All-time Indian XI, through analysis

This selection has been done using the database of players and their career performances, adopting a tried and trusted weighted parameter basis. It is a completely objective exercise and bypassing the numbers would have occurred only to get the right balance in the team.

The year 1932 was a bleak period around the world, being the height (or more aptly, depth) of depression. However, cricket stops for nothing. India, led by C.K. Nayudu, played its first Test at Lord’s starting June 25, 1932. Mohammad Nissar bowled the first ball to Percy Holmes while that all-time great, Herbert Sutcliffe, watched from the other end. Lo and behold, Nissar was deadly and England was struggling at 19 for three. It, however, went on to win comfortably, mainly because of its greater experience.

India completed 500 Tests recently when it played the first Test against New Zealand in Kanpur. A lot has happened in the intervening 84 years: India gained independence, has grown into an economic powerhouse, has become a power to reckon with, in cricket, both on and off the field and the eleven players who played in the first Test now have another 274 for company. It is time to determine the crème-de-la-crème amongst these Indian players.

Over the past few days, quite a few selections have been made by various people using various methods: their own insights into the game, who they watched, who they liked, who they read about, seat-of-the-pants judgement, using base numbers or no numbers.

I intend to do such a selection using the database of players, their career performances and using a tried and trusted weighted parameter basis. It will be a completely objective exercise and I will bypass the numbers only to get the right balance in the team: That too, only if required.

Let me first get the balance of the team right. I do not have the young blood of Virat Kohli flowing within me. So, I will go with the following tried and tested mix of players for the team: six batsmen, wicket-keeper, all-rounder and three bowlers.

The openers will be regular batsmen who have performed outstandingly well in the opening positions. The middle-order batsmen should brook no questions on selection. The wicket-keeper will be a ’keeper first but his batting credentials will be a factor.

My all-rounder will not be the fourth or fifth bowler, but rather the first or second one. That way I will have a good, balanced bowling attack. I am anyhow not a fan of the five-bowler attack, for the sake of it. The fifth bowler is more likely to be like the fifth wheel of a car. Needed only if there is a flat tire: Read an injured bowler.

The selection is current, up to and including the 500th Test, played in Kanpur.

Selection of batsmen

To start with, only batsmen who have scored 2000 runs or above have been considered. It makes sense. 33 batsmen qualify. My apologies to Anshuman Gaekwad and Wasim Jaffer who just miss out.

It is an open secret that ‘Runs Scored’ is a measure of longevity. It is a monumental feat, playing in 200 Tests. But it is true that if a batsman plays in 200 Tests, a great batsman will score 16000 Test runs, a good batsman will score 14000 runs, and an average batsman, 12000 runs and so on. But the runs scored should be recognised, to a limited extent. Neither should 16000 runs swamp all other measures nor 16000 be equated to 2000. I take a middle path.

The ‘Batting Average’ is a purely performance-oriented measure and gets a significant weight. Although the question of ‘Not Outs’ is a contentious one and many averages are bloated by a high number of not outs, there is no doubt that the batting average is, almost inarguably, the single most important measure as far as batting is concerned. The batting average measure favours the middle-order batsmen slightly but that is part of the game.

Sunil Gavaskar played most of his Tests against top quality bowlers without the protection of a helmet. This would apply to Gundappa Viswanath and Mohinder Amarnath also. The modern batsman has all sorts of protection and often faces average bowling. Nothing can be done about helmets. But we can do something about the average quality of bowling faced by batsmen. I have a measure called ‘Average quality of bowlers faced’. This is a weighted average of the career-to-date bowling average of the bowlers who bowled in every Test innings in which the batsman took stance.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Amarnath’s 91, against the West Indies in Bridgetown in the 1982-83 series, was scored against an attack of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall. The weighted average of the bowling quality of this fearsome attack was 26.0, that too, only because Marshall was playing in only his 16th Test. So Amarnath’s 91 is weighted by this value. For every innings, these values are summed and finally divided by the career runs. The final figure is a clear indication of the quality of the bowling faced by a batsman, through his career. The lower the value, the better is the bowling attack. Just a comparison: Sehwag faced an average bowling quality of 34.54 and Viswanath, 32.29. A clear difference indeed.

