An eleven for fielding heaven

Can bat (sort of), can bowl (kind of), but boy can this side field

Andy Zaltzman  |  

© By Two Design

Stats. I love stats. You can bend them, shape them, twist them, and palpate them until they tell you want you want to hear. However, traditional statistics are of minimal use when it comes to fielding, the least treasured and, until recently, least analysed of cricket's major disciplines, behind the three Bs - batting, bowling and banter.

The forensic judgement and evaluation of fielders is one of global science's fastest-growing (and, unquestionably, most important) fields, driven by the wonders of modern technology, and a basic human desire to quantify as much as possible into something resembling objective provability in this age of alternative facts, fake news, even faker non-news, and industrial-strength political and economic hogwash.

However, this is of no use in selecting an All-time Fielding XI. It is impossible to compare Colin Bland with AB de Villiers; or Gilbert Jessop with Ben Stokes; or even Nip Pellew, Australia's early-1920s outfield-scorching 100-yards-in-10.2-seconds speedster, with, say, Inzamam-ul-Haq, who seldom pressed for Olympic selection as a sprinter.

Given that choosing an All-time Fielding XI is to all meaningful purposes impossible, and that factoring in the advances of limited-overs cricket is deeply unfair to those cricketers who predated the short-format era, many of whom are already suffering due to having died ages ago, I have instead selected an All-Time XI of Great Test-Match Fielders Who Would Have No Chance of Getting Into Other All-Time Test XIs as Batsmen or Bowlers. For which, mercifully, stats can provide some assistance.

The forensic judgement and evaluation of fielders is one of global science's fastest-growing (and, unquestionably, most important) fields, driven by the wonders of modern technology

This XI, however, has been picked in the grand English selectorial tradition: (a) largely on my own personal selectorial hunches, (b) with a surfeit of allrounders, (c) with a preference for a slow-scoring top three, and (d) while trying to include players from all around the world. I have chosen a maximum of two players each from eight different Test nations.

The XI chosen have played, between them, in all 15 decades of Test cricket from the 1870s. These players were not necessarily "failures" in the international game, but they must not have been overwhelming successes. I set qualification criteria, therefore, of a maximum batting average and minimum bowling average of 35, and a minimum of 15 Tests played.

The fielding positions refer to the first ball of the innings. Given that it is a team without bowlers who average below 35, the field may have to spread at some point. (For the sake of brevity, and on the advice of some extremely expensive lawyers, the term "fielders" in this article refers to non-wicketkeepers.)

Bryan Young makes the team on the strength of excellent catching combined with batting that made insomniacs rejoice

Bryan Young makes the team on the strength of excellent catching combined with batting that made insomniacs rejoice Ross Setford / © Getty Images

1, slip: Bryan Young
(New Zealand, 1993-1999, 35 Tests, 54 catches, batting average 31.78)

New Zealand has produced many outstanding fielders, including several who fulfil the criteria for selection for this XI. Young earns his place by virtue of having, at 0.93, the highest catches-per-innings statistic for any New Zealander (five Tests minimum), and because no All-time XI worth any kind of salt is complete without a traditional, old-school, comatose-batting, scoreboard-glaciating, crowd-besnoozing Kiwi opener.

Young's Test strike rate of 38 might be considered flamboyantly skittish by the standards of the true market-leading New Zealand stodge-grinders, but his catching was statistically remarkable. He is one of 13 fielders to have taken three catches in each innings of a Test, but the only one whose batting average is sufficiently humble to qualify for this team.

2, mid-off: Alec Bannerman
(Australia, 1879-1893, 28 Tests, 21 catches, batting average 23.08)

In his Wisden obituary, Bannerman was described as "a superb mid-off". Given that such words are seldom written in obituaries, even cricketing ones, and that we regrettably live in a world in which few people can proudly claim to be specialist mid-offs, early Test cricket's foremost stonewaller joins Young in what may well be the least flamboyant opening pair ever selected.

