© Getty Images
The biggest problem while selecting this XI was the sheer volume of talented cricketers to choose from © Getty Images

If all goes well, West Indies will play their 500th Test at Gros Islet against Bangladesh on September 12. Arunabha Sengupta and Abhishek Mukherjee delve into a convoluted conversation to dig out an all-time West Indian XI.

West Indies are all set to become the third side after England (952 Tests ) and Australia (767 Tests) to play 500 Tests. It had all started during Learie Constantine’s era before World War II, an era when George Headley shone like a beacon among his contemporaries.

Then came the Ws — Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, and perhaps the greatest ambassador of the sport, Frank Worrell; the peerless Garry Sobers and the inimitable Rohan Kanhai; and after a brief lull came Clive Lloyd’s army that ruled the world the way few have.

Viv Richards took it up from Lloyd, but since the retirements of the great fast bowlers West Indian cricket have gone through a steady decline, punctuated by the individual brilliance of Brian Lara. And as the performances of the once-great side have taken a nosedive, Shivnarine Chanderpaul holds fort for them, often fighting a lone battle.

And then, throughout the entire period were the fast bowlers, competing each other for quality and fierce ruthlessness…

On the eve of their 500th Test, Arunabha Sengupta and Abhishek Mukherjee get together to create an all-time XI for the most entertaining team in the history of the sport.

Arunabha Sengupta (AS): A tally of 500 Tests is a huge landmark.

Abhishek Mukherjee (AM): Absolutely.

AS: Especially if one considers West Indies…

AM: Indeed, it has been a history baked in sunshine and soaked in rum. There has been some cricket, too…

AS: The islanders have played thrilling cricket for most of its history — win or loss, it has been either calypso or conquering.

AM: Or both, at times.

AS: In the last few years it has been capitulation, but let us not mind about that, especially when it seems the ideal juncture to indulge in that favourite pastime: selecting all time XIs.

AM: Absolutely. We keep on doing them anyway, but this time we have found a proper excuse for that.

AS: The problem is of plenty. We often say these players choose themselves. With this lot too many do.

AM: I hope you are not discussing Joel Garner’s 8’6” statement here.

AS: The task is almost as tall here …

AM: … but we need to cut it short.

AS: So, perhaps we will start with a pool of cricketers and zero down to the eleven.

AM: Correct. Let us start with the men at the top, then.

AS: Greenidge and Desmond Haynes are the obvious ones.

AM: I will make a case for Conrad Hunte here…

AS: … as I will do so for Roy Fredericks. And then there is Chris Gayle.

AM: Hunte had the best average of the lot; even more than Greenidge. Haynes, Fredericks, and Gayle have hovered around the 42-mark, but Hunte had a average in excess of 45.

AS: Greenidge  and Haynes had longevity. And Greenidge averages 44.72, which is almost 45; and who can forget the 169 by Fredericks at Perth?

AM: That was brutal, but then, I will stick to Hunte’s 45+ average. He also averaged over 40 against England, Australia, and Pakistan, failing only against the Indian spinners.

AS: However, Hunte’s overseas average came down to 38, while Haynes averaged just 33.5 outside West Indies. It seems only Greenidge and Gayle managed to maintain their scoring at 42 plus in alien conditions

AM: Have we removed the minnows for Gayle?

AS: Interestingly, he maintains an even better average if we do so: 43.83 with seven hundreds in 40 Tests.

AM: That is an eye-opener.

AS: This means he scores at 38.84 at home… while Hunte did at 53.48.

AM: Gayle has also done wonderfully in Australia and South Africa…

AS: In other words, the most difficult conditions. Now,  let us consider that an all time XI will play half their matches at home, we need to decide whom to back.

AM: Despite his terrible numbers in India, Gayle had a triple-hundred in Sri Lanka.

AS: I would go with Greenidge and Gayle, especially if West Indies is touring, with Hunte as the backup opener.