‘Away Runs’ are like silver. However, ‘Away Average’ is like gold. Since the selected team is likely to undertake a ‘fantasy’ tour around the world, we have to make sure that the batsmen are capable of holding their own when they travel. Amazingly, there are only three Indian batsmen, viz., Tendulkar, Dravid and Gavaskar, who have career averages exceeding 50 and all three have done better away than at home.

When Tendulkar scored 111 at the Wanderers in 1992, his support cast was Ravi Shastri, Ajay Jadeja, Sanjay Manjrekar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Pravin Amre and Manoj Prabhakar. No offence meant, but, barring Azharuddin, a journeyman collection of batsmen indeed. Let us move forward 12 years. When Tendulkar scored 248 against Bangladesh, the other batsmen were Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, V. V. S. Laxman and Dinesh Karthik. That was some batting line-up.

Because of his long career, Tendulkar saw such 180-degree changes. There were other batsmen who rarely received support in their career. Hence, I have developed a measure called ‘Batsman Support Index’, which is the average of the career-to-date batting averages of the other six batsmen for each of the batsman’s innings. One heck of a mean value it is. Just a couple of values, to indicate the concept. Gavaskar’s ‘Batsman Support Index’ value is 31.92 and Sehwag’s, 42.78. Very revealing indeed.

Let me put forward some startling facts. Sehwag scored 23 hundreds. Out of these, 15 hundreds exceeded 150. There were also triple and double hundreds. Mohinder Amarnath scored 11 hundreds and all were below 150. What does this mean? When he scores his 100th run, there is a 65% chance that Sehwag will cross 150, a 26% chance that he will cross 200.

On the other hand, when Amarnath scores his 100th run, there is virtually no chance that he will score 150. This capacity to bat big is reflected in a measure called “Average of Hundreds”. It is what it says: the average of the hundreds scored by the batsmen. If we consider batsmen who have scored 10 or more hundreds, Sehwag’s average is 173.7, behind only Bradman and Zaheer Abbas, while Amarnath’s average is 113.8, the last in this list.

While batting strike rate is an important measure, the absence of the same for over two-thirds of Tests played makes that measure a non-starter.

The weights allotted to these measures are given below. It will be clear that longevity accounts for only 20% and the other 80% are performance-centric: 20% - Runs scored; 25% - Career average; 15% - Average bowling quality faced; 15% - Away average; 15% - Support received; 10% - Average hundred.

Selection of wicket-keeper

Since virtually no data is available on catches dropped by ’keepers and the keeping ability is a wholly subjective matter, we can only use the objective measure of dismissals per Test. Also, give some weight to the batting ability since we have to treat the wicket-keeper as an all-rounder. The days of Naren Tamhane, wonderful keeper though he was but with a miserable batting average of 10.23, are behind us.

Selection of the all-rounder

This is simple. Take 50% of the batting rating points, 50% of the bowling rating points, add these and select. The rating points are not necessarily comparable across functions but there is no problem in using the same within an area of speciality.

Selection of the bowlers

First, the cut-off for wickets. I consider only bowlers who have secured a minimum of 75 wickets. Else, we will end up with having to recognise meteoric careers. 26 bowlers qualify. And let me offer my apologies to the tiny dynamo, Ramakant Desai.

‘Wickets’ are like silver. All the bowlers who are selected should have proven wicket-taking capabilities. However like ‘Runs Scored’ this is a longevity measure and the weight given has to be carefully handled.

‘Bowling Average’ is very important. In many ways, bowling average is a more illuminating one than the batting average since it encompasses both bowling strike rate and bowling accuracy. This gets the highest weight.

