Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Vintage XI: The batsmen

 Dream all time XIs are the staple of any cricketing website. They allow you to create a dream composite squad and decide who was the best to ever do it. But all-time XIs by definition always lack a bit of clarity. We may pick Graeme Smith for captain, but which Graeme Smith? With that in mind, ZA cricket presents, the Vintage XI. Here we will pick a specific year in which  a player batted/bowled to the absolute best of their abilities. 

The scenario 

The Martians have the death beam pointed at Earth and have given us a time machine to pick the best South African team in history, and we can pick everyone in the year which  represented the zenith of their powers. This team will face the Martians in a three Test series. Who do we pick? 


1. Graeme Smith - 2008. 1656 runs at an average of 72. 6x100. 6x50. 

 Probably the easiest pick in the entire team. The year 2008 represented Graeme Smith at the absolute peak of his powers. He scored 1656 runs at an average of 72 as a batsman. That represents the highest run tally for a calendar year in South African cricket history. The six Test tons are also tied with Jacques Kallis' 2010 for the most hundreds by a South African cricketer in a calendar year. As a leader, 2008 represented Smith's most successful year. A very respectable series draw in India was improved upon to the tune of two series wins in England and Australia. Smith played a crucial role in both series, scoring the series-winning hundred vs England at Edgebaston with light fading and Freddie Flintoff roaring. He then followed this up with another fourth-inning Test ton to help win the first Test vs Australia at the WACA, as South Africa chased down 414 to begin their coronation ceremony as the new best team in Test cricket. 

2. Herschelle Gibbs - 2003. 1156 runs at an average of 64.22. 4x100 3x50

The second opener spot was probably the hardest batting pick. South Africa has been blessed with many very good opening batters. Some of whom had great years. Picking the best one to partner with Smith was a challenge. This spot could have very easily gone to multiple versions of Gary Kirsten, or 2017 Dean Elgar, but Gibbs wins on account of his success occurring on multiple continents. For Gibbs, 2003 started with a near run-a-ball double century at home vs Pakistan as part of a record-breaking 368 run partnership with Graeme Smith. A middling inbound Bangladesh tour followed, before Gibbs found his groove in England, scoring two hundreds on English soil, including a rollicking 183 in the final Test of the series to get South Africa into what appeared to be an unassailable position, which was then systematically and effectively assailed as England fought back to secure a series draw. A trip to the subcontinent followed, where he showed good competence against spin to average over 50 in the series. The year was ended with an opportunity to guzzle some runs vs the West Indies, and Gibbs obliged, to the tune of another rapid century, this time scoring 142 runs in 180 deliveries in the Boxing Day Test.

3. Hashim Amla - 2012. 1064 runs at an average of 70.93. 4x100 2x50

The upper middle order of this team was probably the easiest to select, in terms of who would be selected, but picking the right vintage of the player proved to be a rather difficult process. In the battle of the number 3s, Hashim Amla 2010 went up against Hashim Amla 2012 in a fight to the finish. One cold certainly argue that the 2010 model of Amla was the absolute best version of the great man, with his series in India, where he scored back-to-back double tons representing his zenith. Even when looking at the stats in an divorced manner, he scored one more ton in 2010, had more fifties, and he was more likely to cross the half-century mark every game in 2010 - nine fifty-plus scores in 19 innings in 20 compared to six such scores in 17 knocks in 2012. Ultimately though, team success won out, and 2012 represents quite possibly the best year of Test cricket in South African cricket history, and Amla was the kingpin of the batting line-up. Victories in England and Australia had his handprint all over, as he scored a wonderful triple century at the Oval to get South Africa off to good start in the battle for number one against England before he helped clinch the series with a magnificent second-innings century to get his name on the honours board at Lord's and win the series for South Africa. He then played his part in winning the Australia series with one of the most remarkable knocks of all time at the WACA to help secure the series, and South Africa's hold on the world number one spot. South Africa went unbeaten that year, and 2012 Amla deserves to be rewarded for that. 

