Columnists love an argument. One way to initiate it is to choose an all-time best team. Everybody in sport is a secret selector with his own list. But every selection admits of alternatives. Few players are guaranteed to be on everybody’s list.

At the turn of the century, Don Bradman chose an all-time Test team. About a decade later, to mark its 150th anniversary, Wisden Almanack did the same. The two lists had just three names in common: Bradman, Garry Sobers and Sachin Tendulkar. These are likely to be on most lists. Yet, the great English all-rounder Frank Woolley who played against Bradman, didn’t have him in his list.

Easy for the ODI format

Choosing all-time teams involves ignoring the changes in the game, and assuming that a great player in one era would be similarly great in any other. It is easier with the one-day game because it is just five decades old, and the imagination is not called upon to somersault too much.

Ahead of the 2007 World Cup, I was commissioned by a publisher to write a book on India’s finest one-day team. The country believed that this side, led by Rahul Dravid would be the one to regain the Cup last won in 1983.

It had four batsmen who finished with over 10,000 runs in the format and four bowlers who would take over 250 wickets. It was a team that had been in the final — and lost — four years previously. Now everything pointed to them going one step further this time.

As it turned out, India failed to qualify for the knockout, after losses to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It gave us one of the most poignant photographs in Indian cricket — the stars, looking desolate, on the verge of (and some beyond) tears. Not surprisingly, my book sank without a trace.

One of the beauties of sport is the changing nature and content of all-time teams. One generation’s list is bound to be — and should be — different from another’s. When I wrote that book, Virat Kohli was in his teens and yet to make his international debut while no one had heard of Jasprit Bumrah. Yet today, you can’t think of an all-time XI without them.

Different perspective

Such exercises, apart from being fun, and leading to arguments, also give us a perspective on different generations. In my list 17 years ago, I had Irfan Pathan because there was need for a left-arm medium pacer, and Zaheer Khan hadn’t yet become the force he would. I had Robin Singh for his fielding and medium pace bowling, and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar as a wicket-taking bowler.

Today you don’t need to pick a player for his fielding, or a bowler for his ability to take wickets. All eleven are expected to be at peak fitness and turn out to be top fielders while the essence of bowling has gone from blocking runs to taking wickets. All-time best teams are also a way of tracing the tactical evolution of a sport.

And so here’s my twelve: Rohit Sharma, Sourav Ganguly, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Kapil Dev, M.S. Dhoni, Zaheer Khan, Jasprit Bumrah, Anil Kumble, Ravindra Jadeja.

The first five have all opened the batting, but this formation has a right-left combination at the top with Tendulkar batting at the slot he prefers. Two of the top six are left-handers while four of them bowl too. In effect this team has nine bowlers, or 12 people doing the job of 21!

Signifying progress

More than half the 2007 list have dropped out, and that’s a good sign. It signifies progress. If nothing changes in that period, there is a suggestion of stagnation, a sense that exciting players are not coming through. Rahul Dravid and Mohammed Azharuddin from 2007 have made way for Rohit and Kohli, and not too many would argue with that.

Future lists might see players like K.L. Rahul, Shubman Gill, Ishan Kishan staking a claim. Unlike in red ball cricket where you need to look beyond statistics and consider such elements as temperament, technique, attitude and character, in white ball, statistics play the biggest role. The shorter the game the more important the figures for this selection!

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