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Dale Steyn and Wasim Akram bowling in tandem? Here's a Test side where that happens

Muthiah Muralidaran and Shane Warne visit a tsunami refugee camp in Galle Andrew Taylor / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Compiling lists is a common hobby. If I have some time and see the back of an envelope, I make lists of different kinds - the ten greatest Tamil films, Roger Federer's greatest matches, a collection of match-saving Test innings, ten best songs sung by the magnificent Yesudas, and so on. You may throw the list away or keep it. That does not matter. It is the pleasure of listing your choices that matters.

Cricket aficionados make lists often, and almost always they are all-time XIs. Once in a while, there come such compilations by cricket luminaries.

A few months ago, I invited all the cricket enthusiasts who read my articles to submit their own all-time best XVs. Everyone was free to offer their lists. and all had the same rights, including myself. The only rider was that it was not just a matter of listing 15 names; they needed to make up a proper, balanced, Test team.

It was an exhilarating exercise and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even when the programming became quite tricky, since I had to find ways of solving non-standard inputs from many readers. For example, there were seven to eight different ways in which Muthiah Muralidaran's name was spelt.

I received a total of 159 entries - 70 to the Talking_Cricket Group and my email, and 89 through the comments link to my pieces. Out of these, seven needed to be rejected for reasons given later in this article. I received the first entry, from Reuben Finklestein, within a couple of hours after I sent my email on September 5 last year. The last entry was received on the morning of December 16, from S Anand, making it a total of 152 entries: we got past Ian Botham but fell one short of Brian Lara and Kusal Perera.)

The top 20 players readers voted for are:

1. Muthiah Muralidaran - 135 votes
2. Shane Warne - 131
3. Don Bradman - 126
4. Garry Sobers - 124
5. Malcolm Marshall - 106
6. Sachin Tendulkar - 104
7. Wasim Akram - 97
8. Adam Gilchrist - 93
9. Brian Lara - 90
10. Sunil Gavaskar - 89
11. Viv Richards - 86
12. Glenn McGrath - 80
13. Imran Khan - 76
14. Jack Hobbs - 72
15. Jacques Kallis - 59
16. Dale Steyn - 51
17. Kumar Sangakkara - 51
18. Steven Smith - 45
19. Richard Hadlee - 43
20. Dennis Lillee - 40

It is probably not a surprise that Murali leads the chart, featuring in 135 XVs. He finds acceptance across the globe. It is also not a surprise that Shane Warne comes in second, with four fewer votes. It might be a slight surprise that Don Bradman was not selected by 26 readers. This is possible because quite a few readers decided to stick only to players they have seen or followed. The popularity of Garry Sobers is revealed by the fact that he is only two votes behind Bradman. These four players received more than 120 votes each.

Fifth place for Malcolm Marshall is quite unexpected. Who would have imagined that he would poll ahead of Sachin Tendulkar?

There are the six players with over 100 votes. No one can be surprised at the next 14 selections. Barring Jack Hobbs, the other players - Wasim Akram, Adam Gilchrist, Brian Lara, Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Glenn McGrath, Imran Khan, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn - have played in the past 50 years. Perhaps the only slight surprise is that I expected Imran to get a few more votes. Rounding out the top 20 are Kumar Sangakkara, Steven Smith, Richard Hadlee and Dennis Lillee.

When I looked at the top 15, I realised there were nine batters/allrounders (Bradman, Sobers, Tendulkar, Lara, Gavaskar, Richards, Imran Khan, Hobbs and Kallis), one wicketkeeper, three fast bowlers (Marshall, Akram and McGrath) and two spinners (Murali and Warne). It was clear that I needed to replace one from the batter/allrounder group with a pure fast bowler. It was quite handy that the last-placed batter was Kallis and the next player was Steyn, so it was an easy decision to replace Kallis with Steyn: a change that will likely receive the approval of almost all those who sent in entries. It can also be seen that I have made a single forced selection, swapping the 15th- and 16th-placed players, both coming from the same country. Imran has been treated as an allrounder and not as a pure pace bowler. So the final selection is the first 14 players plus Steyn.

Only two of the players in the final XV will be certain to play - Bradman and Gilchrist. The reasons are briefly explained below.

- Either Hobbs or Gavaskar could be selected and Gilchrist asked to open alongside. Quite unlikely, but within the realms of possibility.

- Either Sobers or Imran could be selected depending on the bowling cover needed.

- Either or both of Murali and Warne could be selected. The only certainty is that at least one will play.