AM: Interestingly, Fredericks is the only one who seems to have handled spinners well in India, but I think we should go for Gayle. Then again, the biggest thing about Haynes was the fact that he often held fort when chips were down. He carried his bat in an innings thrice and was last out after opening twice.

AS: Let us select one opener first. Greenidge was perhaps the most consistent of the lot. He performed both home and away.

AM: Yes, I guess we can decide on Greenidge.

AS: A phenomenal striker of the ball, but he had averages of 17.27 in Pakistan and 30.96 in Australia, though he made up for it by scoring heavily in England and New Zealand.

AM: I guess he batted on both feet in Pakistan and Australia.

AS: But, anyway, I like the combination of Greenidge and Gayle. The mere mention of the combination is enough to make bowlers faint. Let us move on to the middle order, which, I daresay is going to be a colossal challenge.

AM: So we are leaving out Fredericks, it seems, despite the fact that he could torment the opposition as much as anyone.

AS: He does not a very flattering record in Australia apart from the 169… it goes to show how impact often creates perceptions rather than performance.

AM: I guess so, but he still has a very good record in India unlike the others.

AS: It is a rather small sample. Consider Greenidge. He had 1,042 at 45.3. Fredericks had 323 at 40.37, but he played a solitary series in India.

AM: Hmm, you have a point. Fredericks had one series: too small a sample.

AS: Greenidge and Gayle would also give a right hand-left hand combination that commentators often go gaga over; also, no team would possibly dare a declaration on the fifth day, whatever be the target.

AM: We know of Greenidge’s stupendous performance, but with Gayle’s fourth-innings average of 44, you have a point.

OPENERS: GORDON GREENIDGE AND CHRIS GAYLE.

AS: Coming to the middle order, can we earmark absolute certainties? For convenience we will consider Sobers as an all-rounder.

AM: We have to, since West Indian bowlers have seldom made good batsmen.

AS: We do have Learie Constantine, but he had an ordinary Test record, and much of the legend was built by CLR James.

AM: And then we have the underrated Dwayne Bravo. But in the end Sobers has to play as an all-rounder despite his modest bowling numbers. He also has to bat at three or four, his favourite positions.

AS: So we have to push either Richards or Lara down the order.

AM: They have to accommodate Sobers. If we go by sheer numbers Sobers is easily the best batsman of the three. Just imagine what his numbers would have been had the World XI matches been included.

AS: True. In that case should Lara come in at number three or should Richards?

AM: Are we keeping both? This means we can have at most one of Headley, the Ws, Kanhai, and Chanderpaul.

AS: We will be lynched if we do not; as it is people will look askance at the selection  of Gayle. Richards scored 3508 at 61.54 at No 3 and Lara 3749 at 60.46.

AM: Sobers scored 1,009 at 72.07.

AS: That’s largely because of a smallish sample involving 365 not out, is it not?

AM: Is it? He scored two more unbeaten hundreds at three.

AS: He batted at three just 17 times, and at four just 24  times. It was at number 6 that he batted most. He averaged 53 at six, 59 at five, 64 at four, and 72 at three. I would say he enjoyed batting most at four. Six hundreds in 24 innings is a lot.

AM: I guess so. Let Sobers bat at four, then.

AS: So, do we want Richards or Lara at number 3?

AM: Let us compare numbers.

AS: We also need to consider we have a left-handed opener and a left-handed number four. Should we go for a right-handed number three? And then we do have the three Ws, Headley, Kanhai, Lloyd, and Chanderpaul.

AM: I cannot see Richards batting anywhere else barring three, given his numbers. This means Lara has to bat lower down the order.

AS: And we do have to consider that Headley did not bat in too many other positions than number three. He scored 2,064 runs at 71.17 with 10 hundreds from 32 innings. As I said, this is a problem of plenty.

AM: Isn’t that similar to Sobers’ numbers?

AS: Yes, but Headley played 32 of his 40 inn at three. Sobers played 17 of his 160. So one can conclude that Headley was more accustomed to first-down than Sobers.

