One of the great things about sport is the endless debates it provokes, especially when it lurches into the ludicrous terrain of the hypothetical. Fans love wasting endless hours arguing about fantasy contests.
Predictably, last week I found myself procrastinating the work day – debating the all-important cricket hypothetical with my friend Brett Graham, whose ability to remember/analyse/argue is unparalleled out of my mates.
Who was the better modern master – the ‘80s Windies or the 2000s Aussies? Who would win a one-off Test?
Not surprisingly, a match-up of this magnitude spiralled into a prodigious breakdown.
Lavalette: There have been two powerhouse sides in modern cricket – the West Indies, who didn’t lose a Test series between 1980-95, and Australia – twice the holders of 16 straight Test victories.
I suppose first off, we need to find the very best side from each team. I pick the touring West Indian side who took on Australia in 1984-85.
The side obliterated Australia in the opening three Tests, and in the process consigned poor ol’ Kim Hughes to tears and to resign as skipper, paving the way for the Border era.
The Windies team in the first Test at the WACA featured the following names: Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson, Larry Gomes (very underrated), Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd (capt), Jeff Dujon, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Courtney Walsh (in his first Test).
That’s a fearsome team, with most of their batsmen at their peak minus an ageing Lloyd and a young Richardson. Marshall and Garner were at their apex, while Holding was still a gun, if slightly past his prime and Walsh was raw.
Graham: Strangely enough I have some really clear recollections of the West Indian team to visit in 1984-85.
In those days, not long after the end of World Series Cricket, they were frequent visitors to our shores and were fondly regarded but feared because of their ferocious pace bowling battery and batsmen capable of thrilling stroke play.
Their touring team was filled with greats and crowd favourites like “Big Bird” Garner, Lloyd, Greenidge, Haynes, and of course my favourite two cricketers ever – Viv Richards and Michael Holding.
There was no Andy Roberts or Colin Croft this time but there were a couple of pretty handy players replacing them on their first tours of Australia in Marshall and Walsh, who played his first Test in an illustrious career, in addition to Viv’s heir apparent in Richie Richardson.
They arrived having earlier decimated a decent Australian line-up at home (albeit without Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell) and a very good England team away earlier in the year and dished out more of the same on this tour terrorising our batsmen and thrashing the bowling (or in the case of Gomes slowly grinding them into the dust).
Marshall in particular was a revelation and his 100 wickets at 19 were a major reason why the West Indies lost only one of 19 Tests in the calendar years of 1984 and 1985.
There was Holding’s terrific bowling in the first Test, Viv’s double century in Melbourne which tore the heart out of the Aussies, Dujon’s amazing hundred, Marshall’s constant wicket taking ability, and the steadying influence of Gomes.
Their sole defeat came at the SCG courtesy of the spin twins Holland and Bennett, who were more unlikely to destroy a superpower than Switzerland. This came as a huge shock as did the fact that Australia survived and indeed thrived by batting for over two days on the back of Wessels’ 173.
You always expected this team to win and they pretty much always did, so for their winning record, their charisma and unbelievable talent there is no doubt in my mind they were the greatest West Indian line-up.
Lavalette: I was born six months after that tour, so thanks for the breakdown!
Glad we’re on the same page with the Calypso Kings! It’s probably strange to admit for an Aussie fan, but how I wish I witnessed the Windies in their pomp. YouTube cannot do justice to their dominance.
Ok, when Australia dethroned the Windies in the Caribbean in ’95, it kick-started a 13-year reign as Test’s best.
I select the Australian team of the ’01-02 summer as the best of the crop. During this period they obliterated a decent (albeit not strong) South African team in five straight Tests. The team – Justin Langer, Matt Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh (c), Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, and Glenn McGrath.
Langer/Hayden/Martyn/Gilchrist were probably at their peak, while Ponting was just about to hit it, and the Waughs were just past it.
The bowling attack was probably Australia’s finest, with the underrated Gillespie arguably the best quick in world cricket between ’01-04.
Boy, do I miss those glory days!
So, is this Australia’s version? Or has my bleary brain missed the bleeding obvious?
Graham: My mind is a little more unsettled on the place of the Australian side of the summer of 2001/02 that took on the Proteas. This series came a little time after Australia had seen India stage the greatest ever comeback in the history of cricket to end their world record winning streak of 16, and also go on to take the series.
Against a tidy South African team containing the likes of Alan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis, they were ruthless and the opening pair of Hayden and Langer, combined with a resurgent Damien Martyn were irresistible.
They buried their opponents under an avalanche of runs, and finished them off with the unerring length and accuracy of McGrath and the wizardry of Warne.
In the two calendar years of 2001 and 2002 they played thrilling cricket and won 18 of the 25 Tests, however they did lose four.
McGrath, Gillespie, Lee and Warne are one of our best ever attacks, and the batting line-up stellar, however the Waugh brothers, Gillespie and Lee were all significantly below their career standards during these years.
There can be no doubt that they were one of the great sides but I am going to mount a counter argument to it.
Lavalette: Oh no. Looks like I have missed something obvious. I’ll brace myself!