‘Bowling Strike Rate’ is one of the components of the bowling average. It is essential to consider this separately since the bowlers’ individual characteristics vary and it allows us to assign credit to a spinner like Ravichandran Ashwin who has an excellent strike rate, for a spinner.

‘Bowling Accuracy’ is considered as a separate measure to allow the spinners to get their due. And also, a pace bowler like Kapil Dev who was very accurate will be rewarded.

‘Away Wickets’ are also considered as a separate measure. It is essential for me to explain why. ‘Away Runs’ do not get recognised as a separate measure while ‘Away Wickets’ do get recognised. The reason is the overall trend. The 33 batsmen who have qualified accumulated 1,54,182 runs and out of this, 76,699 runs were scored outside India. This is nearly 50%. That means nearly as many runs were scored away as at home.

On the other hand, the 26 bowlers who qualified captured 4895 wickets and out of these, just over 45% were captured away. Hence, the clear difference of 10% indicates that the away wickets were tough to get and I have decided to recognise this fact by including this measure.

There is no need to emphasise the importance of ‘Away Average’. If wickets are silver, away wickets are gold and away average is platinum. A bowler like Subash Gupte, whose away bowling average is better than the home average deserves due recognition.

Finally comes ‘Average Wicket Quality’. There is no doubt that a wicket is a wicket. However, there is a great difference between Ashwin’s dismissal of Williamson (average 51.08) and Ashwin dismissing Boult (average 15.79). The average wicket quality is the average of the career-to-date batting averages of the dismissed batsmen. Of course, the suitable average, home or away, is considered.

The weights allotted are: 20% - Wickets captured; 20% - Career average; 10% - Strike Rate; 10% - Bowling accuracy; 10% - Away wickets; 15% - Away average; 15% - Average wicket quality.

Now let us go on to the tables.

Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag are the top two in this list and will form the opening batsmen (See Table — Opening batsmen). The quintessential perfect opening batsman and the best attacking opener the world has ever seen will form the most effective opening pair India could field. There will be many opening day lunch scores of 100 for 0 or 1.

 

Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Viswanath will form the middle order even the Gods would love to watch (See Table — Core batsmen). There is so much of technical skills, concentration, grace, finesse and excellence vested in this quartet that I cannot think of any foursome of any country matching this collection. Give them a 100 for 1 score, and they will move that smoothly to 400 for 4 more often than not and all these runs will be made with silken skills. Because of shortage of space, I will give the breakdown of rating points between the parameters only for Tendulkar: 15.92 - Runs scored; 22.41 - Career average; 12.81 - Average bowling quality faced; 13.69 - Away average; 5.23 - Support received; 7.29 - Average hundred.

 

There is no contest for the all-rounder. Kapil Dev wins by a mile (See Table — All-rounder). The truth is that even if Kapil’s batting average had been 15, he would still have been a shoo-in as the premier fast bowler. The batting is a bonus in that it allows the Indian middle order the luxury of two batsmen with 30+ batting averages. Imagine the competition for the No.7 batting place.

 

For the wicket-keeper, Mahendra Singh Dhoni gets the nod by a wider margin (See Table — Wicket-keeper). An outstanding dismissal rate of 3.7 per Test is supported by a batting average of 38.09, eight more than a specialist batsman like Srikkanth. Dhoni might very well get the nod over Kapil Dev for the No.7 batting position. Truly, Dhoni is the second (or someone might even say, the first) all-rounder.

 

Coming to the bowlers, for Kumble, the rating points breakdown is given as: 15.48 - Wickets captured; 12.28 - Career average; 7.33 - Strike Rate; 6.50 - Bowling accuracy; 8.97 - Away wickets; 12.07 - Away average; 11.36 - Average wicket quality.

 

Having already selected Kapil Dev, I needed to select three bowlers (See Table — Bowlers). I needed two spinners and one pace bowler to bowl in tandem with Kapil Dev. I would have been in a slight dilemma if I did not get this combination amongst the top three bowlers. But I got the perfect combination and I was able to select the top three bowlers. So Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan and Bishan Singh Bedi get the nod. It speaks so much of Kapil Dev’s bowling skills that he is second to Kumble. Zaheer Khan adds variety to the pace bowling scene.

