With all this imposed indoors time, I’ve been conjuring up any number of imaginary XIs, and here’s my latest idle idea: beautiful versus ugly. Graceful and elegant versus awkward and clunky.
Cricket is a sport that, while being driven by objective stats, is also unendingly subjective, a realm where we never abandon our favourite batsman who’s averaged 20 for the past five years because class is permanent, or where the scratchy old opener amasses runs for a decade but doesn’t get selected because he doesn’t dominate the attacks.
Whenever we’re remembering star players and casting our assessments, how they looked is never separated from the cold hard numbers.
So to that end, for this article I’ve totally embraced the subjective and picked two complete teams. One is made up of the smoothest, most flowing and stylish cricketers I’ve seen – an XI whose beauty will bring a tear to your eye. The other is a team who will probably also make you cry, but this time out of either wincing disgust or outright laughter. Two XIs on completely opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum.
I should remind everyone that this really is subjective, they’re just my instinctive feelings about these players so it’s quite possible I’ve missed what others would think are obvious picks. I’d love to hear everyone’s own perceptions but do grant me my subjectivity.
Also I’m a younger fan and haven’t seen many of our sport’s legends, so don’t crucify me for excluding old favourites (I’m almost certain someone will mention David Gower).
So I’ll list the teams below then explain the selections, starting with the urgh before ascending to the oooh. Oh and by the way, I’ve awarded captaincy based on most awkward/stylish not on actual captaincy ability, so calm down all those seeing (c) next to Smith’s name.
1. Graeme Smith
2. Chris Rodgers
3. Rory Burns
4. Steve Smith (c)
5. Shivnarine Chanderpaul
6. George Bailey (in his recent stance)
7. MS Dhoni (wicketkeeper)
8. Mitchell Santner
9. Andre Nel
10. Paul Adams
11. Jasprit Bumrah
1. Hashim Amla
2. Usman Khawaja
3. Kane Williamson
4. Mahela Jayawardene
5. Damien Martyn (c)
6. Mark Waugh
7. Kumar Sangakkara (wk)
8. Dale Steyn
9. Brad Hogg
10. Michael Holding
11. James Anderson
For the awkward XI we have two very similar openers, Graeme Smith and Chris Rogers. They’re not amazingly ugly, but they both share very legside-closed bat faces and chokingly dominant bottom hands, which have always made me grimace a little. They never did and never will astound the audience, but they’ll get plenty of runs with crabby little flicks to legs and blunt pokes behind point.
Next up, Rory Burns of England. What is happening with that back lift, and those elbows, and his whole head come to that. I’d never seen him before the latest Ashes and I’m not sure I want to again. When the bowler’s running in it looks like a swarm of bees has settled around him and he’s nervously fighting if off before the ball arrives. He is effective though, you’ve got to admit. He’s stacking up the runs nicely.
Ah, and we come to the captain of the team, chief in weirdness, Steve Smith.
I’m not sure much needs to be said of our Smudge, a nickname that I think is pretty apt – it shares that sense of blunt, laughable sense of ‘what the?’. I’m making him captain because his awkwardness is just so universal. Not just his twitchy set-up, not just his elbowy plonky shot-making, not just his hilarious lightsaber leaves and follow-throughs, but his entire personality seems so robotically focused it’s almost disturbing.
Next is one of my all-time favourite batsmen, perhaps number one, Shiv Chanderpaul. Growing up I seriously loved not only his uniqueness but how much he proudly owned it. Of course there’s the famous side-on stance, but also the tattoo/paint (no idea which) advertising under his eyes, the hammering of the bail into the crease and the nonchalance with which he could go from obdurate blocker to a 69-ball hundred against an all-time great pace attack. I wanted to copy him so badly as a kid, but we played on synthetic pitches, Mum would have killed me if I got those tattoos and I definitely did not have the talent or courage to face fast bowlers front-on. Still, love ya Shiv.
