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My All-Time England XI


MY ALL-TIME ENGLAND XI

 

1. JACK HOBBS

2. LEN HUTTON (capt)

3. WALLY HAMMOND

4. JOE ROOT

5. DENIS COMPTON

6. IAN BOTHAM

7. ALAN KNOTT (w-k)

8. HAROLD LARWOOD

9. JIMMY ANDERSON

10. JIM LAKER

11. SYDNEY BARNES

 

 

JACK HOBBS  

Known as The Master, with good reason. In a career that lasted from 1905 to 1934, he scored 199 first-class hundreds (many more had the First World War had not intervened), which included 61 Tests with a batting average of 56.95. Wisden named him as one of the Five Cricketers of the Century (the others being Bradman, Sobers, Warne and Viv Richards) and who are we to quibble with Wisden? Before the War, Hobbs formed an opening partnership for England with Wilfred Rhodes and after the War with Herbert Sutcliffe (whose Test average is 60.70 and is unlucky not to be included in this team). Hobbs gets my vote because he was the master of all conditions on all wickets against all types of bowling. Run scoring per se didn’t really interest him, nor statistics. After completing his century, he believed that his job was to entertain; a quarter of those 199 centuries were less than 110. He was not as dominant as Bradman, nor did he want to be. He only made one double hundred in Tests yet before Bradman, he was regarded as the most consistent run getter in the game. He was in addition a peerless cover fielder.

 

LEN HUTTON

Hutton was a Yorkshireman, and that in many people’s eyes says it all. He played in 76 Tests and had a batting average of 56.67 and held the record for the highest individual Test score of 364, against Australia at the Oval in 1938, which remains the highest score by an Englishman to this day. He played a cautious game, both as a batsman and as a captain, with an orthodox and conventional technique. Before the Second World War, he was prepared to give full rein to his attractive strokeplay but an injury sustained when he was working as a PE instructor to the Commandos during the War necessitated an operation which left one arm two inches shorter than the other. When cricket resumed after the War, he had to adapt his technique, playing fewer shots and selling his wicket dearly. Furthermore, as an opener, he had to contend with a barrage of short-pitched bowling, principally from Miller and Lindwall, when the England batting seemed to rest on his shoulders alone. Yet, for all that, Wisden rated him as one of the greatest of English batsmen.

 

WALLY HAMMOND

Had it not been for Bradman, a convincing case could have been put for Wally Hammond as the greatest of all batsmen between the Wars. In 85 Tests, he averaged with the bat 58.45 and took 85 wickets with his fast-medium bowling (his contemporaries believed he could have taken many more had he taken his bowling seriously). He was in addition a slip fielder par excellence. He was an exceptional athlete, balanced and still at the crease and beautifully poised in the execution of all his strokes, particularly in the power of his driving, which was greatly admired. He was majestic and assured, an amalgam of all the physical and mental attributes that make a great batsman. Pity he didn’t have such an attractive personality. Moody, taciturn, peevish, arrogant and selfish, he was roundly detested by many of his team-mates. Far from taking pleasure at being mentioned in the same breath as Bradman, he bitterly resented the comparison. “Not only do I have to do well,” he complained, “but I have to score more runs than Bradman.” Sometimes he did.

 

JOE ROOT

Up until the emergence of Joe Root, I would have unhesitatingly given this spot (as well as the captaincy) to Peter May, who according to his most doughty opponent, Richie Benaud, was “not only one of the greatest English batsmen to have emerged since the War, but probably the only one.” However, Root has unquestionably superseded May and might well, in many people’s opinion, become the greatest of them all. He is only 33 and has already played 140 Tests and he will surely overtake Alistair Cook as England’s highest scorer in history. He currently averages a smidgin under 50 and in an age when the art of batsmanship has become more of a cudgel than a rapier, he has relied more on a classically correct technique – that is when he hasn’t become seduced by all the funky new shots in the batsman’s armoury – with perfect timing and judicious placement of the ball. You can watch him, unfussy and unhurried at the crease, and then look at his score and realise he is already 20 or 30 not out and he has barely played a shot in anger. Then the passage of his innings attains a matchless serenity, and he never looks like getting out, though it has to be admitted that for a while his conversion rate from 50 to 100 was not all it could have been. But with 31 Test centuries to his name, that seems a trifle harsh as criticism.

 

DENIS COMPTON

Those who thought that Denis Compton was a bit of a wayward genius, capable of brilliant innings but not to be trusted for consistency of performance, ought to take a look at his record….78 Test matches with a batting average of 50.06. Yes, he was a genius with a bat in his hand, capable of playing some outrageously unorthodox stokes but he had a tight orthodox defence and any risks he took were calculated and judged. The Brylcreem Boy (he was a handsome fellow and a perfect fit as the model for the hair styling product) was a man of mercurial talents and an unquenchable zest for life. He lost some of his best years to the War and latterly was hugely restricted by a number of operations on his knee, following an injury he sustained while playing for Arsenal…on the wing. Famously absent-minded he once turned up for a Test match at Old Trafford in 1955 against the South Africans without his kitbag. Nothing daunted he sauntered into the club museum, borrowed an antique bat and went on to score 158 and 71. Almost single-handed, he became an icon of England’s renewal after the War whose exuberant personality and sterling deeds transcended the game in a way that only the next player in the batting order has since matched.

