Here’s an interesting poser. Were you to canvass the opinions of 100 of the greatest players in cricket history, from the late Sir Alec Bedser to Shane Warne, and ask them to name which players from the last 100 years or so would merit selection for an all-time world XI, which England cricketer do you suppose would win the most votes?
The answer might surprise you a little, as it possibly did journalist Richard Sydenham, who has had the patience and staying power to track down 100 players willing to name their best XI and then painstakingly record and classify their choices in a new book.
In a League of Their Own: 100 Cricket Legends Select Their World XI lists 108 different nominees for places in these 100 fantasy elites, of whom 25 were England players. Only Australia, with 30, had a stronger representation.
So which of the 25 was the most popular choice? Ian Botham? Geoffrey Boycott? Or, going back a little further, perhaps Len Hutton?
In fact, it was none of those. Neither was it Jack Hobbs, Denis Compton or Jim Laker. And it certainly wasn’t Andrew Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen.
No, the man who made it into 34 of the 100 teams selected -- with 13 more votes than his nearest challenger among England players and eight more than his closest pursuer in his own specialist position -- was wicketkeeper Alan Knott.
Interestingly, Knott earned his place in the all-time XI without the support of any of the 15 Australians among Sydenham’s 100. Their vote tended to be split between Ian Healy, Rod Marsh, Adam Gilchrist and Don Tallon. Gilchrist polled 26 votes, although only four from fellow Aussies.
The next most popular England player was Hutton, with 21 nominations, followed by Botham (18), Hobbs (14), Laker (12), Compton, Godfrey Evans and Sydney (S.F.) Barnes (10 each), Fred Trueman (9) and Aled Bedser (7).
Flintoff earned one vote -- from South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis -- while Pietersen apparently did not impress anyone, at least not enough to displace another choice.
Sport is all about opinions and comparing notes on the relative merits of players down the years is an enduring pastime. Sydenham admits that his idea is hardly new, but he is probably right to claim that no one has documented the chosen best XIs of 100 players who would qualify to be nominated themselves.
He admits it took him years to complete the task. “The reasons are varied,” he said. “Several publishers initially rejected the project and it took time to reach hard-to-contact players -- and there are other commitments in one’s life that make it hard for an author to dedicate himself to a book that is not backed by a publisher.”
In Sydenham’s case, the latter comment is particularly pertinent. Whereas some journalists might devote days off to writing books, in his branch of the profession -- working as an agency writer for Reuters and Associated Press -- days off can be little more than an aspiration, especially during a busy cricket season.
In fact, by the time he had interviewed the 100th of his chosen “legends”, some selections had lain so long in his notes he felt obliged to check they were still valid. Indeed, Knott would have had 35 votes had Botham, whom Sydenham interviewed on a TV gantry at Edgbaston during a Test match, not changed his mind two years after making his original choice and gone for Gilchrist instead.
Sydenham ultimately found his publisher in Derby Books, which continues to maintain a catalogue similar to its predecessor, Breedon Books, which went into administration a year ago. Breedon, founded in 1982, built its name on taking up good ideas for niche audiences as well as projects with wider appeal.
If cricket fans are a niche audience, a League of Their Own certainly falls into the former category but given an impressive list of participating “greats” it surely qualifies on the second count, too.
For information on how to buy In a League of Their Own: 100 Cricket Legends Select Their World XI simply follow the link.
Richard Sydenham is also the author of In the Line of Fire: The Great Opening Batsmen of Test Cricket, and worked with Mushtaq Mohammad on his autobiography, Inside Out.
He has also written an as-yet unpublished biography of the movie career of Steve McQueen.
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