No country has produced as many all-time great opening batsmen as England. And some of them were more than a little versatile in the other departments of the game as well. Arunabha Sengupta takes this feature to a logical conclusion by forming an All Time XI composed of English opening batsmen.
Having gone through the rigours of composing All-Time XIs for Pakistan, West Indies, South Africa, New Zealand, India; and after going forming three of them for Australia; picking one more should have come down to just another day in the office.
However, the very thought of an All-Time England XI fills me with dread. We would stumble on the very first obstacle.
There are just too many opening batsmen in the land, at least three of whom are the best ever across any team and era around the world, and one of them the foremost cricketer of the early days of cricket, arguably the most important figure in the history of the game.
Indeed, there has been no opening batsman in cricket who can fit in the same bracket as Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton. And then we remember that WG Grace spent more than three decades going in at the top and changing the art and science of the willow forever, maintaining an enormous distance between himself and the next best of his era that has been matched only by Don Bradman in the history of the game.
Grace got his runs in Tests after his much of his best days were spent in the pre-Test era. Yet, when he ended his Test career, he was one of the four men to have scored 1,000 runs in the format, and boasted the second-best average in this select group.
Why England? If we consider some counties we end up being spoilt for choices. Take Yorkshire with Sutcliffe and Hutton leading the way, and then down the years coming across men like Geoff Boycott and Michael Vaughan? Or Surrey with Hobbs followed by Andy Sandham, John Edrich and later Alec Stewart with his additional ability to don the big gloves. Or Essex, with Graham Gooch and Alastair Cook, where Trevor Bailey could open batting and bowling with his barnacle-like characteristics?
And if we go by plain figures, the man next to Sutcliffe, Hutton and Hobbs as an opening batsman for England is neither Boycott nor Cook nor Grace, it is Dennis Amiss.
Make the cut-off 2,000 runs and rank by batting average, and we have Sutcliffe, Hutton, Hobbs and Amiss among the top six around the world, with Bruce Mitchell and Bobby Simpson providing international flavour.
No, the selection discussion will be endless. There are just too many to choose from. One has to go for more than two openers in that team. May be more than three, because some of them were excellent in other departments of the game as well.
Which is why it makes sense to take a shot at forming an All-Time XI with just the opening batsmen of England. It is my conjecture that this would end up as an incredible outfit with talent to spare — a batting side which is good enough to open for England till the last man, and more than holding its own in the other departments as well.
It is a slightly tricky affair while choosing the batsmen. For the specialists with the willow in this opening eleven the selection for the team will be based on brilliance as an opening batsman. The suitability of his position in the order, based on his performances at the top or lower down, will be decided after that.
1 & 2: Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe
I would hate to separate Hobbs and Sutcliffe at the top of the order. They, along with Hutton, would be my picks for any All-Time World XI as well.
The reason I do not have Hutton as one of the opening partners is that of the three he had the most experience in batting in the middle order. And he did not do too badly either, improving on his overall average of 56.67 and stretching it to 62.50 down the order.
So, Sutcliffe (4,522 runs at 61.10) and Hobbs (5,130 runs at 56.37, with a part of his career in the pre-World War 1 wickets of dubious quality) will start things off.
3. Alastair Cook
At one-drop, the best person to make his way in is perhaps Cook. He happens to be the highest run-getter for England as an opening batsman with 28 of his 30 hundreds coming at the top. Besides, the man has batted with plenty of success at No. 3 when Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick used to open for England and averages 52 in that position.
4. Len Hutton
Hutton can come in as the old hand at No. 4, and he can be counted on to bat ably at any position. He has 6,721 runs at 56.47 as an opener and his career aggregate of just under 7,000 runs came at 56.67.
5. Dennis Amiss
At No. 5 I would go for Amiss. He does not have a good record down the order in Test cricket, but that can be attributed to these innings coming in difficult phases of his career. But as an opening batsman he is just too good (3,276 at 53.70) not to make it into a team composed of opening batsmen. We will go by the runs he scored batting in the middle-order for Warwickshire.
