All Time XIs – The ‘What Might Have Been’ XI

Another variation on the ‘all time XIs’ theme as we look at what might have been.


I continue my ‘All Time XIs‘ series in the hope that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety. Today the spotlight is on players who for whatever reason did not get to entirely fulfill their potential. Some of the players in this XI had very good records but may in different circumstances have become all time greats of the game, one, the no11, might be said to be in under slightly false pretences, but as you will discover there can be no arguing about his place in the batting order!


  1. Basil D’Oliveira – 44 test matches which yielded 2,484 runs at 40.06, almost 20,000 runs in first class cricket, the bulk of them for Worcestershire, so what is he doing here, especially given that he was not a regular opener? Well due the being born in South Africa and not being white he would not have had a professional cricket career at all but for the intervention of John Arlott, who got him to England, where he started as a league pro, before graduating to first class and then test cricket. He was already past 30 by the time he made his first class debut, and 35 when he broke into the England team in 1966. His test career continued until 1972, and his first class career until 1979. The accounts that survive of his performances in ‘coloured only’ cricket in South Africa and the history of most successful cricket careers suggest that his record would have been hugely better than it actually was had he started playing first class cricket in his teens or early twenties and then progressed to test cricket by his early to mid twenties (there is an excellent book titled “Basil D’Oliveira”, by Peter Oborne, about him). His inclusion is a tribute to the many non-white South Africans from Krom Hendricks in the 1890s onward who were denied the opportunity of establishing careers in their chosen sport, a group who I consider far more deserving of sympathy than the privileged whites who were prevented from playing test cricket by their country’s period of sporting isolation. I fully accept that opening the batting was not his regular role, but a) someone had to go there, and b) I wanted to give him maximum prominence.
  2. Archie Jackson – a contemporary of Sir Donald Bradman, and many observers rated him the finer batter of the two at the time. At the age of 19 he opened the innings against England on test debut and scored 164. Unfortunately he was struck down by tuberculosis, and a mere four years after this golden debut he died. Pelham Warner, in Australia managing the 1932-3 Ashes tour party, spoke at his memorial service. The Scottish born Aussie finished with 474 runs at 47.40 from his eight test matches, and 4,383 first class runs at 45.65, but it could have been so much better had he enjoyed good health. He did not make yesterday’s ‘underappreciated Ashes‘ Aussie XI because if they could have done so the selectors would have picked him for every match, and it would have been unfair in the extreme to have selected him for that XI.
  3. Norman Callaway – one first class match (in late 1914), one innings, 207 runs average 207.00 at that level. He was one of the many killed in the carnage that was World War 1. Had he lived it would seem likely that international honours awaited him but…
  4. David Sales – at the age of 17 he scored 210 not out on first class debut. Unfortunately, this went unnoticed by the England selectors, and so apparently did a subsequent triple century and a 276 not out. England developed a strong and settled middle order just as he was hitting what should have been his cricketing prime, and he never got to play at the highest level. His county record (for Northamptonshire – did I hear someone utter the dread phrase “unfashionable county”?) was 14,140 runs at 39.27 and many who have performed far less well than that have been picked to bat for England. His record makes him a 21st century analogue to Edgar Oldroyd from my ‘County Stalwarts‘ XI of a couple of days ago.
  5. Fred Grace – 6,906 first class runs at 25.02, a record bearing comparison with any of his contemporaries barring his brother WG Grace, 329 wickets at 20.06, a useful record for someone whose primary role was with the willow, and 171 catches (and three stumpings as an emergency keeper along the way). In 1880, he played in the first test match contested on English soil, a game he had played a role in bringing about. The full story can be read in Simon Rae’s magisterial biography of WG Grace. The bare bones are that following a crowd riot on England’s previous visit down under the Aussies were in seriously bad odour with the English powers that be, and the majority of their 1880 programme therefore ended up in consisting of a series of ‘odds matches’ (a 19th century phenomenon in which one side had more players than the other) against low grade opposition spiced with a few good players. One of these hired guns was Fred Grace, and he convinced his brother that the Aussies were worth playing, so Gloucestershire gave them a game (as did Derbyshire, and Yorkshire played them twice), and Grace got to work on various people to arrange for a test match to happen. One of his administrative allies in the cause was Charles Alcock, simultaneously the first ever secretary of the Football Association and secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club. It was with the latter hat on that Alcock concluded that not only should there be a test, it should be at The Oval. Eventually, in early September, the match took place. Fred bagged a pair, and did little with the ball, but had there been a ‘champagne moment’ in 1880 he would have won it for his catch to dismiss the big hitter George Bonnor: the batters were well into their third run by the time he completed the catch, and Fred Gale used a chain to measure the distance from Bonnor’s wicket to where the catch was held, and it came out at 110 yards (just over 100 metres). Less than two weeks later Fred Grace was dead after a chill turned into a lung infection. It is likely that had he lived he would have been a regular England player through the 1880s and possibly beyond (after all WG, the senior by over two years, played his last England game in 1899) – as Graham Gooch can confirm it is quite possible to bounce back from a pair on debut. This is one instance of a ‘one cap wonder’ where the selectors are definitely blameless – you can’t pick someone who has died (although watching and listening to England in the late 1980s and early 1990s one sometimes wondered whether corpses could have done a whole lot worse than some of the players).
