THE D XI
1. Stewart Dempster (NZ)
This was a more difficult selection than some and a degree of ingenuity and no small measure of research were required before I could finalise the XI. A reminder of the criteria: the side must, as best as is possible, be balanced, however balance must not be fetishised to the point that it compromises excellence. Style and flair are favoured, generally speaking, over solid reliability. In other words, the numbers are not exclusively the final court of appeal.
Equally, there's a preference for fielding two spinners if possible, while the past is also privileged over contemporary players upon whom history has yet to deliver a verdict. This is especially true of batsmen since it is my contention that there's a paucity of top class bowling on the test circuit these days. Test figures matter of course, but they cannot tell the whole story and players are not punished for having had limited opportunities at the highest level. Needless to say, Scottish and Somerset connections do no harm to a players' selection prospects.
That being so, the player who can consider himself unfortunate to miss out this time is the always-lovely Aravinda de Silva. In the end, however, it proved impossible to find him a place. Wayne Daniel might have played in place of Doshi had I been willing to sacrifice a spinner, but D'Oliveira and Dexter provide more than adequate seam support to Davidson and Donald.
Still, with Davidson at 8 and Dooland at 9 the batting is admirably deep. Few complaints there, even if some explanatory notes may be required to justify two or three selections. Here we go then...
There's a terrible shortage of genuine openers whose surnames begin with the fourth letter of the alphabet. Mike Denness was considered but, Scottish birthplace notwithstanding, falls beneath the required standard (his best innings for England came in a test in which neither Lillee nor Thomson played). I had thought of press-ganging Dravid into opening, but he is not - and palpably not - comfortable there (averaging around 35 when he opens) and it seemed a waste to move him from the 3 slot. Consequently, Dexter is asked to open and, in the modern style, is given license to knock the shine off the ball. That he was a wonderful player of fast bowling was also, obviously, a consideration. Little fazed Lord Ted and this won't either.
Stewart Dempster only played 10 tests but passed 50 in seven of his 15 innings (two centuries) and averaged a useful 65. He played 40 matches for Wellington in the early 1920s and 69 for Leicestershire between 1935-39 and it is reasonable to suppose that he'd have performed even better had he had more opportunities. He twice scored three centuries in consecutive innings. John Arlott judged that he was "an exceptionally gifted cricketer... [who] was undoubtedly one of the most complete batsmen of any country in his time." Wisden has this to say:
Oddly enough he used to emphasise that he had never received any coaching and it was not until he came to England in 1927 that he really learned to play cricket. A neat and compact player, he ranked amongst the first six batsmen in the world; his admirable footwork made him probably the best player of slow bowling during his career, being particularly strong on the off side.
He also, happily, played one game for Scotland while on a business trip to the land of his ancestors in 1934.
Moving on, Duleepsinhji's inclusion requires no justification, even though his career was also sadly curtailed. Nor should the incomparable Basil D'Oliveira require any introduction (and think what he might have achieved had he played any first-class cricket before turning 30!). If D'Oliveira is unknown to you, I recommend Peter Oborne's biography.
Martin Donnelly may be a different matter. His test career was even briefer than that of his compatriot, Dempster. in his 7 tests he scored at 53 an innings, while his first-class average was 47. Though he lost prime years to Hitler's War, Donnelly was still considered the finest left-hand batsman in the world when cricket resumed after the war's end. His Wisden obituary records that he
left an indelible impression on cricket despite the brevity of his career. As a New Zealander at Oxford, he entranced cricket-followers in the immediate post-war years in a manner surpassed only by Compton. He proved that reality matched appearance with a magnificent double-century against England in the Lord's Test of 1949. C. B. Fry said he was as good a left-hander as any he had seen, including Clem Hill and Frank Woolley.
According to Arlott, he "played cricket solely for pleasure." One thinks of him as being, in some respects, a Kiwi version of David Gower: watching Donnelly bat was, by all accounts, an aesthetic experience to be savoured. As Wisden said, "it was as if all his own cricket had been a student pastime" and, as such, always bathed in late-afternoon sunlight.
The final selection of note is that of Bruce Dooland. He too played little test cricket, though his 1000+ first class wickets came at 22 runs apiece. Wisden again:
He was a legspinner, with claims to being considered the best produced anywhere in the world post-war. And he was one of a distinguished band of excellent cricketers who came to the forefront in Australia in the late 1940s at a time when competition was exceptionally keen for Test places, so that he like so many others failed to gain the honours he deserved.
Find me a better "D" spinner than Dooland and I'll willingly let you pick him. Dooland's career would have been more impressive still if he had played any county cricket before he was 30 (bloody Hitler again, you see, costing him his early 20s). Instead he plied his trade in the tough schools of the Lancashire leagues before joining Nottinghamshire in 1953 for whom he twice did the double. He also, much to the chagrin of English batsmen, taught Ritchie Benaud how to bowl the flipper.
So there you have it. A good side, but not a great side? As always, have your say in the comments.
Running total of players selected in the series so far: England 14, Australia 8, West Indies 5, India 5, Pakistan 4, South Africa 4, New Zealand 4.
PS: Since I also have a weakness for fine cricketing initials, it was also very tempting to find a place for JWHT Douglas, Olympic middlewight boxing champion in 1908 and a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1915, of whom David Foot wrote:
Johnny Douglas was said to be the fittest cricketer of his day. The body was taut and muscular. He would not have been remotely out of place in a 21st-century dressing room where a player's physical condition is too easily a fetish rather than a healthy consideration. Douglas looked more like a boxer than a Test allrounder. And that was what he was, of course. Those who yawned at his unwaveringly wearisome batting approach argued with some validity that he was worth watching only when he stepped into the ring.
That was a cutting comment on someone who captained his country at cricket and led it to success against the Australians before the First World War. Yet he was never a batsman to ignite a schoolboy's imagination or stir a wing-collared Edwardian scribe to flights of purple prose... In Douglas's case he batted as if losing a competitive stroll with a tortoise - and flung his fists in ferocious combinations of punches to excite black-tied audiences, baying for blood after port, at the National Sporting Club.
Douglas's batting style (which accumulated nearly 25,000 first class runs to be added to his 1800 wickets) and his initials led to one of the finest pieces of Australian barracking: his initials stood for, they said, Johnny Won't Hit Today. That alone came close to getting him into the XI... But alas, it was not to be.