AM: Plus, I would back Headley because he played a lone hand at times. I know that is flawed logic.

AS: True, we cannot ignore him. But for Don Bradman he was the best batsman of his era. Mind you, the list included Wally Hammond.

AM: I guess so. This means we have to do away with Chanderpaul. We have not considered the other giants, either.

AS: So, it is Greenidge, Gayle, Headley, Sobers, and two more. I am sure I will soon suggest Clyde Walcott as wicketkeeper

AM: No, we will go for a specialist. We cannot compromise on that. I am not really in favour of leaving Chanderpaul out. Five incredible stroke-players need a foil of some sort.

AS: The two batting slots that are left are contested by Walcott, Weekes , Lara, Richards, Kanhai, Lloyd. Walcott and Weekes incidentally have better numbers than Lara and Richards.

AM: Weekes had terrible numbers in Australia and England.

AS: Yes, Weekes was a West Indies and India champion and had decent numbers in England. He failed against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.

AM: He did not do very well in England as well. Walcott had slightly superior numbers to Weekes’, but he did not do an outstanding job overseas either.

AS: Yes, Walcott averaged 14.50 in Australia and 34 in England.

AM: I think we have to do away with Weekes and Walcott.

AS: Yes, if we look closely at the numbers they failed in the most demanding conditions and against great bowling.

AM: This brings us to Worrell, Kanhai, Headley, Chanderpaul, and Lloyd for one slot. Worrell had a sub-50 average, but did a good job overseas.

AS: True; and it was sub 50 because he played well beyond his prime to lead the team.

AM: Correct. He had an average over 50 almost throughout his career. It dipped towards the fag end, otherwise he would have joined Herbert Sutcliffe and Javed Miandad. Headley did an excellent job in England (all the more reason for James to shower him with praise) but not so in Australia.

AS: Kanhai did more than decently everywhere, and well enough in England and Australia.

AM: Yes, he seems the most consistent of the lot. One of the most attractive, too.

AS: Or do we just go for Lara and Richards to complete the six? After all Richards had no peer during his playing days, and Lara had only Tendulkar as a peer.

AM: So have we decided to go with Headley? What about Chanderpaul, then?

AS: Headley’s 37.33 is not that bad in Australia given the huge difference in the strengths of the two teams. He managed two hundreds in five Tests.

AM: That is true. Chanderpaul averaged 30 in Australia, and the chasm has been almost as much. He, too, has played a lone hand, and the attack has definitely been superior. He also has an outstanding record against them at home.

AS: But what about the rest of the world? Headley scored 1,241 runs in 10 Tests at home at 77.56: that takes some beating.

AM: Chanderpaul averages over 40 against every country barring Zimbabwe. That takes some beating, too. Also, unlike most others on the list, Chanderpaul’s favourite slot is 6.

AS: Yes, then we can have the left right going down the batting order  as well. After all, if we consider the number six position, he scored over 2,500 runs at almost 65. Also, he will provide the fill in the much needed grafter role after all these lethal stroke-players in case some supreme bowler can run through this batting line up.

AM: They may also auto-destruct, given their attitude of considering bowlers as sub-humans.

AS: True. so do we go with Lara at three and Richards at five? Because the other way around does not make sense, Lara at number five is not a success.

AM: I guess so. Headley has to sit out.

AS: Yes: that is the unkindest cut of all.

MIDDLE-ORDER (INCLUDING ALL-ROUNDER): BRIAN LARA, GARRY SOBERS, VIV RICHARDS, AND SHIVNARINE CHANDERPAUL.

AS: What about the keeper? We have Deryck Murray, Jeff Dujon, Ridley Jacobs to choose from.

AM: Ah, and Jackie Hendriks, a man who, in the opinion of many, was the greatest gloveman from the islands. He was equally comfortable against raw pace and quality spin.

AS: Some say Bob Christiani was one of the best.

AS: Should we take another approach? Should we pick the bowlers and then depending on the requirements zero in on the keeper?