- Akram comes close to being a certainty because of his left-arm bowling skills. Still, I would say any two or three out of the four fast bowlers could be selected.

This also made me select Bradman as captain.

Is there any selection that is a big surprise? Not really. There is not a single player in the XV who could be deemed to be an unexpected pick. Readers have not gone overboard with players they have only heard or read about, nor have they been myopic and selected only players they might have seen in person or on television. On the whole, most selections have been pragmatic. There is excellent balance between the old, not-so-new and new, between right- and left-handers, and between the flamboyant and solid performers.

The selection of batters has been along expected lines. Maybe Sangakkara could have found a place, but in place of whom? Gilchrist was the runaway winner in the wicketkeeper stakes. Among the fast bowlers, there is variety, and possibly Hadlee or Lillee could have made a claim to being in the final XV if they had received slightly better support. Among the famous allrounders, Imran, Botham and Hadlee found support, while Kapil Dev did not have many takers. What can one say about Murali and Warne - 117 readers selected both. Eighteen selected only Murali, and 14 only Warne. And there were three intrepid readers who felt they did not need either, despite the 1508 wickets that these two brought to the table. Two went with Indian spinners and the third with Wilfred Rhodes.

All in all, this XV could not have been bettered.

It is also relevant that no player who started his career in recent years has found a place. Smith is the highest-placed current player, in 18th position, with 45 votes.

Barring the two new Test-playing countries, all other ten nations are represented.

The table above presents a summary of the career figures of the selected 15 players. I have also selected the XI for an imaginary Test at the MCG. I have to play three pace bowlers and one spinner. Warne gets the nod. Maybe Murali will get into the XI in England, and both might play in Asia. For variety in quick bowling, I have made sure that there is a combination of left-arm pace and two different types of fast bowlers. The rest select themselves.

I have worked out a simplified Team Strength Index, ignoring the recent-form aspect and using Weighted Batting Average instead of the regular batting average. The TSI is a whopping 96.4. Not a surprise, considering that the top-six batters have averages of 50-plus. For comparison, the highest-rated team in Test cricket is around 85.

The 152 entries covered 2280 player selections. A total of 131 players were represented and the average votes per player works out to 17.4. As we have already seen, the highest number of votes for any one player was 135. There were 42 players with a single vote each and 18 with two votes each. Consequent to this wide distribution, the standard deviation is at a very high value of 31.6, leading to a high coefficient of variation of 1.82, a clear indication of the quantum of dispersal of the values. It might not have been such a widespread distribution if I had put in some restrictions. However, this is a totally democratic process and I needed to allow all readers their latitude. It has resulted in some gross outliers but these have been weeded out.

No reader's XV matched the final XV, but six entries had 14 correct selections each. Eleven readers (including yours truly) got 13 selections correct. At the other end, three readers got only four picks correct.

First, some details about the six readers who got 14 players correct and their votes. The names below are in order of their Selection Index - sum of the player numbers. The selected XV has an SI value of 120 (15x16/2 - sum of first 15 numbers).

- Alan Sutherland from Melbourne went for an old master in Lillee instead of Steyn. There is very little to choose between the two. Both are aggressive fast bowlers and very tough to face in any location.

- Rafath Khan from Slough, UK, went back over 100 years and selected Sydney Barnes for Steyn. Who can fault that pick? Barnes took 189 wickets at 16 and it is a surprise that he did not make it to the final XV.

- Chaitanya Rao, also from Melbourne, went across the Tasman Sea and selected Hadlee for McGrath. Another tough selection. They are somewhat similar bowlers, with McGrath slightly faster.

- Del Ribero from London and Amit Patil from Pune had identical selections. These are the only matching pair of selectors in this top group. Both went for Curtly Ambrose instead of Steyn. Anyone who was in Perth in 1993 or Bridgetown in 1990 would have had no hesitation in making this selection.

- Kartick Narayan from Chennai went for Smith instead of Lara. How I wish I could play both of them. Maybe Kartick also feels that way.

Now for those with 13 correct selections.

- Amit Patel selected Smith and Kallis in place of Lara and Steyn.

- Saagar Sinha selected Smith and Barnes for Imran and McGrath.

- Abdul Khalid opted for one Indo-Anglian pair of Len Hutton and Virender Sehwag instead of another, Gavaskar and Hobbs.

- Jayant Jape selected Kallis and Matthew Hayden for Imran and Steyn.