Graham: Australia went to England raging favourites to retain the Ashes against England in 2005 with a team lacking the Waugh brothers but having some able replacements in Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke.
It was one of the great series with a resurgent England scoring a pulsating win against the odds.
Australia’s response was emphatic, another run of 16 consecutive Test victories starting with five straight wins against a strong South African team, a training run against Bangladesh, and then, like an ageing prize-fighter trying to recapture a lost past, faced the Old Enemy at home looking for redemption.
The careers of some giants of the game were nearing their end, with McGrath, Warne, Langer, Hayden and Martyn looking to go out on a high.
Before the series, an England side quite similar to their all-conquering OBE heroes of 18 months before were well regarded and expected to provide stiff opposition.
Yet from the farce of Harmison’s first ball and the blazing opening day assault from Langer and Ponting, Australia ruthlessly demolished them.
What is often forgotten in the aftermath of a comprehensive 5-0 scoreline is that in two Tests England were in very competitive positions after the first innings.
A magical spell from Warne gave Australia the chance, thrillingly taken, to secure victory in Adelaide after a huge England first innings, while in Perth hundreds from Hussey and Clarke with a devastating cameo from Gilchrist (a lazy hundred off 59 balls) saw Australia charge away after a low scoring couple of first innings.
The series lives strongly in my mind for the sheer will to win Australia showed, the blistering pace of their scoring, some final wizardry from Warne and the majesty of Ponting, but most importantly as the almost final flame of one of the great eras in Australian cricket, marked by the retirements of some all-time greats.
In my mind that made this side our greatest ever, perhaps only shaded by Bradman’s invincible.
Lavalette: I find selecting my favourite Aussie team akin to a parent singling out one of their kids. It’s virtually impossible, and immediately pangs of guilt ensue.
Probably my favourite ever Aussie team is Taylor’s ’95 team that conquered the Caribbean. I loved their heart and Tubby Taylor is the most astute modern captain.
The team had that knockabout, larrikin persona, which was eventually eroded by the ruthless professionalism that was the hallmark of the Steve Waugh era.
But that’s not what we’re debating. There’s no doubt Australia’s best team was in the 2000s, possessing a better all-round pace attack, and Warne was just as effective at the end of his illustrious career as the mid-’90s.
But I’ll always believe their success was skewed slightly because Test cricket standards sunk worldwide in the early noughties.
So I will kowtow to your wisdom, and agree that the 2006-07 team was at least the equal (or better) to the ’01-02 version. That Ashes redemption team boasted the underrated Stuart Clark, who was McGrath 2.0 that year.
Ponting was at his absolute zenith, with a Test average of 60 at that point of his career.
Most of the team was past their peak, but here’s where this team has an edge over their predecessors – it was in ‘Eff-You’ mode.
After being humbled by England during the ’05 Ashes, the first Aussie team to lose the urn in 16 years, Australia was more vengeful than James Bond in Quantum of Solace.
If it wasn’t for Jacques Rudolph’s stoic resistance at the WACA, Australia would have won 21 straight Tests between October 2005-January 2008! That is unfathomable.
Australia was intent on not just reclaiming the Ashes but obliterating and humiliating England in the process. But, you’re right, the first three Tests were fairly tight and I still don’t know how Australia conjured up that miracle victory on the final day in Adelaide to effectively seal the series.
This, in my opinion, just reinforces their greatness. This team was capable of conjuring miracles.
So, we’ll go for the ’84-’85 Windies v Australia ’06-’07 for the hypothetical one-off Test for modern cricket supremacy.
Graham: Both these two titans had great fire in the belly and would seek to crush you. Australia always had it in the 2000s but the Ashes defeat spurred them even further. For the Windies they had broader cultural and racial reasons as the tremendous documentary Fire in Babylon shows so well there would be no quarter given, as often happens when champions meet.
There is no doubt in my mind we would see a result in this match given the supreme quality of the bowling line-ups, but what would it be?
My gut tells me it would be the Windies getting the chocolates, probably early on day five, and certainly my memories say they would be irresistible.
However I am probably doing the Aussies a bit of a disservice, so I also had a look at the stats for the two-year period around those series for both teams, and it brought them a little closer.
The batting I think is pretty evenly matched with probably a slight edge to the Aussies.
Certainly on a career view Australia is well ahead with four of their top seven (Hayden, Ponting, Hussey, Clarke) averaging over 50, whereas the Windies have only Richards.
However, if you just look at that two-year period though, things become a lot closer. For Australia Hayden, Langer and Gilchrist were in decline while Punter and Huss were in their pomp and Clarkie was in the middle of his first renaissance.
The Windies’ batsmen meanwhile were enjoying, with the exception of Viv and Clive (who, by the way, weren’t far off their best), a period of excellence well above their norm.
The big imponderable for me is how Australia would have coped with a standard of pace bowling they would have been unlikely to have faced in their careers – in fact apart from Dale Steyn they would not have faced anyone of this quality.
In the bowling I see a very clear advantage to the Windies both on a career level and during the two year period. The fact that a guy with 519 Test wickets at an average of 24 is their worst bowler says it all really.
