have left alone. Some others feel that letting a ball go to the keeper is equivalent to cheating the crowd who come in to watch them. Some turn batting into an art form, while others make the watchers cringe with the crudeness of their methods. Some bat as if they have a train to catch; others bat as if they’re playing a timeless Test.


Bowlers are no less varied. Some fast bowlers glide to the crease, some lumber. Some look like thoroughbred horses, poetry in motion, while some bowl off the wrong foot. And spinners? Well, they have been known to amble up to the crease and rip the ball across bemused batsmen (a certain tubby blond called Shane Keith Warne), some who could be mistaken for medium-pacers (remember Derek ‘Deadly’ Underwood?), and an odd frog-in-the-blender (the plainly weird Paul Adams).


Picking fantasy XI’s is a favorite pastime of any cricket fan worth his salt. But having grown tired of picking all-time great XI’s, even we have to innovate sometimes. So, in this two-part series of articles, I pick two sides, a Beauty XI – eleven men incapable of an ugly deed on a cricket ground, and a Beast XI – incapable of anything but ugliness.


Two disclaimers before I get to my Beauty XI:


a. Having not seen any cricket before 1984 on account of not being born, and not having owned a television with cable prior to 1999 (My folks had this weird notion that having cable TV affects studies! They clearly underestimated Doordarshan. Anyway, I digress), you might find a distinct bias towards recent players in both these lists. Seeing is believing after all.


b. If you disagree with any of my picks, or think that player X was better to watch than player Y and should be in the team, remind yourself that this is MY team, and go pick your own team! Then come back and enter it in the comments section below.


Now to the XI for sore eyes…


1. Mark Waugh Silky smooth. The junior Waugh brought an easy grace to everything he did on the field, whether lovingly punishing bowlers or making difficult catches look ridiculously easy. A handy part-time bowler who was good enough to get Sachin Tendulkar stumped off a wide. Before they became household names in Australia, if you watched the Waugh twins bat in adjacent nets, you would probably have guessed that Mark would end up with a Test average of 50, and Steve 40. Check their career records. There’s no justice in the world.


2. Mahela Jayawardene The man who can make even Twenty20 bearable! Many batsmen in the history of the game have been as artistic as Jayawardene, but very few among them have had an appetite for big scores that he does. Also a candidate for captaincy of this team!


3. VVS Laxman The fire-fighter who could be a poet! Not many batsmen get compliments from Australians, but in 2003-04 they admitted they did not know where to bowl to him. The kind of batsman who, when in full flight, can make you forget the situation of the game and just marvel at the sublime nature of his strokeplay. For a batsman who has been the team’s backbone in times of crisis, it is ironic he suffers from back trouble so often.


4. Brian Lara I do not know much about his personal life, but there is a good chance Brian Charles Lara is a good dancer. For his batting was as enchanting as any dance in the world, probably not to the bowlers he pulverized though. Apart from his monumental feats which do not need repeating here, I will never forget two of his best. First, the glorious unbeaten 153 against the Aussies at Bridgetown, which is easily the greatest innings I have ever had the good fortune of watching. And that amazing series he had against Sri Lanka, where in three Tests, he waltzed his way to 688 runs, yet the West Indies lost the series 3-0. The other West Indian batsmen had no clue what Muttiah Muralitharan was hurling at them, but Muralitharan had no answer to those dancing feet.


5. Damien Martyn The most un-Australian of batsmen, Martyn could well have been born and brought up in the subcontinent. Fittingly for such a batsman, some of his best innings came in the sub-continent too. He bowed out in the same victorious Ashes series in which Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Justin Langer bid adieu, but somehow he’s never mentioned in the same breath whenever the talk turns to Australia’s fortunes having nosedived since the retirement of the stalwarts.


6. Shaun Pollock His gene pool might have had something to do with it, but Pollock Jr. was distinctly easy on the eye whether he was batting or bowling. A lovely, high-arm bowling action from so close to the stumps that he often knocked over the bails at the bowler’s end, allowed virtually no room to the batsmen to free their arms, and generated just enough movement to induce mistakes. His batting had a languid grace too, but a Test average of 32 indicated unfulfilled potential.


7. Mark Boucher This was not an easy pick. But then I remembered, the best wicket-keepers are those who are so efficient that they go almost unnoticed. That does go against the concept of beauty a bit though, but this is my team, remember?


8. Shane Warne They said he could bowl six different deliveries in an over. It probably wasn’t true, but such was Warne’s mastery over his craft that even while bowling his stock leg break, he could give that illusion of bowling a different delivery every single time simply by varying the degree of turn he got, the pace it was bowled at and the drift he generated. He of course tried all sorts of deliveries, the flipper, the wrong ‘un, the top spinner, the zooter (some debate whether this delivery actually ever existed) and towards the end, even a bouncer! But the enduringly beautiful aspect of his bowling was his stock-in-trade, the ripping leg-break.


9. Glenn McGrath Some might disagree with McGrath being a part of this team on account of being what they might call a ‘boring’ bowler, someone who kept hitting the same spot over and over again, suffocating the life out of the batsmen until they made a fatal mistake. But the beauty of his bowling lay in the uncomplicated nature of his methods, and ruthlessness of their execution. The straight, relaxed run-up, an economical action that kept injuries away for majority of his career – sometimes there’s beauty in simplicity. Like Warne, he was at once an attacking and defensive bowler. And I must confess, I probably picked him because I picked Warne. For me, it was either both, or neither.


10. Dale Steyn Probably the last specimen of an almost extinct species, the genuine fast bowler. Pace has always been an ally of his, but coupled with remarkable accuracy and an ability to swing the new ball away from the right-handers, and the old ball into them, all with a curiously wristy action, Steyn really is the most complete fast bowler in the game today. An average of 23 and strike rate of 39 are numbers no one in the contemporary game comes even close to, but they only tell half the story. They don’t tell of the thrill of watching a predator in action, closing in on his prey…


11. Shane Bond Did I say no one could match Steyn’s numbers? Well, Shane Bond, who retired only last year, managed an average of 22 and strike rate of 38 in Tests over a nine-year career. The problem was he could only sustain it for 18 matches and 87 wickets. When Bond was in his pomp, he was often called the fastest bowler going around along with Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar, but unlike those two, no one ever questioned Bond’s pristine bowling action, which was a purist’s delight. Ironically, it was this very action that put too much pressure on his fragile body, and severely limited the appearances of a bowler who could have been an all-time great. But what a thrill it was to watch him while he lasted.


12th man. Sachin Tendulkar– There aren’t many teams in the world where Tendulkar might be relegated to 12th man status, but I tried to replace any of the batsmen in my team with him for the sheer beauty of batsmanship rather than weight of runs, and I couldn’t do it. So he has to be content with carrying drinks in this team!


So there it is, my XI to lighten up the gloomiest of days. There were many honourable considerations in all departments, most notably Rahul Dravid (as much for his batting as his catching), Ian Bell, Kumar Sangakkara (could have doubled up as a wicketkeeper), Mohammad Yousuf, Hashim Amla in batting, and Mohammad Asif, Wasim Akram and Allan Donald in bowling. It’s a pity you can only pick 11 players in a team.


Watch this space for the Beast XI!


(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would’ve been a successful international cricketer if it hadn’t been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A few months ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)