Selecting an all-time India XI that would have done better against Australia
Fantasy is the refuge of the disappointed in sport. And the question some disheartened followers of Indian cricket are keeping themselves entertained with in these bleak times is this: would an Indian XI from earlier generations have done better in recent weeks?
If the best couldn’t do it, maybe the next best would have. On such a foundation of ifs and buts is the edifice of fandom built. Distance lends romance and increasing solidity to past performances, many of which were aberrations in their time as India pitched their tent in the bottom half of the rankings. Reputations grew with every ball not bowled and every stroke not played.
Let’s then pick the eleven that might have done well on the disastrous tours of England and Australia. Some players from the current side merit inclusion, but let’s leave them aside for the moment. They must be exhausted anyway.
From 1959 to 1968, India lost 17 Tests in a row abroad, five each in England and the West Indies, three England and then four more in Australia. That was the norm.
Then came Sunil Gavaskar and changed everything. He was not the first to average better abroad than at home—that was Mohinder Amarnath—but he was the first to startle by long-term consistency, which in the manner of such things was taken for granted soon enough. He made centuries in his first three Tests in Australia, and though India lost two of them narrowly, he had put himself on the road to scoring the greater number of his centuries away from India, a trend continued by Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid.
The opening slot in our Fantasy XI, therefore, is a shoe-in for Gavaskar. Since a major problem in the recent series has been the lack of a good start, I shall resist the temptation to pair Gavaskar with the dashing Mushtaq Ali, maker of India’s first century abroad, and go with the man who followed Mushtaq a few hours later, Vijay Merchant. The Gavaskar-Merchant pair would have handled the fast bowlers with courage and conviction without losing out on scoring opportunities.
Mohinder Amarnath at number three would have to remain padded and ready for much longer than Dravid in England or Australia. His batting average barely touched 30 in India, but outside, it was an incredible 52, as he took on Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz in Pakistan and the fearsome combo of Roberts-Holding-Marshall-Garner in the West Indies. For a while in 82-83 he was the best batsman in the world. Not just for making five centuries as India lost five of ten Tests, but in the manner of the making, hooking the fast bowlers repeatedly. Twice, in Barbados and in Perth, he came close to making two centuries in a match.
Gundappa Vishwanath was fond of saying that India never lost a Test when he made a century; one of these was at Lord’s, a venue where neither his brother-in-law Gavaskar nor Tendulkar managed one in a combined career of over 300 Tests. Vishwanath made centuries on some of the fastest tracks he played on by telling himself to play ‘beside’ the line of the ball, a technique that didn’t serve him as well on slower tracks. He made 114 in Melbourne against Dennis Lillee and Len Pascoe when the next highest score was 25. Incredibly, India won that match after Australia were bowled out for 83 in the fourth innings.
At number five we have an old master, Vijay Hazare, who remains the only player to make Test centuries on successive days. The rival captain Don Bradman wrote that Hazare was a ‘great player’. In his 60s, Hazare was still good enough to impress India’s young and emerging spinners Bishan Bedi and Venkatraghavan, who bowled to him in charity matches.
That famous Irish cricket writer William Butler Yeats was nearly right: things fall apart when the centre cannot hold. If Tendulkar-Dravid-Laxman could not hold, would Amarnath-Vishwanath-Hazare make a difference? The advantage of fantasy is that you don’t have tobe logical.
India’s one ray of hope in Australia was the number six slot, filled with aggression and skill by Virat Kohli. In our fantasy team, that place is reserved for Vinoo Mankad, the only one in the XI with a Test abroad named after him. In the ‘Mankad’s Test’ at Lord’s in 1952, he made 72 and 184, claimed five for 196 with his left-arm spinners while bowling 97 overs in all. Only Kapil Dev rivals him as India’s greatest allrounder, and to have these two coming in at six and seven is any selector’s fantasy. Wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani at eight and then the specialist bowlers complete the team.
There is a temptation to pick Amar Singh (who, in the memorable words of the England captain Walter Hammond “came off the pitch like the crack of doom”) ahead of Mohammed Nissar, by reputation and repetition India’s fastest bowler ever. Nissar, according to the polymath CB Fry, was faster than Harold Larwood, who destroyed Australia in the Bodyline series. Let’s go for pace then, sheer pace, a luxury India did not always have. Hazare, who once clean-bowled Bradman, was a medium pacer of class, and gives the team options.
With Mankad blocking Bishan Bedi, the only certainty from the latter’s era would be the off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna, who on his first tour of Australia finished with 25 wickets in four Tests, and remains for Ian Chappell (who played that series) the finest of his type. Bhagwat Chandrasekhar or Anil Kumble? Statistically there is little to choose between them (except in aggregate terms) when it comes to matches in England and Australia.
Chandra played the key role in India’s first victories in these two countries, with six for 38 at the Oval in 1971 and figures of 6 for 52 twice in Melbourne in 1977-78. He was most likely to bowl that mythical delivery—the unplayable ball, as Viv Richards once pointed out.
Here, then, is our team:
All that remains is to choose the captain and 12th man. Kapil Dev, who has led India to a victory in Australia, sneaks ahead of Gavaskar and Hazare as captain, while Mohammad Azharuddin, possibly the finest all-round fielder we’ve had, comes in as twelfth man.