Fantasy cricket as the game's top players pick their best

FEW topics stimulate greater debate than the selection of fantasy world XIs.

It is a favourite pastime of armchair enthusiasts who dream up teams to conquer the globe.

While most of us rely on educated guesswork, there are plenty favoured with inside knowledge.

Indeed, who better to ask than cricketers themselves as to who should make the team-sheet from heaven?

And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what Richard Sydenham has done in a fascinating new book entitled In a League Of Their Own.

Sydenham, a Birmingham-born author/journalist and founder of the website Bigstarcricket.com, has asked 100 of the game's legends to select their best-ever side.

The idea is gloriously simple and impressively executed as Sydenham makes full use of a bulging contacts book to weave together an entertaining volume.

Each player selects a team encompassing either the full history of the game, his own watching/playing experience, or a combination of both – sprinkled with comments on the luminaries selected.

Although Sydenham was unable to persuade Sir Garry Sobers, the greatest cricketer of them all, to select his world XI, he has pulled off a major coup by enlisting Sobers to provide a foreword that analyses the best players he has seen during his lifetime.

Among those picked out by the legendary West Indian all-rounder is the former Yorkshire and England fast bowler Fred Trueman, whom he describes as "one of the greatest fast bowlers that I ever played against."

Sobers goes on: "I don't like to compare eras too much, but I have no doubts that Fred would have destroyed batsmen from the 1980s or any era.

"I know he kept telling people that he was a great bowler, but he actually was."

Sobers rates India batsman Sachin Tendulkar as "a great, great player" but believes former Australia leg-spinner Shane Warne – regarded by many as the best bowler in history – is over-rated.

"I have got my reservations about Shane," writes Sobers. "I think he is a great bowler, but I'm not sure how well he compares with spinners overall.

"I think people get carried away with this man's ability, as he hardly ever bowled a good googly.

"To me Shane Warne is a great turner of the ball, and I like his aggressive attitude. I love the way he attacks batsmen and I give him 100 per cent for that, as not enough spinners bowl with that approach, but in my estimation Subhash Gupte was a better leg-spinner."

Gupte, who played 36 Tests for India between 1951-1961, is named in the world XIs of only four of the 100 players interviewed, while Warne features in 61.

The Australian is the third-most popular player behind Viv Richards (64 votes) and Sobers (73).

Sobers also has a bit of a pop at former Yorkshire and England opening batsman Geoffrey Boycott.

"Geoffrey was a great player in his own style. He played within his limitations and didn't take too many chances with good balls or even half-good balls," he writes.

"Great players have to take good balls and turn them into bad balls, but Geoff never seemed to be able to do that."

For the record, Boycott received three votes – making the World XIs of Graeme Pollock, Darren Gough and Michael Holding.

Former Yorkshire and England opener Len Hutton was the highest-ranked English batsman with 21 votes, while former Kent wicketkeeper Alan Knott was the highest-ranked English player with 34.

The fact many players chose teams exclusively from their own playing/watching experience explains why Sir Donald Bradman – the greatest batsman in history – polled only 53 votes: five fewer than Sunil Gavaskar.

The results, however, are less important than the spirit of the exercise, which is to celebrate the greatest players in cricket's history and to find out which players the legends themselves revered.

Trueman, for instance, whose team was submitted shortly before his untimely passing in 2006, opts for the following XI: Hutton, Gavaskar, Walter Hammond, Bradman, Denis Compton, Sobers, Wilfred Rhodes, Knott, Ray Lindwall, Alec Bedser and Sydney Barnes.

Of pace bowler Barnes, who played for England from 1901-1914, Trueman declares: "I never saw him play but his record is absolutely unbelievable (189 wickets at 16.43 in 27 Tests).

"I find it hard to imagine there could have been a better bowler than him."

The complexity of the task is evidenced by the fact that during an introduction to his XI, Trueman names no fewer than 19 players to whom he felt he must express apologies for leaving out.

Many other legends express similar regrets, effectively naming two or three sides.

That is all part of the fun, however, in a book that throws up some entertaining material.

A personal favourite is the team selection of former Pakistan leg-spinner Abdul Qadir, who makes no attempt to hide his light under a bushel by deciding to pick himself.

"Shane Warne is a good friend of mine and I have respect for Shane and other great spinners like Murali and Underwood," writes Qadir.

"I am not conceited or saying I am better than all of them, but I do not think I am inferior to them.

"I had a full command of this art we call leg-spin and feel that if I was playing in these days I would also take this many wickets (700)."

In addition to Trueman, the other former Yorkshire and England players asked to name their sides are Boycott, Bob Appleyard, Darren Gough and Ray Illingworth.

Boycott opted for: Jack Hobbs, Hutton, Bradman, George Headley, Everton Weekes, Sobers, Knott, Warne, Trueman, Dennis Lillee and Barnes.

Appleyard, for the record, chose: Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe, Bradman, Neil Harvey, Colin Cowdrey, Hammond, Godfrey Evans, Warne, Trueman, Barnes and Hedley Verity.

Gough went for: Boycott, Tendulkar, Bradman, Viv Richards, Sobers, Ian Botham, Adam Gilchrist, Warne, Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram and Lillee.

And not forgetting Illingworth, who selected: Hutton, Hobbs, Bradman, Viv Richards, Peter May, Sobers, Keith Miller, Knott, Richie Benaud, Holding and Curtly Ambrose.

Of course, the debate will rage for evermore.

Who was better? Hutton or Hobbs? Warne or Benaud? Viv Richards or Barry Richards? And so on.

At the sports editor's behest, I now have to inflict on you my own world XI.

So, dusting off my collection of Wisdens and opting for an attack of four pace bowlers and two spinners, I go for the following mix of talent: Hutton, Hobbs, Bradman, Viv Richards, Hammond, Sobers, Gilchrist, Warne, Marshall, Lillee, Muralitharan.

In A League Of Their Own: 100 Cricket Legends Select Their World XI, Richard Sydenham, Derby Books, 9.99.