4. Jacques Kallis - 2007.  1210 runs at an average of 86.43. 5x100 6x50, 20 wickets at 25.75 

When making lists like this, all-rounders are probably the hardest players to find the best vintage of because it is sooo hard to have great years with both bat and ball. Hell, it's hard to have great years with one when you are having a great year with the other. Add to this the fact that Jacques Kallis has scored 1000 runs in a calendar year more than any other South African batsman - five times - and you can see why finding the peak Kallis quickly became a headscratcher for me. On first glance, 2001 represented apex Kallis. It had all the boxes ticked stats wise. Over a thousand runs at an average of 70? Check. A large haul of wickets at an average around 25? Thirty-five wickets at an average of 26 says check. A winning team? South Africa won all but one series which started or ended in 2001. So what is the issue? Well the primary issue is the actual quality of opposition. In 2001, seven of South Africa's 13 Tests were against either the West Indies or Zimbabwe. Secondly, Kallis scored only two centuries that year, both against Zimbabwe. Lastly, his strike rate for the year was an incredibly pedestrian 40. Hardly the sort of batting which would strike fear into the heart of the Martian bowling line-up. The next option was to pick Jacques Kallis 2004. This represented what was, to that point, the best version of Kallis we had seen. His five centuries and seven half centuries meant he crossed the half century mark 12 times in 21 innings. A ludicrous batting performance. The problem, however, is that he did not bowl particularly well in that year, and as the batting all-rounder, South Africa would prefer the Martians face the best possible fifth bowler we can muster. 2010 suffers the same fate. A fantastic batting performance spoiled by the fact that he averaged 47 with the ball. That leads us to 2007. The jewel in his 2007 is of course the three centuries he scored in four innings in Pakistan. An absurd level of batsmanship to reach on foreign soil. It is, quite honestly, ridiculous to bat in foreign conditions and have your worst knock be 59. From the first Test in Pakistan, until the second Test vs New Zealand at home, Kallis scored five centuries and one half-century in seven innings. For the year, he reached fifty-plus eleven times in 17 innings. He also contributed with the ball this year. Taking 20 wickets at an average of 25.7. Unlike 2001, his strike rate was a far more respectable 52, and he was the jewel in the crown of a South African team which won all six series that either started or ended in 2007.

5. AB de Villiers - 2010. 996 runs at an average of 76.62. 3x 100 4x50

Arguably the single most talented batsman in South African cricket history, AB de Villiers was another man who had a litany of years to choose from. For all the talk of his excellence and brilliance, his consistency really stood out when creating this team. From 2008 to 2018, AB de Villiers had only one year in which he averaged less than 47. In some respects this is the most "controversial" of the selections, considering that the statistical magnitude of this years falls some way short of the other vintages in this team, and the man himself had other years which were more dominant - such as 2013 when he scored a touch under a thousand runs at an average of 77, but 2010 represented arguably the first time in his career that de Villiers really performed at a level where you could inarguably place him at or at the very least near the top of the batting props worldwide 

6. Ashwell Prince - 2008. 900 runs at an average of 64.28

Maybe the single biggest surprise on the list. There certainly were a rather large number of possible entrants for this spot. Graeme Pollock was voted South Africa's cricketer of the c20th century, so he obviously was worth selection consideration. Certainly, if we were picking a normal all-time XI, there could be no doubt that Pollock would likely be the second name on the team-sheet. But a lack of Test matches - he never played more than seven Tests in a calendar year, nor did he ever score more than 700 Test runs - made it difficult to argue that he had a single year as dominant as the above-mentioned playerss. His most dominant year, 1965, saw hin score 678 runs at an average of 68, is not much better than what Ashwell Prince managed in 2008. Daryll Cullinan was another name which made a very strong run in 1999, scoring over 800 runs at an average of over 70, but if you pick him, you now have to be mildly concerned that the Shane Warne would volunteer to play for the Martians just to torture Cullinan one more time. Ashwell Prince makes his bow as a very reliable and capable number six. Additionally, much like Smith, him being the star turn in arguably the most successful year in South African cricket history does work in his favour. South Africa found themselves 1-0 down at home against the West Indies to start 2008, before Prince helped turn the series around to the tune of two straight man of the match performances to help South Africa win the series 2-1. Prince presented arguably the best batsman on between the two sides as he scored two centuries to help seal South Africa's first series win in England since 1965. His second century set up South Africa's first win of the series at Headingley as Prince won his third man of the match award for the year. Prince would finish off his year with a century to spare South Africa's blushes against Bangladesh. Scoring 162 not out to help South Africa recover from a rather perilous 134/5 at home vs Bangladesh. This Houdini act would win Prince his fourth man of the match performance of the year. Considerng the fact that only 110 men have more than four man of the match awards in Test cricket, to have a man who received the award four times in nine months shoring up your middle-order seems something of a no-brainer. 

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