I am almost certain that if we do this selection after the closure of the long Indian season, Ashwin would comfortably go above Bedi. And let us not forget that he also offers the required variety to the spin attack. And it is eminently possible that he would throw his hat into the ring as an all-rounder.

Who should captain this magnificent team? Gavaskar, Dhoni and Kapil Dev are the obvious candidates. There were times when Gavaskar was quite defensive and not always has he maintained the coolness required. Kapil Dev was a wonderful ODI captain. However, he has not had great success in Tests. Dhoni has captained impeccably and his overall cool handling of the seniors when he took over the captaincy makes me think that he should lead this team.

Azharuddin is the designated 12th man. This is the only place where I have used my judgement to select an outstanding fielder. Either Amarnath or Hazare could have been selected. They are in the reserves, however. That someone who scored only 2192 Test runs, is placed higher than batsmen like Azharuddin, Ganguly and Vengsarkar speaks volumes about what Hazare achieved when the odds were stacked against the Indian team.

The final team, in batting order, is given below.

All-time Indian XI

Sunil Gavaskar

Virender Sehwag

Rahul Dravid

Sachin Tendulkar

G. R. Vishwanath

V. V. S. Laxman

M. S. Dhoni (Captain)

Kapil Dev

Anil Kumble

Zaheer Khan

Bishen Singh Bedi

12th man: Mohammad Azharuddin

Reserves:

Mohinder Amarnath

Vijay Hazare

S. Ganguly

Vinoo Mankad

R. Ashwin

Harbhajan Singh

B. S. Chandrasekhar



It is amazing that an almost totally computerised and analytical method of selection has produced a team, which almost anyone would be proud to select. That shows that numbers do not lie. However, it is essential to interpret the numbers and derivatives in an objective and scientific manner.

The great thing is also that I did not have to go once beyond the numbers, barring the 12th man selection. No out-of-the-way selections. Of course, the weights are fixed, one could say, in an arbitrary manner. However, minor tweaks to these weightage % values will not change the overall selections much. There might be minor changes in placings but no huge upheavals. The weights are also the result of my 25-year experience in cricket analysis and there is no substitute for this type of experience.

I can hear that guy in the last row saying that he selected the same team in five minutes. Wonderful! I would have needed only two minutes. However, no one should forget that the selection process involved very complex computations and while the results look familiar, this particular selection is supported by completely objective methodology. This is similar to the situation where a selection committee selects the Indian Test team after deliberating for 3 hours and a follower selects the same team in 10 minutes.

Viswanath has leap-frogged over three batsmen who have scored more runs. Similarly, Zaheer Khan and Bishan Bedi have got the nod ahead of Harbhajan Singh.

Finally, my own views on the selection.

If I selected the team by myself, eschewing analytical support, what would I have done? Not much different. Possibly looking at bowling alternatives. I might have thrown Srinath’s name into the ring. I would have loved to see Chandrasekhar in the team. However, Kumble and Chandrasekhar are similar bowlers and I would miss the variety. I love the skill of Bedi, in terms of flight and loop, but Prasanna was no less. So, I would have considered him also.

My four favourite Indian cricketers are either Lilliputian (yes, of course, Gavaskar and Viswanath) or Brobdingnagian (yes, you guessed it: Kumble and Laxman). I am happy that they are all in the team. Then, the magnificence and consistency of Tendulkar and the technical correctness and temperament of Dravid. Also, let me confess that I would pay to watch Sehwag and Kapil Dev.

If Zaheer Khan can bend it like Beckham, that would be the icing on the cake. The cherry would, of course, be the doughty Sardar laughing as someone hits him for a six, knowing that he would get that guy sooner than later. And Dhoni to stay unruffled whatever happened, coaxing the best out of eleven great players, including himself, with the wealth of 1330 Tests behind them. What more does one want?