Bannerman's 91 off an estimated 620 balls in 1892 was feared by scientists to have sparked a new geological ice age. Fortunately, he was more exciting in the field

In fact, Bannerman makes Young seem positively Sehwagian by comparison. The Ozymandias of Obduracy's 91 off an estimated 620 balls in the SCG Test of January 1892 was feared by scientists at the time to have sparked a new geological ice age. Fortunately, he was considerably more exciting in the field. That Wisden obituary tells of a "fast, sure and untiring" fieldsman, and "a wonderfully safe catch", so, while it is fair to assume that there would not have been a buffalo stampede of IPL franchises galumphing towards his signature, he might at least have been useful as a substitute fielder, had he not died in 1924.

3, long leg: Russell Endean
(South Africa, 1951-1958, 28 Tests (including one as wicketkeeper), 41 catches (three as keeper), batting average 33.95)

Endean was a good batsman in a relatively low-scoring Test era but was one of the best fielders in a South African team that thrust the art of fielding forwards. They drew 2-2 away in Australia in 1952-53 and at home against a statistically superior England in 1956-57 (and pushed England close away in 1955), in large part due to their collective brilliance in the field.

Outstanding both close to the wicket and in the outfield, Endean snaffled a leaping one-handed boundary catch to dismiss Keith Miller at the MCG in 1952 that would have had some of today's commentators stumbling over their sponsors' plugs and matey banter. It should also be judged in the context of a 1950s cricketing world, in which leaping, let alone leaping and taking a one-handed catch, was considered somewhere between unchivalrous and morally unacceptable.

Russell Endean: decent batsman, ace fielder

Russell Endean: decent batsman, ace fielder © PA Photos

Endean followed this futuristic grab by proving true the old adage that "catches win matches, especially when they are followed up with a second-innings score of 162 not out", compiling one of South Africa's best-ever innings to help them to only their second win in 50 years of Tests against the baggy greens.

4, cover point: Hemu Adhikari
(India, 1947-1959, 21 Tests, eight catches, batting average 31.14)

An "exceptionally brilliant" (Daily Telegraph) cover point of exceptional brilliance, Adhikari's brilliance at cover point was truly exceptional. Especially when that brilliant cover-pointery was the exception to the rule of mid-20th-century Indian fielding. With a devastatingly fast and accurate throwing arm and an always useful propensity for hitting the stumps direct, Adhikari still rides high on the list of India's Greatest Ever Fielders.

Cynics might suggest that this is not the longest list in the history of lists, but Lt Col Adhikari applied his military background to the science and discipline of fielding, and was, according to some, Jonty Rhodes way before Mr and Mrs Rhodes even had a glint of an era-defining fielder in their eyes. (Rhodes himself would have been a candidate for the XI, had his batting average not been marginally too competent at 35.66).

As manager of the Indian team in 1971, Adhikari's "fanatical" devotion to fielding practice helped his nation's fielders contribute significantly to a first series win in England.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (surely one of the leading dictionaries of biographies of Australian people) describes Richardson's close-to-the-wicket fielding in particular as "freakish"

5, captain, gully: Vic Richardson
(Australia, 1924-1936, 19 Tests, 24 catches, batting average 23.53)

An outstanding multi-sportsman who, had there been some form of Olympic Octathlon involving cricket, Australian Rules football, golf, baseball, tennis, lacrosse, basketball and swimming - and it is surely a matter of time that the IOC sees the light on this petty oversight - would have waltzed to a gold medal. Especially if the cricket phase involved copious amounts of fielding.

As a fielder Richardson was, according to Wisden (surely one of the few remaining founts of verifiable truths in this world), "remarkable… his speed, agility and eminently safe hands making him prominent in any position". The Australian Dictionary of Biography (surely one of the leading dictionaries of biographies of Australian people) describes his close-to-the-wicket fielding in particular as "freakish", and praises his natural athleticism and superb reflexes.

