How do you measure a decade? It’s a lifespan for a dog, a life-altering chunk for a human being, a chapter for a historian, an insignificant speck for the universe. For the Indian Premier League, it’s affirmation. There is almost no scandal in cricket’s long history that has not affected the IPL. Fixing? Players getting physical? Administrative skulduggery? Bats being hurled? Check, check, check and check.
And yet, the league retains its status as the most sought after by players and fans alike. Matches are played to full houses and bigger TRPs. National commitments are skipped or stretched, but rare is the player who willingly gives the IPL a miss.
But while it may be a spectacle and its pre-game show might sometimes resemble a vehicle for movie promotion rather than cricket discussions, at the centre of the IPL’s success is the cricket and the cricketers. And one reasonable measure of just how many cricketers have excelled is attempting to put together an all-time IPL XI.
It’s a sort of flavour-of-the-season exercise, with several selections already done. But even if repeated, selecting all-time XIs continues to be among the more fun exercises in cricket.
The first problem you are confronted with is sticking to the four overseas players rule. Which means you can’t have all of Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers, Lasith Malinga, David Warner, Sunil Narine, Shane Watson, Dale Steyn, Andre Russell (ignoring the drug ban for this selection), Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard. You can’t even have half of them because that’s ten names. Good luck dropping six of them and justifying it, if only to yourself.
But pick you must, so let’s start with Gayle and Malinga. Yes, 2017 has hardly gone their way but they have been the most destructive batsman and the most effective bowler in the history of the tournament.
The team is now bookended by No.1 and No.11. Rather than go straight into selecting via batting order, some narrowing down may be in order. As I envisage it, the overseas batsmen will come down to a tussle between Warner and de Villiers. That’s a sentence I didn’t want to type because implicit in it is the suggestion that I’ll have to drop one of the two. Unthinkable.
The other tussle will be between Watson and Russell for the allrounder’s spot. Watson has an IPL pedigree that stretches back longer. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more fearsome hitter of the ball than Russell. Contemplating an IPL all-time XI without Watson? Might be a very foolish call. And then there’s Narine to consider. The prime mover in two title triumphs, perhaps the only one who can challenge Malinga as the champion bowler of the tournament overall – and he’s suddenly shown as clean a ball-striking ability as anyone else.
In your spin attack, you would ideally look for variety. Spoiler alert: I’ve gone for both R Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh.
On the principle that the longer you put off an unpleasant task, the better it is, picking only two out of Warner, de Villiers, Russell, Watson and Narine is something better left for later.
The only really straightforward part of this exercise was picking the Indian batting core. Please usher in Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma. Do I hear a chorus of ayes? Do I hear an utter absence of nayes? It was only to be expected.
There might be even less debate when it comes to the choice of the wicketkeeper. There is, and has been, only one MS Dhoni. The fastest hands in the East. Or the West, or North or South. The game awareness of a leopard stalking its prey. The ability to think through situations even as they are happening instantaneously that makes writers type stupid phrases like ‘game awareness of a leopard stalking its prey’. And forearms and wrists that perform as if they belonged to the next logical contender for the world heavyweight championship. Since this is not Rising Pune Supergiant, Dhoni will of course be the captain.
The team so far has Gayle, Kohli, Raina, Rohit, Dhoni and Malinga. It’s time for the bowlers.
The best foil for Malinga has to be the redoubtable Bhuvneshwar Kumar. It’s not just because he is going to end up the leading wicket-taker across two seasons – having also kept a tight check on the runs while outfoxing batsmen. Like Malinga, Bhuvneshwar has bowled at the toughest times. Unlike the Sri Lankan, his allies have not been slinging yorkers at pace, though yorkers have formed a large part of his arsenal and his pace has increased. He has unlocked the ability to suss batsmen and situations and bowl unerringly to each where it’s hardest to hit.
In your spin attack, you would ideally look for variety. Spoiler alert: I’ve gone for both R Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh. Their sub-7 economy rates might alone have been enough. When you ally that with their wicket-taking – they each have hit the 100-wicket mark in IPLs – you have the complete package. Ashwin bowls at less than 6.50, and that is after often bowling during the Power Play overs. Amit Mishra and Yuzvendra Chahal deserve consideration, but I believe in maxim of picking the best bowlers, and not picking X over Y just to have variety.
That gives us Gayle, Kohli, Raina, Rohit, Dhoni, Harbhajan, Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar and Malinga. It also means the last agonising choice has to be made.
The other tussle will be between Watson and Russell for the allrounder’s spot. Watson has an IPL pedigree that stretches back longer. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more fearsome hitter of the ball than Russell. Contemplating an IPL all-time XI without Watson? Might be a very foolish call. And then there’s Narine to consider. The prime mover in two title triumphs,
First up is Narine. Reluctantly, given that I have both Ashwin and Harbhajan, I will have to forego his services. Very reluctantly. He would be the first to sneak in if I could pull a Mumbai Indians 2011 for the now defunct Champions League T20 – and somehow flout the rules to field five overseas players instead of four.
Between Watson and Russell, there is no wrong choice, which makes the right choice doubly difficult. I’d go with Russell purely because I have enough top order options and, between the two, Russell is more effective lower down. Incidentally, the make-up of the bowling attack is one of two reasons why I didn’t consider Dwayne Bravo in the shortlist. His death bowling is superb, but with Malinga and Bhuvneshwar, it might not be needed. And both Watson and Russell have better batting chops.
The final choice: Warner? Or de Villiers? Or Warner? Or de Villiers? Or Warner? Or… this could go on. What the heck, it’s my team and my choice. Plot twist: I’m going to include both of them. No I’m not breaking the rules. If both of them come in, one overseas player has to go out. Two top-order batsmen included. That means one top-order bat has to go. I’m sorry Mr Gayle, but there’s no room for you.
I can hear the shocked silence. All I have in my defence is, ‘It’s my team. It’s my choice.’ And since Warner has the better IPL history between the two, I couldn’t very well leave AB de Villiers out of a dream team could I? It’s called a dream team, and he plays like a dream, and… and I’ll stop making excuses now.
But for better or worse, there it is. My all-time IPL XI, in batting order: David Warner, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, AB de Villiers, MS Dhoni (capt, wk), Andre Russell, Harbhajan Singh, R Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Lasith Malinga.
It bats pretty deep, up to No.10. It has five proper bowlers, with Raina the foremost part-timer, but both Rohit and Kohli have bowled in the IPL. Even de Villiers can deliver seam-ups. It has a bowling attack that’s nigh impossible to get on top of, and a batting line-up that should be impossible to contain. Most of all though, it was fun to pick, and will be even better to watch should these XI get together.