My all-time West Indies XI

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My all-time West Indies XI

Stephen Vasciannie

Sunday, June 28, 2020

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Who are the best cricketers produced by the West Indies since we started playing Test cricket in 1928? Or to be more precise, which players would select themselves as the all-time best West Indies cricket team? The selection of this all-star side is no easy task, but it raises interesting points of conjecture.

We need to note certain general considerations. In the first place, intertemporal comparisons are notoriously difficult. How does one who did not see George Headley in action in 1939 on his way to immortality at Lords realistically compare him – in terms of sheer quality – with Lawrence “Yagga” Rowe delicately slicing his way to 214 and 100 not out at Sabina Park in 1972? Not many spectators would have seen both innings, and fewer still would remain in command of the points of evidence to clinch the case one way or another.

Secondly, the selection is to be for a Test cricket XI. Today's international cricket assumes divergent forms, and the exciting qualities that would almost automatically land Chris Gayle on a T20 team of “yam hitters” are not necessarily key considerations for the five-day subtleties of the Test arena. A fair question, though, is whether performance statistics from the shorter, more modern, forms of the game provide good guidance on likely results in Test cricket. For the ground rules, we could say yes, but with reservation.

Insularity

Thirdly, we must seek escape from the parochialism and insularity sometimes said to bedevil West Indies team selection. In some quarters, it is argued, for instance, that Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, and Leeward Islands colleagues had to demonstrate exceptional talent (well in excess of others) in order to gain a firm place on the West Indies team. In some cases, this argument cannot be refuted.

Selectors may respond by pointing out that they do not always have the means to review regularly the talent emerging throughout the more than 10 countries that form the circle of Windies cricket. This may also be true, in some cases. Thankfully, however, the problem of insularity should not detain us for long; in the modern game, by the time a player has reached the pool for consideration as an all-time “great”, he will be known to the general public and to the selectors.

Strategy

Fourthly, we should acknowledge that the final composition of an all-time team, as in the case of other teams, may turn on specific strategic considerations and playing conditions at home and abroad. The West Indies team may benefit substantially from a four-pronged pace attack – as conceptualised by Clive Lloyd in the 1970s and 80s – in matches at Sabina Park. But what if the match is on a turning wicket in New Delhi, or at Queen's Park Oval? In the latter situations, Lance Gibbs with his one-time record of 309 wickets of tight off breaks may present a strong case for selection.

Similarly, if the all-time West Indies team is to go up against a team of legendary Australian pace bowlers (Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Max Walker, Glenn McGrath et al), or against world-class spinners such as Bishen Singh Bedi, Chandrasekar, or Muralitharan, this may influence my team selection. So, for example, Brian Lara and Lawrence Rowe would be on my shortlist for the all-time XI. I would, however, need to consider carefully whether to keep Brian Lara on the team for matches against Glen McGrath, and whether Rowe would travel consistently well outside Sabina Park and Kensington Oval.

Averages

Fifthly, as far as general considerations go, we need to underline the importance of statistical evidence. Bearing in mind – especially but not exclusively – the problem of intertemporal comparisons noted above, we need a common yardstick as a rough measurement of achievement. That yardstick should be batting and bowling averages in Test cricket, but it can only be a starting point. Other factors to be addressed will include the putative strength of the opposition, social circumstances (Headley's career was affected by World War II), and the overall weight carried by the cricketer in the context of his team.

The team

So then, here is my all-time West Indies XI, in proposed batting order:

(1) Conrad Hunte (45.06)

(2) Gordon Greenidge (44.72)

(3) George Headley (60.83)

(4) Brian Lara (53.17)

(5) Viv Richards (50.23)

(6) Garfield Sobers (57.78)

(7) Jeff Dujon (31.94)

(8) Joel Garner (Runs per wicket: 20.97)

(9) Malcolm Marshall (Runs per wicket: 20.94)

(10) Michael Holding (Runs per wicket: 23.68)

(11) Curtley Ambrose (Runs per wicket: 20.99)

I have placed the Test career batting averages in brackets for the first seven players, and the bowling averages for Joel Garner down to Curtley Ambrose.

Atlas and Sobers

Now to defend my selections. To begin with, Headley and Sobers automatically pick themselves. It is not an accident that Headley was known as Atlas; not only does he hold the highest Test batting average for a West Indian, he set that marker on a team which faced heavy pressure from its opponents in the fledgling years of our cricket.

Sobers has the third-highest Test batting average but was also a world leading bowler with both medium pace and spin (with a bowling average of one wicket for every 34.08 runs). In comparison with others such as Ian “Beefy” Botham and Jacques Kallis, Sobers retains superlative standing as the greatest all-rounder of all time.

