By Scyld Berry
We introduce the Wisden Test XI. The aim is to recognise the best Test cricketers of the calendar year, and to endorse Test cricket as the highest, most skilled, form of the game, the least subject to the intrusion of time.
The criteria for selection are simple: the best eleven to play a Test match, no matter the opposition, guided by performances in 2008, and taking into consideration the amount of Test cricket they played in the year, the quality of their opponents, and that indefinable blend of class and form.
The three selectors cover the globe and the game’s disciplines. They are Ian Bishop, the fast bowler who played 43 Tests for West Indies; Ravi Shastri, who played 80 Tests for India, initially as a left-arm spinner and later as an opening batsman; and Ian Smith, who kept wicket for New Zealand in 63 Tests. Shastri and Smith also captained their countries briefly, while Bishop regularly led Trinidad & Tobago. All three now watch cricket around the world as television commentators.
Unlike other selection panels, this one is an open forum and we can hear the reasoning. In the case of six players, the selectors were unanimous. In three cases there was a 2-1 majority. In the other two, the three selectors each voted for a different player, and the editor – as convener of this panel – had the casting vote. Sadly, Pakistan did not play a Test match during the whole year, which ruled their players out of consideration.
The opening pair were unanimously agreed to be Virender Sehwag and Graeme Smith, the two leading Test run-scorers of 2008. They were also the two fastest scorers of those who played regularly (Tillekeratne Dilshan had two field days against Bangladesh). Honourable mention was made of Gautam Gambhir, Sehwag’s opening partner for India, who averaged 70 against formidable opposition; and in a strong era for left-handed openers, Chris Gayle, Simon Katich and Andrew Strauss were also notable. But Smith was the pick.
At No. 3, Ricky Ponting, although he enjoyed one of his lesser years, was the choice of Shastri and Smith; Bishop, who tended to opt for the younger player in marginal selections, preferred Hashim Amla for “his growth and maturity”. Shastri noted that Ponting in 2008 had finally scored a Test hundred in India and “was less scratchy against spin this time, playing later and with softer hands rather than going hard at the ball as on previous tours”. Ponting would field at second slip in the Wisden Test XI, beside Graeme Smith at first.
Sachin Tendulkar secured the votes of Shastri and Smith to be No. 4, while Bishop went for the promise (and all-round fielding) of A. B. de Villiers, although he would have batted at No. 6 in Bishop’s team. Shastri’s reasoning: “Tendulkar scored two 150s in the back yard of the best team in the world,” as Australia still were in January 2008. Later, in December, Tendulkar put the finishing touch to his CV, the match-winning fourth-innings hundred against England at Chennai.
Kevin Pietersen was a unanimous choice at No. 5, and the only England player to be chosen. (Honourable mention was made of Andrew Flintoff as an all-rounder, but he missed more than half England’s Tests through injury and scored only one fifty.) Mahela Jayawardene was a strong contender for the No. 5 position, but it was felt he needed to score more runs outside Sri Lanka.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul was another unanimous choice. As Bishop put it: “Sheer weight of runs and a great strength of character make him a no-brainer for this team. It is a phenomenal effort to average over 100 in Tests in a year, and Chanderpaul made it his second in a row.” (He averaged 111.60 in 2007, and 101 in 2008.) Shastri noted that he glues the lower order and makes runs in all conditions, from seaming pitches in England to spitting turners in Asia and indifferent tracks at home.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the unanimous choice as wicketkeeper and No. 7. He also won the votes of Bishop and Shastri as captain. Bishop selected him because of “his charisma, which seems to permeate the Indian dressing-room and bring the best out of his team”; he also noted that India lost in Sri Lanka when Dhoni sat out the series. Among other reasons, Shastri liked “the way he handles the media in a media-frenzied country, and is immensely composed”. Smith, however, gave his vote as captain to Graeme Smith: South Africa’s victory over Australia in Australia “sealed the deal”.
As the sole spinner (assuming normal conditions), Harbhajan Singh won a three-way tie on the convener’s casting vote. He was Smith’s choice, for taking 63 wickets in the year and his part in “two very hard series against Australia where he did not back down”. Smith also argued, persuasively, that the two Sri Lankan mystery spinners played insufficient Test cricket to be included. Ajantha Mendis (Bishop’s choice as his “wild-card pick”) played only three Tests, albeit with sensational success against India. Muttiah Muralitharan (Shastri’s choice because he was “tried, tested and vastly experienced”) played six Tests: but in two of them, in the West Indies, he struggled, relatively, and could not bowl out West Indies when they chased in Port-of-Spain.
Mitchell Johnson’s development through the year – culminating in 11 wickets against South Africa in the Perth Test which Australia lost – persuaded Bishop and Smith to select him. Bishop also observed that Johnson is “a good fielder and improving lower-order batsman”. Shastri preferred Brett Lee, as he began the year so well: “Magnificent, fast and long spells of reversing it.”
Another unanimous choice was Dale Steyn. As Bishop, a former fast bowler himself, analysed Steyn: “His youthful zest, pace and swing put him ahead of his competitors. A real litmus test of any fast bowler’s ability is the subcontinent, and for consecutive years Steyn has proven that the pitches in Pakistan or India are no barrier to a fast bowler’s success. He is not yet a finished product, but this year has again proven that he has the potential and ability it takes to go on to be an outstanding bowler.”
The last place had to go to a third pace bowler and, as with the spinner’s position, there was a three-way tie. Smith went for Ryan Sidebottom after seeing him during England’s twin series against New Zealand. But Bishop discounted Sidebottom because 41 of his 47 wickets in the year came against New Zealand, and preferred Ishant Sharma: “I really like his attitude on flat pitches; his control is good and he gets the ball to deviate whether new or old.” Shastri opted for Zaheer Khan and – although Zaheer’s overall figures were not impressive as he had to bowl in Sri Lanka and India – so did the convener, because Zaheer can use either a new or old ball to full effect. In this team he would open the bowling with Steyn, leaving Johnson to reverse the old ball away from right-handers. Zaheer, as Shastri observed, can also bowl long spells from over or round the wicket at any stage of an innings, and he reverse-swung the ball “as early as the tenth or twelfth over” – a significant factor in India’s 2-0 victory over Australia.
THE WISDEN TEST XI OF 2008
V. Sehwag (India)
§G. C. Smith (South Africa)
R. T. Ponting (Australia)
S. R. Tendulkar (India)
K. P. Pietersen (England)
S. Chanderpaul (West Indies)
*†M. S. Dhoni (India)
Harbhajan Singh (India)
M. G. Johnson (Australia)
D. W. Steyn (South Africa)
Zaheer Khan (India)