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Opinion

The not-quite-the-best Australian XI

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Roar Guru
24th June, 2020
29

To date, 458 men have been gifted enough to do something nearly all of us could only dream about: pulling on a baggy green cap and representing Australia in Test cricket.

Over recent months, we’ve had a look at a huge variety of best Test XIs, Test squads and even a side made up of one-Test wonders and Davids.

This made me wonder if there was such a thing as a not-quite-the-best Australian XI? These are the guys who were good enough to play Tests and were given plenty of chances by selectors to show their worth, but for whatever reason, didn’t quite make it.

Don’t get me wrong, this piece is not about sledging these guys. As I said in the first paragraph, I’m in awe of anyone good enough to play at the highest level because it means, at one time, they were considered to be one of the best 11 players in Australia.

The selection criteria is pretty simple. With one exception, all of this XI played at least ten Tests for Australia. That’s it.

1. Rick Darling
14 Tests, 697 runs at 26.80, no hundreds
Darling was a really exciting batsman to watch. He loved playing the hook and cut shots and was a terrific fieldsman.

Unfortunately he was not so great defensively and his running between wickets was highly entertaining, for all the wrong reasons.

In fairness, Darling probably came into Test cricket too young, due to the loss of players to World Series Cricket. He did score six Test 50s, but as his average suggests, he also made quite a number of low scores.

2. John Dyson
30 Tests, 1359 runs at 26.64, two hundreds
Dyson was a far better cricketer at first-class level, where he averaged over 40, than he was at Test level. He was a solid rather than spectacular opener, who was better suited to occupying the crease, as a strike rate of 33 would suggest.

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His two Test centuries were memorable for quite different reasons. The first was at the Leeds Test in 1981, where he made 102 and Dennis Lillee cleaned up with the bookies, when England were at 500-1 to win, after leaving Australia only 130 to chase in the last innings.

His other hundred saved a Test against the West Indies in Sydney, where he batted for more than 102 overs to help force a draw.

He’s also remembered for arguably the catch of the 20th century

3. Ian Craig
11 Tests, 358 runs at 19.58, no hundreds
Craig was one of the first batsmen to be dubbed the next Bradman after scoring 213 against a touring South African team in 1953 at the age of 17.

He was chosen to play his first Test only a few months later, where he scored 53 in the first innings and 47 in the second. This was possibly the batting high point of Craig’s career.

Although there were far more seasoned candidates, Craig was made Australian Test captain at the age of 22. He led the Australian team to South Africa where his own form was very modest but the team won the series.

Prior to the 1958-59 season, Craig suffered a bout of hepatitis, which forced him to give up the captaincy to Richie Benaud. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened to Australian cricket if Craig had maintained both his form and health. He retired from first-class cricket at the age of 26.

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4. Craig Serjeant
12 Tests, 522 runs at 23.72, one hundred
Serjeant started his Test career in June 1977 and ten months later, it was over. He came into first-class cricket and had a terrific first season, averaging over 66, which was good enough to get him on the 1977 Ashes tour.

His cause can’t have been helped by Greg Chappell deciding Serjeant might be a good opener, even though Serjeant wanted to bat in the middle order.

His one century was another memorable one. Playing in the third Test against the West Indies in 1978, he came to the crease with the second-innings score on 3-22. He and Graeme Wood proceeded to put on 251, which eventually helped Australia make the 362 required for a remarkable victory.

5. Gary Cosier
18 Tests, 897 runs at 28.93, two hundreds
Cosier was the type of cricketer far better suited to T20s than Tests. He was very strong and had a good eye, but that’s not enough to make a top class Test batsman.

He looked to be the next big thing when he forced his way into a very strong Australian side in the 1975-76 series against the West Indies and made 109 on debut. A couple of seasons later, he made a terrific 168 against Pakistan at a strike rate of 81, but in his next 26 innings, only passed 40 on five occasions.

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6. George Bonner
17 Tests, 528 runs at 17.06, one hundred
Bonner is something of a latter-day enigma. He played first-class cricket in the 19th century, when batting averages were considerably lower than they are now, yet he still only managed a shade over 21, which was ordinary even by Victorian standards. Somehow, though, he toured England on five occasions, which begs the question how he managed that, given his batting figures.

There’s no doubt about his batting power, with anecdotes about hitting a ball over the pavilion at the Oval and hitting another so high that he and his partner had time to almost run three. He also had arguably the best throwing arm in world cricket.

7. Tim Zoehrer
Ten Tests 246 runs at 20.50, no hundreds, 18 catches, one stumping
Zoehrer was given a chance to play Tests when Australia was seeking a replacement for Rod Marsh. He was sound enough, both with the gloves and with the bat, but unfortunately there were others, like Ian Healy, who were just a tad better.

Another bloke who was a little better was Adam Gilchrist and when he moved to WA, Zoehrer developed his leg breaks in an attempt to keep playing first-class cricket.

It’s well known Zoehrer went on the 1993 tour to England as Ian Healy’s understudy, but he was also a back-up leggie to a bloke named Shane Warne.

What isn’t well known is that Warne’s 75 wickets on that tour cost 22.64 runs, whereas Zoehrer’s 12 wickets cost 20.83!

Generic cricket ball image.

8. Hunter Hendry
11 Tests, 335 runs at 20.93, one hundred, 16 wickets at 40.00
“Stork” Hendry was a very capable first-class all-rounder who never quite made it at Test level. It probably didn’t help that he played in an era in Australian cricket when the Test team was very strong.

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This meant for example that he batted no higher than number eight and it was only in his last Test series in 1928-29 (where he made his only hundred and put on 215 with Bill Woodfull) that he got to bat at first drop. By all accounts he was a superb slips fielder.

9. Peter Sleep
14 Tests, 483 runs at 24.15, no hundreds, 31 wickets at 45.06
By his own admission, Sleep’s Test career was mediocre, though his batting average suggests he was not the worst in this team.

Selectors badly wanted a leg spinner and tried him a number of times from 1979 until his last Test in 1990. Unfortunately, the success he enjoyed in the Lancashire league didn’t translate to Tests as a strike rate of 96.1 would attest.

10. Kerry O’Keeffe
24 Tests, 644 runs at 25.76, no hundreds, 53 wickets at 38.03
O’Keeffe would be the first to admit his bowling lacked penetration and while his strike rate was not as poor as his teammate Peter Sleep, it was still up there at 82.

In a similar vein to Sleep, O’Keeffe was not the worst with the bat and it must have been a proud moment when he opened the batting in the second innings of the Centenary Test.

If nothing else, with O’Keeffe in the side, there should be no lack of laughs.

11. Dave Gilbert
Nine Tests, 57 runs at 7.12, 16 wickets at 52.68
There are surprisingly few bowlers who are standouts to make this list. Most have either done well with their opportunities or have not played the requisite ten Tests. I’ve exercised a captain’s pick and gone for a guy who played nine Tests in just over 12 months.

Gilbert was a good, honest first-class bowler who never quite made it at Test level. He was another bowler with a high strike rate (102.9). That would not be to his liking.

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Although a dead set number 11, Gilbert did score the winning run when NSW won the Sheffield Shield final in 1985 by one wicket.

So there you have it. A team of huge potential, which was given lots of opportunities by selectors, but came up a little short.

They’re all champions to me, though.