Prince and Viv

Then matters become more subjective. At positions 4 and 5, I have selected Lara and Richards. These batsmen, with rankings 6th and 8th in the all-time batting averages, had a marked appetite for runs, and demonstrated a pronounced capacity to undermine the spirit of opposition bowling with exquisite timing, coordination, and power.

Richards, as “the Master Blaster”, played cricket with pride and confidence for his Caribbean people, while Lara, with 375 and then 400 as world Test batting records is unique in the ability to register huge scores and to turn the tide in a Test match.

But could either Lara or Richards be excluded? Three batsmen not in my final XI – Everton Weekes (58.61), Clyde Walcott (56.68), and Charlie Davis (54.20) – have higher batting averages than Lara and Richards, while Shivnarine Chanderpaul (51.37) also supersedes Richards in statistical terms.

Along with Frank Worrell, Weekes and Clyde Walcott, as the illustrious “3Ws”, have played defining roles in the development of West Indian cricket. All the same, I would still be inclined to retain Lara and Richards ultimately because of their distinct ability to win matches on their day.

Charlie Davis and Chanderpaul were prolific, dogged, and reliable run-scorers, who often faced difficult batting circumstances and may have been slightly underrated by spectators; however, they too fall a little behind Lara and Richards in my ranking flair and entertainment value are among the factors which have taken me to this conclusion.

Hunte and Greenidge

With respect to the openers, at 1 and 2 above, Hunte and Greenidge justify their selection largely by reference to their batting averages. Among other specialist openers, Allan Rae (46.18), Jeff Stollmeyer (42.33), and Desmond Haynes (42.29) would also present valid claims.

In the case of Rae, however, his relatively short Test cricket lifespan of 15 matches over five years, and his comparatively low first-class average of 39.65, would work slightly against his case.

Chris Gayle, with a Test average of 42.18 would also make the shortlist for the Test team, and would be a star in the T20 aggregation, as intimated above.

Selecting Hunte and Greenidge as the two specialist openers may present a dilemma. There are other cricketers with very high public ratings – including Rohan Kanhai (47.53), Seymour Nurse (47.60), Clive Lloyd (46.67), plus the 3Ws, Chanderpaul, and Davis – who present stronger averages than the selected openers. What if the non-specialist batsmen, with clearly superior averages, were prepared to open the innings for the All-Time XI? Should they receive priority over Hunte or Greenidge?

I would turn down this option on the grounds that specialist openers are integral to a team's response to pace like fire. Substitute openers, even as stars with versatility, will not match the genuine article.

Holding & Co

As regards the bowling line-up, I have opted for four pacers – Garner, Ambrose, Marshall, and Holding. The first three of these have the best bowling averages for the West Indies. Holding's average at 23.68 runs per wicket is slightly below the figures for the impressive Emmanuel “Manny” Martindale (21.72) and Colin Croft (23.3). This, though, is not decisive for team selection. Martindale and Croft played in 10 and 27 matches, respectively, while Holding did in 60. Holding, therefore, kept his consistency across a longer stretch of time.

At the same time, selectors would do well to remember Holding's extreme pace off the long, Rolls Royce run-up, his potential to capture prized wickets, and his ability to seize the initiative in tight circumstances witness, for instance, Holding's treatment of England's Geoff Boycott at Kensington Oval, Barbados, in the March 1981 Test match, and his 14 for 149 at the Oval, England, in August 1976.

Croft will have to go on the waiting list where he will be in good company with leading wicket-taker Courtney Walsh (24.44), Andy Roberts (25.61), and Wes Hall (26.38). He will also join famous spinners such as Gibbs (29.09), Sonny Ramadhin (28.98), and Alf Valentine at the slightly more expensive rate of 30.32.

Keeper and skipper

Finally, the wicketkeeper and the captain. For the former position, there are interesting possibilities, leading to my support for Jeff Dujon.

Dujon, with 81 matches, 267, catches and five stumpings, has a track record for durability and reliability. Moreover, for about 10 years, he bore the brunt of the four-pronged pace combination, and still managed a batting average of 31.94.

Other candidates on the list of contenders for glove work and batting would include Ridley Jacobs, Jackie Hendricks, and Gerry Alexander.

Clyde Walcott of superior batting fame kept wicket for the West Indies for his first 15 Tests, and Kanhai did so for his first five. Neither of them, though, would make the team as wicketkeeper/batsmen.

The ideal captain for the team would be either Frank Worrell or Clive Lloyd. Great as they are, however, neither would make the final XI as a player, and so, an alternative would need to be found. Step forward Viv Richards to keep the individual heroes in top form!

Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie is professor of International Law at The University of the West Indies, Mona.


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