AM: Yes, I think that is a good idea.

AS: So do we follow Lloyd’s policy and go with the vast reservoirs of West Indian pace?

AM: They say you need a spinner, but Lloyd’s or Richards’ teams never needed spinners — though I must mention here that Roger Harper had a better average than Gibbs.

AS: We have a pace department of Wes Hall,  Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Ian Bishop, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh to choose from, as well as a spin cohort of Lance Gibbs, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine.

AM: That is the list, correct? Or did we miss someone?

AS: Charlie Griffith, Roy Gilchrist perhaps.

AM: And our dear old friend Learie Constantine.

AS: Of the pacers, I guess Marshall with an average of 20.94 and a strike rate of 46.7 chooses himself, along with the fact that his very memory evokes terror.

AM: I think Marshall and Ambrose auto-select themselves by sheer weight of numbers.

AS: Yes. Ambrose, for the record has 405 wickets at 20.99 and a strike rate of 54.5. Garner, is in fact slightly ahead of Ambrose in terms of both average and strike rate.

AM: Think about this: Ambrose and Marshall have numbers so good that even Holding pales in comparison. I think Garner makes the cut as well, which actually makes Holding the fourth seamer. Er, would he have liked to be addressed as “seamer”? I wonder, I wonder…

AS: Do we need spinners at all? Or will Sir Garfield do the job for us with Richards and Gayle to send down their stuff ?

AM: Now, Gibbs had an excellent overseas record. In fact, his overseas numbers are better than his home numbers. Barring Australia, where he averaged 33 (which is still quite good) and had a hat-trick and a three-in-four.

AS: Ramadhin never really got going in Australia. Valentine’s figures in Australia are in fact better than Gibbs’s, but his home record was atrocious. But, now the question is, do we go for four pace bowlers plus Sobers or three pace bowlers plus Gibbs and Sobers?

AM: This is an utterly sick question that I refuse to answer. Logic says we should stick to Gibbs, but to leave one of Holding and Garner out will be heartbreaking.

AS: Or do we go for a man who can stand anywhere in the field and take spellbinding catches while the fast men bowl and send down decent enough off spinners to have an average better than Gibbs? But I guess we need to rule Harper out given he took just 46 wickets in his career; but with 36 catches from 25 matches he was more than a handy man to have.

AM: Correct, though my point about him having a better average than Gibbs holds. Let us make Harper 12th man. That will solve a lot of problems. Every fantasy XI, for whatever reason, comes with a 12th man.

AS: Yes, there can be no other 12th man. He may play if the side lands up on subcontinent minefields. But then, even there, Marshall and co. would not require too much support. My heart wants Marshall, Garner, Ambrose, Holding and Sobers as my bowling unit.

AM: Meanwhile, Lloyd has gone unnoticed.

AS: He will be the manager.

AM: No, we will make him coach. Worrell will be manager. He had excellent public relations.

AS: True. And Lloyd as coach will help the four-fast-bowler attack, unless we are talking about his cousin Gibbs. So, let us do it this way. We include all fast bowlers and Gibbs — and depending on the wicket we can finalise the team.

AM: What does Harper do, then?

AS: He is the twelfth man. He will stand in the slips while a fast bowler gets his massage.

AM: Our fast bowlers will not need regular massages. That used to be Wayne Daniel’s monopoly.

AS: Given the fact that we have Marshall, Ambrose, Garner, and possibly Holding, does it make sense to have Dujon as the keeper? He was by far the best batsman among ’keepers as well. Or should we consider Gibbs and go with Murray?

AM: Or Hendriks. I will keep getting back at Hendriks.

AS: We have Chanderpaul and Gayle. I think two counterintuitive choices are enough for an XI. We do have the last opportunity to pull Walcott into the midst.

AM: No. We will not. Not with Dujon, Murray, or Hendriks around.

AS: Yes, and with this batting line up we do not need a seventh batsman. Hendricks had a huge stumping-catches ratio in First-Class cricket.