- Siva Sooryah selected Kallis and Hammond for Imran and Richards.

- Varun Mishra selected Sehwag and Hadlee for Hobbs and McGrath.

- Bejoy Balagopal selected Lillee and Fred Spofforth for Akram and McGrath.

- Padam Jain selected Kallis and Hadlee for Lara and Steyn.

- Ashok Bhatia selected Lillee and Alastair Cook for Hobbs and Steyn.

- Jaideep Reddy selected Smith and Ambrose for Imran and Steyn.

Finally, coming to my own selections. I recorded them well before the end and was not unduly influenced by the subsequent summary work. I opted for the more rounded bowling skills of Hadlee over the faster Steyn. I felt that Hadlee was the better bowler overall. I also opted for the modern great, Sangakkara, instead of the allrounder Imran. I felt that would also provide additional wicketkeeping cover.

Seven players - Murali, Warne, Bradman, Sobers, Marshall, Tendulkar and Gilchrist have been selected by all 17 readers mentioned above. For three of these readers, their 15th player was outside the featured list of players. Siva Sooryah selected Wally Hammond, Bejoy Balagopal opted for Freddie Spofforth, and Ashok Bhatia for Alastair Cook.

It is clear by looking at the players just outside the top 15 that there is an abundance of batters and pace bowlers. Until Shakib Al Hasan appears, there is a glittering parade of batters and fast men. Spinners are conspicuous by their absence. Shakib is in 39th position, with eight votes, and Bill O'Reilly appears a few places later, with five votes. One entry in this group surprises me - Sehwag, who managed to secure 21 votes. That shows how highly his attacking opening skills are rated. Not to forget that Matthew Hayden has even more votes.

When we come to the right-most columns in the graphic above, we see the players with one or two votes each. I am surprised by the fact that players most of us would never associate with an all-time World XV - Ravindra Jadeja, Michael Hussey, Bobby Peel, Martin Donnelly, Mike Brearley, Brendon McCullum, Bobby Simpson, Sourav Ganguly, et al - have received a vote. At the same time, one might have expected Everton Weekes, Kevin Pietersen, Harold Larwood, Peter May, et al to receive more than a single nod.

Many of these single selections are logical and it is a pity that they could not get more votes. However, some, like Jadeja, are quite strange. Still, that particular reader's team is quite good (he has seven selections who were in the final XV) and I have accepted the selection. Another such example is that of Hussey. The person who selected him named six players who made it to the final XV, and I have accepted his selection. To round off such selections, the reader who selected Peel also had six in the final 15. Overall, that is fine.

However, some selections were completely off. One reader selected Rohit Sharma. I have nothing against Rohit - after all, he has scored over 3000 Test runs. However, that reader also selected Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels, Glenn Maxwell, Shahid Afridi, Rashid Khan and Umar Gul. That entry was rejected. As was another entry that contained Mohammad Rizwan, Adam Zampa, Jos Buttler, Asif Ali and Shaheen Afridi. One had Bhanuka Rajapaksa, David Wiese, Andre Russell, Dewald Pretorious, Anrich Nortje et al. Another reader selected Aiden Markram, Liam Livingstone, Charith Asalanka, Moeen Ali, Marcus Stoinis and Wanindu Hasaranga in his team. It is possible that this was due to ignorance; they might have thought they were selecting a T20 team. It could also have been a deliberate attempt at tomfoolery. Another reader had nine Pakistan players in his XI. They were all wonderful players but I could not take that entry. In all, seven entries were rejected.

A second XV, strictly in the order of selection and changed only when absolutely necessary, is below. Look at the quality of this team. It will certainly give a tough fight to the top team. Not one from among these 15 players would be out of place in the top XV.

Len Hutton
Mathew Hayden
Virender Sehwag
Steven Smith
Ricky Ponting (c)
Jacques Kallis
Kumar Sangakkara (wk)
Shakib Al Hasan
Ian Botham
Richard Hadlee
Sydney Barnes
Curtly Ambrose
Dennis Lillee
Bill O'Reilly
Anil Kumble

My heartfelt thanks to all those who sent in their entries over the past three months. To see the final XI play at MCG, maybe against the second XI above, would indeed be any cricket enthusiast's fantasy.

Since this process involved many manual steps and I have done it all singlehandedly, it is possible I might have missed an entry or two. My sincere apologies to the readers if any entry is missing.

The complete player-reader matrix has been encased inside an excel sheet that has been made available for readers to peruse. You can download the file here.

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