6. Geoff Boycott
At No. 6 I would like to see Boycott. 8,091 runs at 48.16 as opening batsman secure his place in the side. I would assume the fabulous top-order would have spent enough time in the middle, and by the time Boycott walked in it would be time to tackle the second (or third) new ball.
Of course, one of the additional advantages of this side is that the order can be reshuffled without anyone being inconvenienced. After all, all eleven men are perfectly capable of opening the innings.
Shifting the batting around may be of great necessity if quick runs are required at the fall of the fourth wicket.
7. WG Grace
The next man in is WG, and the manager will have his hands full convincing the giant not to go in to start the innings. As explained, WG was better with the bat than anyone else in his era, by a distance that has been matched only by the genius of Bradman. Besides, we often tend to forget that he captured 2,809 First-Class wickets with his round-arm bowling, at 18.14, with 240 five-wicket hauls and 64 ten-fors. From 1873 to 1878 he did the double in the English summer, repeating the feat in 1885 and 1886.
He was indeed the best batsman of his times, and transformed the art of batting with his equal propensity for front-foot or back-foot play. With all this, we tend to forget that he was one of the greatest bowlers of his era as well.
Also, with Grace around, one does not have to debate the captaincy issue.
8. Alec Stewart
As wicketkeeper who else but Stewart? As an opening batsman for England, he has 3,348 runs at 44.64. Understandably, his figures with the bat are not so good when acting as the specialist wicketkeeper, however 4540 runs at an average of almost 35 is rather impressive for a stumper. It also underlines that had he played all his career as a specialist batsman he could have been more successful and could have ended up being counted as one of the best produced by England.
9. Trevor Bailey
The Boil was good enough to open the batting and the bowling for England. He went in first 23 times, and managed just one fifty. But down the order, he was one of the best men to have, especially with the team in crisis. He scored his 2,270 runs at 29.74 with a hundred and 10 fifties in 61 Tests, but that was less than half of his job. In 49 of the 95 innings in which he took the field for England, he opened the bowling. His 132 wickets came at 29.21 and made him one of the best all-rounders to play for the country.
10. Wilfred Rhodes
One of the greatest left-arm spinners of England with 127 wickets at 26.96 from his 58 Tests, Rhodes opened the innings on 43 occasions and scored 1,469 of his 2,325 Test runs at the top of the order at an average of 36.72. His near-40,000 runs and 4,204 wickets in First-Class cricket remain incredible numbers achieved by a single person. He added 323 with Hobbs at Melbourne, scoring 179, a single more than his illustrious partner. He also bowled England to victory in the famous Ashes decider of 1926 at the age of 48.
11. Dick Barlow
Of the 30 innings he batted for England, 16 saw Dick Barlow as an opener, and an excellent one as well. During the early days of Test cricket, an average of 22.73 was quite impressive, especially for someone whose other job, perhaps more important one, was to take wickets with his left-arm medium-pace. He opened the bowling 6 times, and captured 5 for 19 in the first innings of the epoch-making Birth of Ashes Test at The Oval. Four years down the line, at Old Trafford, he got 7 for 44. In First-Class cricket, he scored over 11,000 runs and captured 950 wickets.
Bailey and Barlow will form a fine new-ball pair with Grace as first-change, while Rhodes will provide the spin option. That is a first-class attack for a team in which every batsman has opened for his country with a degree of success varying between great and good.
Also, Boycott can be counted upon to roll is arm over once in a while if required, presumably with his cap on.
The ones that miss out combine into formidable bench strength. Gooch, Edrich, Cyril Washbrook, Vaughan, Sandham and Trescothick are some extraordinary openers not to make into a team of openers. And Neville Cardus can be heard turning in his grave at the exclusion of Archie MacLaren. Also excluded is Michael Atherton.
It is essential that the side has Gooch as the coach. He has a reputation as being thoroughly professional. Besides, his Zapata moustache will come in handy when standing up to the wagging beard of WG when the latter wants to go in as the opening batsman.
Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Alastair Cook, Len Hutton, Dennis Amiss, Geoff Boycott, WG Grace (c), Alec Stewart (wk), Trevor Bailey, Wilfred Rhodes, Dick Barlow. Coach: Graham Gooch.