 

IAN BOTHAM

Ian Botham is forever associated in the public’s consciousness with that magical victory in the 1981 Ashes series. At the time, he had the cricketing world at his feet; as far as the Australians were concerned, they were very much under his feet. A persuasive case could be put for the inclusion of Ben Stokes in the all-rounder’s slot, perhaps even for the two of them, Stokes and Botham, in the same team. But all-rounders are free spirits, they play by their own rules, and like to be the centre of attention, with either ball or bat in hand. Ian Botham gets my vote on account of his superior bowling, 386 wickets in his 102 Tests, decidedly brisk with late away swing, a wicked in-swinging yorker and a surprisingly effective bouncer. Before injury reduced his effectiveness and he relied on sheer force of personality to get his wickets, he was unstoppable, his strength, enthusiasm and aggression limitless. As a batsman (average 33.54 with 14 centuries), he was often regarded as a slogger; nothing could have been further from the truth. Yes, there were times when he went straight into all-out attack mode, but he had a perfect technique, and he could build proper Test innings. I often wished he had taken his batting more seriously; he could have played in the team solely as a batsman and given his back a rest. But all-rounders are not like that. They are risk takers. If they fail with the bat, never mind, they can make an impact with the ball. Rarely do they shine at both in the same game. There was one unforgettable match when Botham gave the lie to this assumption, a personal triumph in the Jubilee Test against India in Bombay in February 1980. He became the first player in Test cricket to score a hundred and take ten wickets in the same match. Team-mates had better watch out, however, for his incurable taste for practical jokes. I cannot imagine Hammond being at all amused by his antics.

 

ALAN KNOTT

There was a time when you selected your best wicket-keeper, regardless of whether he could bat or not. The current debate about the England wicket-keeper has left me bemused. In my opinion, Ben Foakes is by far and away the best wicket-keeper in the land and his place in the team should never come into question. It’s not as if he is a mug with the bat either. By general consent, Alan Knott was the finest of England wicket-keepers, perhaps in the entire world, though Bradman gave his fellow countryman, Don Tallon, the nod in his All-Time World XI. Like all ‘keepers, with his floppy white hat and his sagging pads, Knott was an eccentric, full of tics and idiosyncrasies but his glovework was neat, soft and unfussy and his reactions razor-sharp. Beautifully balanced, he was a natural behind the sticks, economic in movement and possessed of almost superhuman powers of concentration. He could bat too, and scored many valuable middle-order runs in his distinctive, energetic style.

 

HAROLD LARWOOD

The selection of Larwood as the main strike bowler will no doubt raise a few eyebrows, and not just on account of his role in the controversial Bodyline Series of 1932-33. Incidentally, the fact that he was never again picked for England after his return home from that tour, in order to appease the wounded pride of the Australian Cricket Board, was, and remains, a disgrace. He was only the instrument, not the instigator, of leg theory, and as a professional, he would never have been in a position to refuse to carry out his (amateur) captain’s instructions, even if he had wanted to do so. Let us concentrate on his undoubted and extraordinary powers as a fast bowler, one who struck raw terror into opposing batsmen. He famously hit Bradman on the backside and anybody who forced The Don to turn his back – the only bowler ever tohave done that – must be worthy of his place in this side. He played in only 28 Tests (78 wickets @ 28.35) but his impact on matches far outstripped bare figures. At a time when measurement of bowling speed was in its infancy, it was reckoned he bowled anything between 90-100mph, though there were times, he reckoned, that he bowled faster than when the cameras were present. But sheer speed is only the half of it. Hobbs reckoned not only was he the fastest bowler he had ever seen but also the most accurate.  At only five feet seven inches, he was short for a quick bowler, but he had a strong back and immensely powerful shoulders, hardened by his early work in the Nottinghamshire coalmines. His approach to the wicket was a thing of controlled beauty; umpires used to say you couldn’t hear his approach to the wicket, so light was he on his feet. His side-on action was copybook. and his low trajectory meant that his bouncers skidded through at an awkward height. Just take a look at rare footage of him bowling on You Tube – balletic, graceful yet deadly. The only other Englishman to have had such a devastating effect on Australian batsmen was Frank Tyson, probably Larwood’s equal in pace, but he had no Bradman to cut down to size. Incidentally, Larwood’s highest score with the bat in a Test match was 98, so probably the best of the tailenders, of which there are a few in this side.