AM: Yes.

AS: Interestingly, he played three List A matches and made two stumpings while did not take a catch.

AM: Hendriks was by far the best against spin. Mind you, he also kept brilliantly against Hall and Griffith.

AS: Yes, Dujon was never tested against spin. Murray kept to Gibbs and the Roberts-Holding pair as well. But, if we go with a four pronged pace attack, why do we need a keeper who was good to spin? We need someone who could fly — like Dujon.

AM: There was also Gerry Alexander.

AS: So do we use I Ching? How do we pick the best of the lot?

AM: Once again, it depends on the bowlers. Let us reconsider the bowlers. I think Marshall and Ambrose make the cut easily.

AS: Garner will, as well. Garner should get in because of his figures. Also, he was virtually unplayable; unhittable, definitely.

AM: Fine. We need to choose one from Holding and Gibbs. Holding could work wonders on flat tracks. But then, Gibbs screams for selection as well, more so to add variety to the attack. But then, do we need the spinner?

AS: I don’t think so, unless they are playing in the subcontinent. In that case, we play Marshall, Holding, Ambrose and Gibbs. Else Marshall, Garner, Holding, Ambrose. Mind you, not just any pitch on the subcontinent — only rank turners.

AM: Even if we are talking the subcontinent, Gibbs averages 23 in India. Holding, 20.

AS: Ambrose and Garner have not played in India, but did they ever need the pitch to help them?

AM: Garner had fantastic averages everywhere: below 20 everywhere barring home and Australia.

AS: Ambrose did not play in India, but he averaged 22.50 in the subcontinent while Garner had 19.20. This means they were all more effective than Gibbs in the subcontinent.

AM: Or at least as effective.

AS: So we go ahead with Marshall, Holding, Garner, and Ambrose.

AM: Yes. Finally. And pick Dujon.

AS: Agreed.

WICKET-KEEPER: JEFF DUJON.

BOWLERS: MALCOLM MARSHALL, MICHAEL HOLDING, JOEL GARNER, CURTLY AMBROSE.

AS: We managed four left-handers in the top six. Now, where do we place the asterisk? Who will lead this team?

AM: Only one option, isn’t it?

AS: Richards is the obvious choice in terms of record.

AM: Mind you, Richards had never lost a series as captain. Lloyd had lost two.

AS: Yes, and we are giving him more or less the same set of bowlers he had, and an even better batting line up, so he should carry on the great work.

AM: Richards (3.37) also had the best win-loss ratio. Lloyd had exactly 3.00.

AS: By the way, we did not even mention Richie Richardson or Alvin Kallicharran…

AM: or Lawrence Rowe, if only he had the career he deserved. Or if Roberts had played five years later and had the perfect support throughout his career.

AS: We did not consider one great name: Wilton St Hill’s. CLR James must be restless in his grave. “In my gallery, [St Hill] is present with (Don) Bradman, (Garry) Sobers, George Headley and the three Ws, Len Hutton and Denis Compton, Peter May and a few others.”

AM: Poor St Hill. If only his averaged 20 in Tests or 30 in First-Class cricket.

AS: 20 more?

AM: No. Just 20. He averages marginally more than Marshall with the bat.

AS: As I have mentioned in my article on James, to fit a batsman of St Hill’s record — average of 27 in First-Class cricket and 19 in Tests — into the gallery of the sublime greats necessitates abstract rather than realistic art. And that is what cricket ultimately became for James whenever it stretched beyond the boundaries of “only cricket”.

FINAL TEAM:

1. Gordon Greenidge
2. Chris Gayle
3. Brian Lara
4. Garry Sobers
5. Viv Richards (c)
6. Shivnarine Chanderpaul
7. Jeff Dujon (wk)
8. Malcolm Marshall
9. Michael Holding
10. Joel Garner
11. Curtly Ambrose
12th man: Roger Harper
Coach: Clive Lloyd
Manager: Frank Worrell

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter here.)

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)