Richardson was mostly unsuccessful as a Test batsman, with only two scores over 50 in 30 innings, but succeeded spectacularly as a Test grandfather, contributing 25% of the DNA to the Chappell brothers. He bowed out of international cricket in appropriate style, in Durban in 1936, by catching five of the last six South Africans to be dismissed in the space of about half an hour.

The classic painting of Len Braund catching Clem Hill that appeard in <i>Black & White</i> on July 7, 1902

The classic painting of Len Braund catching Clem Hill that appeard in Black & White on July 7, 1902 © Getty Images

6, slip: Len Braund
(England, 1901-1908, 23 Tests, 39 catches, batting average 25.97, bowling average 38.51)

A decent legspinner, a decent batsman, a phenomenal slip catcher. In fact, one of his catches was so good, swooping across from slip to pouch Clem Hill down the leg side at Edgbaston in 1902, that someone drew a picture of it. (Fortunately, it appears that the official 1902 Ashes artist was suspended with his easel from an early version of the Spidercam aerial wiring system, and was thus able to capture the moment from close behind the stumps.) (It also appears that, presumably for the sake of logistical convenience, he must have drawn Hill before the ball was bowled.) Gilbert Jessop (see below) wrote that "the manner in which he reached the ball would have done credit to an acrobat".

Furthermore, according to the glowing testimonies of his contemporaries, Braund would bring both calmness ("cool as a cucumber" - CB Fry) and zeal ("all enthusiasm… it is hard to imagine a side which includes Braund becoming slack in the field" - Pelham Warner) to this team.

Braund was especially productive in Australia, where he took 29 catches in 15 Tests (still the fourth highest taken by a fielder away), and was the only fielder in the first 88 years of Test cricket to twice take four catches in an innings.

7, extra cover: Gilbert Jessop
(England 1899-1912, 18 Tests, 11 catches, batting average 21.88, bowling average 35.40)

Richie Benaud, who knew more about cricket than the average human being, described Jessop as "perhaps the best one-day player to have ever lived", despite Jessop's career having ended almost six decades before one-day cricket was introduced to the international game.

Gilbert Jessop was known as The Croucher for his stance at the crease (and possibly for his predatory fielding)

Gilbert Jessop was known as The Croucher for his stance at the crease (and possibly for his predatory fielding) © Getty Images

A relatively small man of incredible natural power, Jessop's legendary 70-minute hundred in the 1902 Oval Test is probably in the top three Innings English Cricket History Obsessives Would Most Like To Have Seen Live; his run-out of Victor Trumper had already been a pivotal moment in dragging England back into the match from a first-innings deficit of 141.

A pacey bowler in his youth, Jessop's supreme athleticism in the field and nuclear-propelled throwing arm also makes him one of the leading members of the Cricketers From More Than 100 Years Ago Who Could Probably Still Melt An IPL Auction Despite Being Very Dead Indeed Club.

Jessop himself was bemoaning the decline in the art of fielding in the early 1900s. "There can be no more pleasurable sight," he added, "than to see a fine fielding side straining every nerve in their efforts to save runs." That said, Jessop had never watched himself bat. Nor did he live in the age of YouTube, so knew not the delights of videos of cats falling off things or being startled by vegetables.

"Colossal scoring even the most insatiable of gluttons may tire of," Jessop wrote, "but good fielding never palls." This team is ideally set up to avoid the first part of this sentence and prove the second.

Eknath Solkar takes a yawn-inducingly easy one off Mike Brearley in the 1977 Calcutta Test

Eknath Solkar takes a yawn-inducingly easy one off Mike Brearley in the 1977 Calcutta Test Patrick Eagar / © Getty Images

8, short leg: Eknath Solkar
(India, 1969-1977, 27 Tests, 53 catches, batting average 25.42, bowling average 59.44)

Few fielders can be judged on bare, traditional statistics. Eknath Solkar, the Shakespeare of Short Legs, the Beethoven of Bat-Pads, is the prime exception. The only Test fielder to average more than a catch per innings over a career of 12 innings or more, Solkar's 53 victims in 50 innings, allied to his moderate statistics with bat and ball, make him the first name on this team sheet.