Lavalette: For the purposes of ensuring a fair contest, let’s imagine this Test played on the ideal cricket wicket – bit of juice first session, good batting conditions mid day one through until day three, final two days erratic bounce and some spin.
Because we know a bouncy deck, ala the old WACA pitch, would produce a Windies victory, and a spinning deck would most likely result in an Australian win.
Graham: I am imaging this game being played at the Gabba, a ground where Warnie enjoyed a lot of success, and one that offers good pace and carry without being ridiculous.
Lavalette: Yep, good call! I think it’s fair to say the Gabba is the best cricket wicket in Australia.
Now, trying to picture the battle. I think McGrath and Clark would really trouble the Windies top order with their metronomic bowling. In contrast, Lee would go for plenty, with his often erratic bowling being mercifully dispatched by Viv and Richardson – back foot masters. The Windies would no doubt go after Warnie.
Wow, I know it is just fantasy but I am salivating over picturing the Sheik of Tweak bowling to the Master Blaster. I reckon spectators would be ducking their heads for cover from the brunt of Viv’s willow but eventually, as he so often did, Warnie would weave his magic and have the last laugh.
But at what cost? Would Australia’s Achilles heel of not having a genuine all-rounder prove costly?
Australia would no doubt cop a battering from the Windies’ mean machine. Hayden would not be able to stand so far out of his crease. Unless he was a kamikaze!
But, one wonders if Australia did yield a big partnership – say a Ponting/Hussey biggie – if the Windies’ lack of spin options would ultimately backfire, like it rarely did during their dominance.
I’ll let you indulge your fantasies. Over to you for the breakdown!
Graham: My mind’s eye goes a bit retro for a moment as I picture the “Big Cat” and “Punter” walk out for the toss – I imagine Greigy out there with the keys and weather wall at the pitch inspection, I can still see the dog track around the ground…
Anyway, snapping out of this reverie, Punter calls ‘heads’ and wins the toss and bats, a decision that I sense also pleases Clive no end. We will now have the tantalising prospect of watching the Windies fearsome pace quartet gain first use of the pitch, while Warnie will surely be a factor in the final innings of the match.
Australian XI: Hayden, Langer, Ponting (c), Hussey, Clarke, Andrew Symonds, Gilchrist, Warne, Lee, Clark, McGrath
West Indies XI: Greenidge, Haynes, Richardson, Gomes, Richards, Lloyd (c), Dujon, Marshall, Holding, Garner, Walsh
On a first day wicket with a bit in it I can see them presenting a very stern examination for the Aussie batsmen. Garner with his bounce from a good length and tremendous accuracy, combined with Holding’s speed, swing and seam would be a handful early. Then you have Marshall who potentially steps up the threat again.
Between them over the two-year period these three bowlers captured 248 wickets and the highest average among them was Garner’s 21 or so – none of the Aussies could match that in their own two-year period.
Of the Aussie batsmen I can only really see Punter and Huss succeeding – well organised, in form and good back foot players, especially Punter with those imperious pull shots.
In my mind Clarke has always been susceptible to extreme pace, and Gilly, Haydos and Langer were in decline. I could be persuaded that Gilly could play a dashing knock ala Perth but think it unlikely…on second thoughts stuff it.
This is a fantasy game and it would be great to see Gilly get a few too.
Symonds I don’t think could go with these guys for long but the tail would provide useful runs, especially Warnie and Lee.
Australia probably gets 300 in the first innings.
Greenidge and Haynes were in very good nick during these years and I think they would get away to a good start, taking advantage of Lee’s looseness initially.
McGrath and Clark would be competitive and pose some challenges but I think Lee releases the pressure valve and they get away.
The introduction of Warnie sees a change in the match, and although he and McGrath are past their best, they combine to slow the scoring and chip away with wickets, the flipper Warnie uses to get Richardson particularly conjures nostalgic memories.
Viv and Clive combine to take the Windies to a good lead.
People forget sometimes what a great player of spin Lloyd was and he has one of the great records in India.
I see him really taking to Warnie who had lost a few tricks by then, and Viv would destroy Lee and adopt a more patient approach against McGrath and Clark.
Windies I think get about 400 with Dujon stranded as the tail collapses to Clark and Warnie.
I think you get a bit of a repeat in the second innings with Haydos also getting a few.
I see the Windies needing about 250 in the fourth innings and getting them about seven down with Gomes the rock upon which the chase is based.
In the end the deciding factor in the match is the bowling. The Windies have four bowlers who could legitimately be called greats, where Australia only had two, and I’ve always believed the old adage – bowlers win Tests.
Lavalette: It’s obviously a subjective exercise we’ve found ourselves immersed in. I’m going to sound a bit pathetic, but I’ll have a dip both ways. I reckon the Windies were the better team.
Their aura, intimidation and hostile pace attack makes them virtually unbeatable on a non-spinning deck.
But, in a one-off Test, I’d back Australia. Purely because of one man – Shane Warne.
That’s the biggest edge between the teams. Australia has indisputably the better spin option.
Or maybe I regret my choice already…
Graham: Like Doc in Back to the Future, I am speeding back to the present in the De Lorean, hoping not to have altered the past too much.