The last of the batsmen I absolutely could not leave out was George ‘Cheeky’ Bailey and his end-career stance. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have front-on Chanderpaul at the crease along with rear-on Bailey? What lovely symmetry.
With our keeper, MS Dhoni, the weirdness probably tones down a bit, but it’s still there. His awkwardness comes from his rather blunt and blocky movement patterns, which apply to both his batting and his keeping. With the bat he hardly moved his feet, instead just relying on powerful little bunts of the wrist. His keeping was mutely economical too. The way his hands barely moved a centimetre backwards when stumping someone was certainly not stylish but still impressive.
And so to the bowlers. I’ll get rid of the obvious ones first, Paul Adams and Jasprit Bumrah. Adams is the famous ‘frog in a blender’ South African bowler, a description I can’t top so just YouTube him.
And we all know Bumrah as that jerky straight-armed menace who surprisingly destroys batting line-ups instead of his own joints.
The other two are perhaps more personal choices of mine. Andre Nel’s bowling action always struck me as the most uncoordinated and displeasing sporting movement I’ve ever seen. Sorry Andre, nothing personal. That choppy sideways-wobbling run-up, that scratchy shuffle at the crease instead of a proper jump, that constricted little arc of a bowling arm, which looked like a painful afterthought – basically it looked to me like he was dealing with a set of muscles that were wilfully restricting his movements instead of enabling them. Ergh.
Funnily enough as a kid at the SCG I joined in those famous chants he received at Australian stadiums, but I think my subconscious was triggered by the technique, not the person.
And finally Mitch Santner. Whereas Nel’s technique incites a fiery rage in me, Santner’s is like a blanket of dull disappointment. It’s all about that front arm of his. A bowler’s front arm is meant to be his energetic talisman, a tall lightning rod thrown up high or flung wildly out to the side to inspire passion and energy and motion – but Santner’s? It just lamely tucks into his side like a broken wing, meekly hiding from the limelight, robbing any fizz or spark from his action and pulling his body down into a weird Quasimodo hunch. The dainty little run-up doesn’t help either.
Okay, onto the good-looking ones! Interestingly there’s a lot less to say about the Stylish XI. There appears to be less individuality, maybe because as these guys have all neared aesthetic perfection they’ve all neared the same standard.
Perhaps the quote should be “All stylish cricketers are alike, each awkward cricketer is awkward in their own way”. Their cover drives are all refined elegance, their forward defences are all effortless balance and their legside flicks are all delightfully crisp.
I’ve made Damien Martyn the captain of this bunch because as a young growing fan his cover drives were just godly, untouchable paragons of class. His were the most efficient, neat and utterly stylish pushes for four I’ve seen. How I dreamed of being able to copy them. Sigh.
The bowlers do have a bit more individuality to them, though. Dale Steyn and James Anderson are somewhat similar, unsurprising as two excellent out-swing bowlers, but Steyn has a humming, buzzing menace in his run-up and leap whereas Anderson’s gather is a gentler, more flowing picture.
Michael Holding breaks my rule for seeing a player from my lifetime, but I’ve seen many a highlight of him online, and I simply could not omit Whispering Death himself. That smooth, serene whip of arms hurling controlled fire, it’s another level.
And finally another personal pick, a man not exactly fitting in with these intense steaming thunderbolts of menace: Bradley Hogg, the goofy, never-ageing tongue man. I’ll admit that at first the tongue, and the man behind it, seem not an obvious choice, but watch his actual action. From a purely technical point of view I’ve always admired the purposeful run-up, the brisk skip at the crease, the full smooth rotation of the arm and the neatly cocked wrist. Plus, that wrong’un, right?
So there we have it, awkward versus stylish! I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts and ideas, there’s got to be so many more cricketers out there I haven’t thought of or seen.
Incidentally, who do you think would win between these teams? I think the stylish XI win this one, with a marginally deeper batting line-up and a much better bowling one.