In those 50 innings Solkar had a higher dismissals-per-innings average than India's wicketkeepers, who collectively took 38 catches and made nine stumpings. Even allowing for the spin-dominated attacks (Solkar took 48 of his 53 catches off the great quartet of Prasanna, Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Venkataraghavan), that is a soul-boggling statistic.

Solkar's catching stats in Indian victories are even more remarkable - 28 in seven wins, with only one catchless innings out of 14, accounting for more than 20% of India's wickets. His figure of precisely two catches per victorious Test innings places him in almost Bradmanesque statistical isolation. Of the 831 non-wicketkeepers to have fielded in five or more Test wins, only two others have averaged more than even 1.15 catches per innings - England's Nick Knight (19 in 12, 1.58 per innings) and Jack Ikin (15 in 10). All done without a helmet.

9, bowler: Darren Sammy
(West Indies, 2007-2013, 38 Tests, 65 catches, batting average 21.68, bowling average 35.79)

The West Indian representative in this XI, Sammy is behind only Solkar in Test catches per innings (35 innings minimum).

Darren Sammy: can bowl, can field, can captain

Darren Sammy: can bowl, can field, can captain © AFP

He takes the new ball, for two reasons. Firstly because, among seamers, only Richard Hadlee has taken more than Sammy's nine caught-and-bowleds. Hadlee took ten, in 86 Tests; Botham (102 Tests) and Steyn (85 Tests) also have nine.

Secondly, Sammy is one of two Test cricketers to have opened the bowling and taken five catches in the same innings - he did so in Mumbai in November 2013, a match rather more widely remembered for being Sachin Tendulkar's final Test than for Sammy's almost unique double of taking the new ball and pouching half the opposition team. The only other instance was by India's own Yajurvindra Singh, on debut in Bangalore in 1976-77, when he bowled a solitary over in England's first innings, before channelling his inner Solkar and snaffling five catches off Chandrasekhar and Prasanna.

Sammy's catches accounted for 11.7% of the wickets taken by West Indies' bowlers, putting him behind Solkar (14.5%), but ahead of other high-frequency-catching greats such as Bryan Young (11.6%), Bobby Simpson (11.1%), Stephen Fleming (10.8%), Ross Taylor (10.0%) and Tony Greig (9.7%).

Sammy was last seen in international cricket leading his team to victory in the 2016 World T20, in which he barely batted or bowled, but skippered and fielded with distinction, tasting glory only after a remarkable hard-hitting intervention by an allrounder when all seemed lost - like a giant, athletic, younger, 21st-century Mike Brearley (himself a candidate for this team, with 52 catches in 39 Tests).

Chandana: Trumpian suppleness

Chandana: Trumpian suppleness © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

10, mid-on: Upul Chandana
(Sri Lanka, 1999-2005, 16 Tests, seven catches, batting average 26.78, bowling average 41.48)

Who is the odd one out from the following?
(a) President Donald Trump
(b) Portly fictional crime lord and Star Wars franchise alumnus Jabba the Hutt
(c) Former Sri Lanka legspinner Upul Chandana

The answer: (b). Hutt is the only one of the three never to have been described as "a wonderfully supple fielder, capable of match-turning run-outs and sizzling airborne catches". Chandana is paid this tribute in his player profile on the esteemed and unarguable website ESPNcricinfo. Trump was pronounced as such by White House press secretary Sean Spicer at a recent press conference, in response to a suggestion by CNN's cricket correspondent Glarwick Chellard that the so-called president was not one of the greatest cricketers of all time. (Spicer also stated that Trump has developed a new secret delivery, the Splunger, similar to Shane Warne's Zooter, which he will use in this year's annual G20 leaders' ten-a-side match.) Hutt, although a powerful batsman in his youth, who played a handful of matches for the Gloucestershire 2nd XI in the 1920s (and reportedly partied with Wally Hammond), was never renowned for his fielding.

