Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The ICC's Best Test XI?

So on the occasion of the two-thousandth Test match, the ICC has taken it upon themselves to right royally arse it up once again.

To celebrate the two-thousandth match in the most honoured form of the sport, the celebrated accountants who today control cricket decided to celebrate by announcing an XI comprised of the best players ever to play Test cricket. A great idea, good publicity and rightfully commemorating the best to grace the arenas. The team was announced the weekend before the match to great fanfare and instantly the enormous errors of judgement inherent in the selection process became obvious.

Awesome, but best ever?  Only maybe.
Those named should almost be ashamed of their selection and those who missed out should let rip with a relieved sigh. Why? Because an honour which should be immense has been turned into swill. The ICC, with their infinitely clear vision, opened selection to an internet-based popular vote. While generating remarkable website traffic and the trending hash-tag #ICCTestXI - publicity you can't buy - it also produced results biased beyond all common sense and by anointing the team selected by the fans, the ICC has spat in the face of cricketers like Sir Garfield Sobers, Malcolm Marshall, Keith Miller, Jack Hobbs, Harold Larwood, Bill O'Reilly, Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards.

The team features aggressive and enduring batting, a skilled all-rounder and devastating bowling. What it lacks, however, is credibility due to the populist selection policy encouraged by the ICC. Although the XI selected would be highly competitive against any other "Best of" team, the results are swayed to the Internet generation and to the subcontinent. This is to be expected given India's population and the popularity of cricket within. But for the ICC to come out and then anoint these players as the best ever to play reeks of pandering to the whims of their clientele.

When ESPN Cricinfo selected their best ever team last year it was done so according to a selection panel of respected, educated voices. The fans got their say, able to select their teams and compare. When the NBA marked it's fiftieth anniversary with the "Fifty Greatest players in NBA history", the list was compiled by experts - so too, was the AFL's Team of the Century. The greatest blunder here isn't that the public were consulted, it is that ONLY the public were consulted and now the ICC will consecrate these eleven players as the greatest. This devalues the contribution of every single player to grace a field before 1980 because the people who voted are swayed by recent memory, youth, YouTube and covered pitches.

Leaving aside the fact that comparing players across eras is a futile exercise because of the changing face of cricket over time, it's errors of judgement like these which make it seem the ICC has sought public debate and promotion at the expense of Test cricket's rich, textured history. It's eminently possible that voters didn't even know of Bill O'Reilly or Herbert Sutcliffe. Being selected to a commemorative XI should be amongst - if not the - greatest individual honour a player can receive. When a deserving player - Sobers, for example, a unanimous selection to the Cricinfo team - is ejected in what amounts to a popularity contest, the flaws in the system laid down by the ICC scream like Bruce Reid after he snaps in half.

Every player who made the list, with the exception of the statistical anomaly Bradman, played within the last thirty years. This most damning evidence is proof enough in itself how swayed to the modern the voting has been - no matter how talented this era's the players have been. In a "Fan's All-Time XI", sure, I'll buy that - but then to be named the best ever by the game's governing body? The ICC, never a stranger to populism, has taken another step towards joining FIFA in the abyss.

Kapil Dev's finest moment.  True to form, it's not in a Test match.
Finally, the ICC must concede than any popular vote put up by it has to be tempered with the knowledge that India will dominate. While Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar rate as amongst, if not the, best candidates for their positions - though you'd have a hard time convincing me - Kapil Dev, very good player that he was, does not. The players in front of him (Sobers, Miller, Botham, Imran Khan and even Hadlee) were all vastly superior. This reflects strongly the 1.2 billion Indian obsessions with cricket - it has seven times the voting power of the next most populous cricketing nation, Pakistan, 25 times that of South Africa and 255 times the voting power of New Zealand. Of course the voting is going to be swayed.

Having backed themselves into a corner, the ICC will crown these players as the best the Test format has ever seen. Under the outward guise of inclusivity, the never-ending hunt for publicity has created a team which almost - but not quite - completely fails to resemble the best ever. Without using adequate foresight, they've smote another blow to cricket tradition.

But this is the ICC. What more could we expect?

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