 

JIMMY ANDERSON

Anderson at No. 9? Well, I did say this side had a long tail (not a huge worry because the first seven in the order will surely have racked up enough runs). There are many reasons for Anderson’s claim to greatness- his longevity (42 years old and still going), the number of Tests (187), the record number of wickets for a pace bowler (700) and his miserly aggregate (26.52), and this in an era of helmets, better protection, huge bats, shorter boundaries, physically stronger cricketers and a wholly different, attacking mindset of batsmen. His command of swing bowling has been the stuff of artistry, bearing comparison with any bowler of any country in any age. Furthermore, he has adapted to different conditions that do not necessarily aid the swing bowler, principally abroad, and learnt how to take wickets with seam, reverse swing and relentless accuracy. That he is still bowling is testament to his natural athleticism, his levels of fitness and his easy, economical, repeatable action, though it still astonishes me that he can land the ball on a sixpence when he is actually looking down at his bootlaces. Efforts to ‘rectify’ this fault were futile and thankfully short-lived.

 

JIM LAKER

Laker will forever be remembered for his 19-90 at Old Trafford against the Australians in 1956, a feat not equalled since, and very unlikely ever will be. But he was no single meteor streaking across the cricket firmament (like the Australian, Bob Massie, who famously bent the ball round corners at Lord’s to take 16-137, but only played in a further five Tests, then to disappear without trace). Laker never disappeared; he took in total 193 wickets in only 46 Tests at an average of 21.24. Why he only played in 46 Tests is a bit of a mystery. Earlier on in his career, he was frequently omitted from the England side, especially abroad, where it was felt his off-spinners were less effective, an opinion which the opinionated Laker did not share. He was the perfect model for an off-spinner, with a high sideways-on action and large fingers that imparted heavy spin on the ball. Fielders at mid-off would hear the distinct snap of his fingers and the fizz of the ball as it was sent on its way. On helpful wickets, he was nigh-on unplayable but if the pitch offered little assistance, his accuracy was legendary and the pressure he exerted was relentless. He was after all a Yorkshireman, though he played for Surrey, and hated giving anything away.

 

SYDNEY BARNES

A quick look at his record ought to dispel any lingering surprise that Barnes is included in my team. There are lies, damned lies and statistics but these figures take a lot of explaining away if they are to be used as evidence that he was over-rated. He played in only 27 Tests, admittedly at a time before the First World War when the international cricket arena was circumscribed by just England, Australia and South Africa, but he took 189 wickets at an extraordinary average of 16.43. I made mention of Laker’s 19 wickets in one Test; in so doing, he broke a long-standing record set by Barnes in 1913 against South Africa, when he took 17-159. Barnes was, by all accounts, the perfect all-round bowler, using both in and out swing, seam, cutters and spin at a medium to medium-fast pace, delivered from a strong frame of six feet in height, with a hatchet face that exuded pure aggression and hostility. He reckoned he was essentially a spin bowler, both off-spin and leg-spin but at a fast pace, yet he could just as effectively operate with the new ball, swinging it both ways – and late. The conversations that he and Anderson would have about the art of swing bowling would be well worth listening to, though similar conversations with Laker about the art of spin bowling might be a little less instructive; both men were of a dour and taciturn nature and were not always easy cricketers to handle. Another extraordinary fact about Barnes was that he played very little county cricket. Being a man with a steadfast sense of his pecuniary worth, he reckoned he could make more money playing in the Staffordshire league than he could ever earn playing for a county. Contemporaries, both in England and abroad, were unanimous that he was the greatest bowler they had ever seen. No question – nobody else was ever mentioned in the same breath.

 

THE CAPTAINCY

In the absence of Peter May, who would have been my choice to captain if he had made the side, we are left with four candidates, Hutton, Hammond, Root and Botham, all of whom captained England at some stage of their career. On the field, Hammond made few mistakes, to the surprise of his detractors, but I still see him as a divisive figure, unpopular with his team-mates and therefore unlikely to inspire their loyalty. Root did arouse loyalty among his troops – he is clearly a delightful chap – but England seemed to freeze under his leadership, and besides, I would prefer to leave him to score his runs without burdening him with the responsibilities of the captaincy. Botham famously rediscovered his mojo once he was relieved of the captaincy; he should be another one left to concentrate on performing great deeds. Which only leaves Hutton. He led England in their successful quest to regain the Ashes in 1953 after 20 years of hurt (the last time they held the urn was after that controversial Bodyline Series in 1932-33) and he repeated the feat Down Under in 1954-55. By far the most successful of the four candidates, therefore, wining two Ashes series; none of the others managed one. Yet his leadership was not always favourably received. In 25 matches, he won 8, lost 4 and the rest were drawn, leading his critics to accuse him of an over-cautious approach. Well, I did say he was a Yorkshireman. It is to be hoped that the more free-spirited members of the team, Compton and Botham and perhaps Root, encourage him to take a punt from time to time. No-one ever questioned Hutton’s loyalty and devotion to his team. In fact, he wore himself out, performing the job and retired soon after his 1954-55 triumph.

 

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