Chandana was a useful performer with bat and ball (and one of only two visiting spinners since 1977 to take a ten-wicket haul in a Test in Australia), but a dazzlingly brilliant fielder. His most memorable moment was a run-out of Alec Stewart at The Oval in 1998, when, as a substitute, in a blur of precision athleticism and gymnastic balance, he hurled down the stumps from side-on, and, as it transpired, denied Murali the chance to take all ten wickets.

Chandana also took 79 catches in 146 ODI fielding innings, comfortably giving him the best catches-per-innings figure by a Sri Lankan in that format.

Wasim Bari does his thing against Australia in the 1975 World Cup

Wasim Bari does his thing against Australia in the 1975 World Cup © PA Photos

11, wicketkeeper: Wasim Bari
(Pakistan, 1967-1984, 81 Tests, 201 catches, 27 stumpings, batting average 15.88)

It is entirely appropriate that the wicketkeeper in this XI should bat at No. 11. The early years of international cricket are littered with specialist glovemen who were considerably sub-Gilchristian with the bat. Such soft-handed, twinkle-toed specialists are largely obsolete in the modern game, although T20 ought to offer them scope for a renaissance. Pakistan's stalwart gloveman Wasim Bari was one of the last of the great old-school specialists. He played the occasional important innings but was the last of 13 Test keepers to have averaged below 16 over a career of at least 12 Tests.

Behind the stumps, however, he was unobtrusively superb, highly regarded by team-mates and contemporaries. He was sure-handed and reliable to both spin and pace, in a manner that, it is fair to say, not all of his successors in the Pakistan team have been. Mentioning no Kamran Akmals.

Bari was the first (of, to date, four) to take seven catches in a Test innings (versus New Zealand, in Auckland in 1979, all taken off seamers), and the last (of five) to make two or more stumpings in both innings of a Test (against Australia at the MCG in 1977, all off left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim).

12th man: John Dyson
(Australia, 1977-1984, 30 Tests, ten catches, batting average 26.64)

A personal choice. Dyson was a statistically unremarkable Australian opener, but he took two outfield catches of almost supernatural brilliance, the first of which - hurtling around the third-man boundary to dismiss Alan Knott with a flying one-hander inches above the Old Trafford turf in the 1981 Ashes - is one of my earliest memories of watching live cricket on television.

Even my six-year-old brain was able to process that moment of physics-defying magnificence as something out of the ordinary.

I would imagine that the second, wizarded from the SCG air a few months later, when Dyson leapt backwards to pluck a Sylvester Clarke hoick from over his head at deep midwicket, is similarly tattooed into the cricketing memories of many Australian cricket followers of my vintage.

Clarke c Dyson, Sydney 1981

Clarke c Dyson, Sydney 1981 © Getty Images

Unlucky to miss out
Graeme Hick: If only he could have batted with the ease and relaxation with which he caught 90 in his 65-Test career, he would have comfortably disqualified himself from consideration for this XI.

Hedley Howarth: New Zealand spinner who took 12 caught-and-bowleds in 30 Tests.

Graham Roope: Did not reach 80 in 21 Tests as an England batsman (although he still managed to average a fraction over 30), but took 35 catches - and a ridiculous 602 in 403 first-class matches.

Brian Close: The shortest of short legs, and pioneer in the use of the bald scalp as a fielding aid, disqualified due to an unacceptable bowling average of 29.

George Bonnor: The 1880s Australian giant, who was measured to have hit a cricket ball 160 yards, and thrown one 130 yards.

Syed Abid Ali: Indian allrounder, competent with bat and ball, dazzling in the field.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer