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Opinion

A joyful XI of players who made me fall in love with cricket

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23rd September, 2021
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One of the great joys of being a cricket fan is coming up with fantasy XIs – the all-time greatest Australian XI, the all-time greatest left-handed XI, the best XI of the 1970s, the best XI of players born in countries other than that For which they played and so on.

It’s fun, and it makes for marvellous arguments about which player was better than another, whether an imaginary team needs to be balanced for the purpose of actual play and which of the other commenters on the article is a complete idiot.

But that’s not what I’m doing here today. Today I am naming an XI that is meant to not provoke debate but simply, in the words of legendary cricket fan Marie Kondo, spark joy. For this is not a best-of team – rather, here I am naming the XI of my favourite players. The players who over my years watching cricket have given me the most excitement, inspired the most sympathy and caused me to wish most sincerely for their success over and above the success of their teammates.

In other words, this is not the XI I would choose to play for my life; it is the XI I would choose to make me feel alive. And it is my hope that it will inspire all who read this article to come up with their own teams. And on these teams there can be no argument, because each team is the product not of analysis but of personal, idiosyncratic taste. And so with our favourites XI we shall not argue, we shall merely celebrate.

A note on selection: all my players are Australian, because I have seen more of Australian players over the years than others and because I am a one-eyed bigot when it comes to cricket allegiance. Put simply, non-Australian cricketers have for the majority of my spectating life delighted me only through their failure.

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Favourites XI

1. Michael Slater
He was the guy. The man whose poster was on my bedroom wall. No batsman ever brought me as much joy with his successes or as much sadness with his failures. In 2021 it may be hard to understand how thrilling it was back in 1993 to see an opening batsman in a Test match go furiously at the fast bowlers from the first ball.

Slater was a whole new beast, belligerent in strokeplay and yet simultaneously strangely fragile. He exuded a certain vulnerability, a desperate desire to be liked, which may have had something to do with his insatiable urge to entertain with slashing cover drives, sublime on-drives and flamboyant, flourishing hooks and cuts.

He played in an era well populated with fearsome new-ball bowlers and took them all on, come hell or high water. At times he was the reckless author of his own downfall, but such occasions sprung from the same buccaneering spirit that made him so irresistible in full flight.

His greatest moments tended to be against the old enemy: his maiden Test century at Lord’s was an exuberant masterpiece; his hundred at Sydney in 1999 when the rest of the side was melting like a witch in a waterfall a breathtaking exhibition of audacity and bravado as he ran down the pitch to slam Darren Gough back past his earhole; his last hurrah in 2001, batting like an angry threshing machine to tear the initiative away from England.

From there he slid rapidly from favour, but many of us will never forget how brightly he blazed and how that flashing blade made us feel that nothing on earth could ever beat the experience of watching the cricket.

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2. Simon Katich
He walked across the crease like a crab and wielded his bat like a hockey stick, but he was doggedly effective and never more so than when more elegant colleagues crumpled like chocolate wrappers. He came into the Test side in the Shane Waugh era but proved his worth most decisively in the Ricky Ponting years, when victory wasn’t quite as easy and the invincibility of the baggy green began to ebb away.

Nobody would ever call Simon Katich invincible, but few batsmen in history have ever been as up for the fight, even if occasionally the fight was with a member of his own team. Punching awkwardly through cover, clipping stiffly through midwicket, glancing and deflecting and just simply finding a way, Katich inspired because he didn’t care how he looked, only how many he racked up. He was a defiant presence at the wicket, telling the bowler quite clearly, “You are free to make me look terrible, but getting me off this field will be quite another matter”.

If that weren’t enough, he also bowled left-arm wrist spin with an action as ungainly as anyone this side of Paul Adams, and you can’t not love anyone who does that.

3. Dean Jones
Like Slater, he was prone to brain explosions. Like Slater, he was prone to exhilarating exhibitions of strokeplay that the greatest of batsmen envied. When I first started watching cricket, Jones was the rock star of the Australian team. He was introduced to the Australian team during its darkest days, when Allan Border sought men defined less by polished efficiency than by their refusal to back down. Such a policy started the careers of Steve Waugh, David Boon, Ian Healy and Craig McDermott among others, but nobody charged headlong into enemy fire like a Viking berserker the way Deano did.

Late in his career he deliberately chose to provoke Curtly Ambrose by demanding he removed his wristbands – it was the perfect distillation of his entire approach to cricket. In one-dayers he was an innovator, charging fast bowlers, inventing shots nobody had seen before and running between wickets like a hellhound was on his trail.

In the longer form he had a penchant for epic knocks, most famously in his life-threatening 210 in the tied Test of 1986, an innings that proved that behind the flash was true grit. It’s no surprise people didn’t always see that, though, when the flash was so bright.

Check out the third final of 1988-89 for a demonstration of how Deano, caring not for the fact that the world’s scariest bowlers were bearing down on him, would still dance and prance, using a bat the way Errol Flynn used a sword.

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4. Michael Bevan
It was a bitter pill to swallow when I had to accept that Michael Bevan would never make it as a Test batsman. I wanted him to succeed in whites so badly. What’s more, I was certain he could succeed. They said he couldn’t handle the short ball – I always believed it was more the grandeur of the occasion that got to him. In Tests Bevan seemed to tighten up in a way he never did in one-dayers or in the Sheffield Shield, where he put state attacks to the sword as easily as a fish swims. He played cramped, nervy shots, so unlike the free-flowing elegance of his 50-over knocks.

Perhaps without the structure of an ODI innings, without the clear mathematical calculations of the short form to keep his mind busy, too many doubts crept in. But he could’ve been anything, in any form of the game: an all-time great batsman, a matchwinning strokeplayer or even one of the best-ever left-arm wrist spinners. On his day his fast, whippy breaks could be unplayable.

As it is, we have to be satisfied with what he was: one of the most brilliant one-day batsmen to ever don pyjamas, who elevated the oft-ephemeral art of short-form batting to something majestic.

5. Tom Moody
Moody was a glorious sight in full flight: two metres tall and sending booming drives soaring over long-off and long-on. He was a stalwart of the one-day team, the only man besides Steve Waugh to join the World Cup-winning squads of both 1987 and 1999. In the 50-over game his power hitting combined with nagging medium-pacers and a rocket-launcher of an arm from the outfield to make him an ideal weapon.

In Tests he may well have become a great were it not for the quirks of history. He struck two centuries in his short Test career, but his fate was sealed when he was forced to open the batting on the tour of Sri Lanka in 1992. Completely out of place at the top of the order, he failed miserably, and that was that for Long Tom in the baggy green.

It’s possible that had he gained a few more chances at Test level, we’d have seen his weaknesses further exposed. But we’d also have got to see a few more of those glorious drives, and it would’ve been worth it.

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6. Greg Blewett
No batsman ever looked better than Greg Blewett. Whether grand cover drives on photogenically bended knee, clips off the pad played with implausibly upright elegance or pull shots that combined effortless poetry with machine-tooled control, his strokes were played with such textbook beauty that a lengthy innings verged on the pornographic. It is unfortunate that his technique combined picture-perfect strokes with a gate between bat and pad big enough to drive a Hummer through, advantage of which was taken by many an inswinger.

Still, he was gorgeous enough to forgive him anything. He also shared with several of his teammates in this XI the status of ‘part-time bowler who occasionally did something outrageous’ – the most loveable type of cricketer there is.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qeis-fDDX2Q&t=9s

7. Adam Gilchrist
I hope readers will forgive me just one boringly obvious inclusion. The grit of Ian Healy and the nobility of Tim Paine are dear to my heart, but no wicketkeeper has ever moved me like Gilly did. It’s not just the fact he routinely took bowling attacks apart like a tiger taking apart a fawn. It’s not just that he swung his bat with the carefree ease of a golden-age amateur even while the crack of the shot echoed like a shotgun. It’s not just that Shane Warne was mean to him. It’s that he was a crucial part of the nastiest and least sportsmanlike champion team in cricketing history and still remained one of the nicest guys Australian sport has ever seen.

8. Jason Gillespie
When he bowled he could be frightening, limbs flying, Mephistophelean beard bouncing ominously to the crease, sleek thunderbolts jagging both ways in the air and off the wicket. But when he batted he displayed infinite patience, zero concern for appearances and the vague sensation that his arms and legs had no joints in them. He also contributed several match-turning rearguard actions, rode his bat like a horse when he reached his first 50 and finished his career with a double century that would’ve seemed idiotically unrealistic in a soap opera. I’ll be honest: one of the best of all fast bowlers is in this team for his batting.

9. Craig McDermott
Ah, Billy the Kid. Like Dizzy, batting was a part of his legend: gallant but doomed surges for victory in successive summers against the Windies and South Africans and a penchant for huge hits. But to a kid falling in love with cricket, what McDermott represented was the Platonic ideal of a fast bowler: big, burly, aggressive and always seemingly on the verge of blowing his top.

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He would roar in, arms pumping, face set in a compelling mixture of anger, determination and ceaseless, face-reddening effort. He’d bowl fast all day, specialising in pinpoint outswingers and electric yorkers, and in the days when the West Indies brutalised everyone unlucky enough to cross his path, he was one of the dashing few who could be relied upon to fearlessly serve it back to them, even knowing the bruises that would come his way in retribution.

He was as inspirational a figure as a kid could ask for, not to mention comfortably the best Aussie quick between Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath.

10. Stuart MacGill
I adored Stuart MacGill from the moment I first saw him bowl with that eccentric round-arm action that spun the ball harder than anyone, Shane Warne included. The more I learnt about him, the greater my love grew. He read books in the dressing room – actual books. He was a connoisseur of fine wines in a team of beer drinkers. He bowled an intoxicating variety of massive leg breaks, wicked wrong ‘uns, fizzing topspinners and a fair share of long hops and full tosses – giving it a rip with glorious unpredictability, just like the leggies of yore, while carrying himself with vein-popping intensity relieved only by the cathartic roar of triumph when a batsman fell for his tricks.

The man with the initials SCG was born to be a cricketer and yet so different to any other of his profession. Also, of course he may be the unluckiest cricketer in history: an all-time great leg spinner forced to ply his trade in the same era as an immortal.

11. Bruce Reid
Then again, maybe this was the unluckiest cricketer in history. Bruce Reid’s ludicrously elongated, stick-thin body was perfectly designed to do two things: deliver unplayable deliveries and suffer crippling back injuries.

Had his body been able to stand the rigours of an entire series in one go, he may have broken records. Had it held together for a few years in a row, he may have been the greatest of them all.

The MCG Tests of 1990-91 and 1991-92, in which he took a total of 25 English and Indian wickets with his awkward left-arm risers and insidious inswingers, are a pointer to just how good he was for all too brief a span. He was devastating and irresistible in full flight – even if that full flight was deceptively languid – but the only thing that dealt with his bowling less capably than the world’s batsmen was his own body. Tragic.

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