  6. Major Booth – Major was his given name, not a rank (in honour of a respected Salvation Army leader), but he did die in battle, on the Somme. Before the outbreak of war he had played 162 first class matches, scoring 4,753 runs at 23.29, with a best of 210 not out, and using his right arm medium fast to take 603 wickets at 19.82. He played twice for England, scoring 46 runs at 23.00 and taking 7 wickets at 18.57 each. Had he survived the war he would surely have been an England regular for at least a decade thereafter.
  7. *Albert Trott – 375 first class matches, 10,696 runs at 19.48 and 1,674 wickets at 21.09. Five test matches yielded 228 runs at 38.00 and 26 wickets at 15.00. Yet these figures tell a bare fraction of the story. In 1894-5 Trott played two games for his native Australia, starting with 110 runs without being dismissed and second innings bowling figures of 8-43. In his second game at Sydney he made 85 but did not get to bowl. When the 1896 tour party to England was announced, with his brother Harry as captain he was not in it, a decision that seems inexcusable. He travelled to England anyway, became a professional (with Middlesex), and initially built up a superb record in his new home country, including twice scoring 1,000 runs and taking 200 wickets in a first class season. Then in 1899, playing against that year’s Aussies (having earlier played in South Africa for his adopted country), he hit a ball from Monty Noble over the Lord’s pavilion (it struck a chimney pot and fell down the back of the building). That blow was actually the start of trouble for Trott – he could not resist attempting to repeat it and his batting declined as he turned into a slogger. His bowling also lost its fizz over the years, although he recaptured it at an ill timed moment in 1907, when he ruined his own benefit match by first taking four wickets in four balls and then moments later performing another hat trick to terminate the Somerset resistance. Thereafter his decline was rapid, and in 1914 he joined the sadly long list of cricket suicides, leaving his meagre possessions (a wardrobe and four £1 notes) to his landlady. Had he been selected for that 1896 tour party he may have established a career as one of test cricket’s greatest ever all rounders, and he not hit his historic blow against Monty Noble in 1899 his batting may have continued to flourish.
  8. Alonzo Drake – a contemporary of Booth, our no 6, he was a left handed middle order bat and a left arm spinner. 157 first class matches yielded 4,816 runs at 21.69 and 480 wickets at 18.03. 85 of those wickets came in his last two months of first class cricket in 1914, including 10-35, the first ‘all ten’ by a Yorkshire bowler, against Somerset. In his case ill health precluded his going off to fight, but that same ill health also ensured that by the time first class cricket resumed in 1919 he was no longer there to participate – he died of heart failure in February 1919. The war surely robbed him of an England career, and had he lived long enough, he would still have been only 36 by the time of the 1920-1 tour of Australia.
  9. Maurice Tremlett – after a first class debut (for Somerset) that a novelist would hardly have dared to script for their hero – eight wickets in the match including a spell of 5-8 in the second innings, and that against the team who would be that season’s County Champions, and a heroic little innings at the death to secure his side a one wicket victory this should have been the rise of a new star in cricket’s firmament. At the end of that season he was taken on a tour of the West Indies, where began efforts to turn him into a genuine quick bowler, rather than the fast medium who could swing the ball that he was. An ill advised addition of four paces to his run up in an effort to generate more momentum, well meaning but ultimately destructive advice about the position of his shoulders, hips and feet all contributed to a loss of rhythm, form, confidence and the ability to swing the ball. Within a few years of that glorious debut he was concentrating on his batting and only being used as an occasional partnership breaker with the ball. One would like to say that lessons have been learned, but Jimmy Anderson (Lancashire and England) was nearly ruined in precisely the same fashion six decades later, though he fortunately was able to revert to his natural method and has ended up as England’s leading test wicket taker. Tremlett finished his career with 389 first class appearances which yielded 16,038 runs at 25.37 and 351 wickets at 30.70, while his three test caps on that West Indies tour yielded 20 runs at 6.66 and 4 wickets at 56.50. Had he been handled properly, and encouraged to make the best of the talents he actually had, instead of falling victim to well meaning attempts to remodel him into the genuine fast bowling article he may well have become a top quality test match performer with the ball, contributing useful runs from the lower order into the bargain. Instead he ended up an average batter who bowled a bit and for a period one of the better county captains.
  10. Bob Appleyard – 200 wickets in his first full season of first class cricket (for Yorkshire) bowling a mixture of medium pace and off spin. Then he was hit by tuberculosis, and took some years to recover, though he did eventually do so unlike Jackson. He ended up playing 152 first class matches, in which he took 708 wickets at 15.48 and scored 776 runs at 8.52, thus avoiding being a member of the ‘more wickets than runs’ club. He played nine times for England, never experiencing defeat at that level, and taking 31 wickets at 17.87 and scoring 51 runs at 17.00. His first class record was remarkable, but just imagine if his health had allowed him to play for twenty years or more (quite feasible for a bowler of his type). There is a short biography of him titled “No Coward Soul” by Stephen Chalke, which I recommend.
  11. +Seymour Clark – an eccentric and whimsical final choice, as befits a wicket keeper (are you reading this Mr Russell?), and anyway after some of the other stories a bit of light relief seems in order. He played five times for Somerset at the start of the 1930s, taking eight catches, going to the crease nine times and amassing…zero runs! He did have a few not outs by the way.  Although I freely concede that it is unlikely that his batting would have developed much given more time there have been players who have built reasonable records after shocking starts – Arthur Morton of Derbyshire commenced his first class batting career with four consecutive blobs and ended with over 10,000 first class runs to his credit, while Marvan Atapattu (Sri Lanka) did not exactly hit the ground running in test cricket but ended with an eminently respectable record.

This teams contains a strong looking top five, two of whom could also lend a hand with the ball, three genuine all rounders in Booth, Trott and Drake, a swing bowler in Tremlett and Appleyard’s two methods, plus a keeper. Even in this purely whimsical example of selecting an XI I have produced a well balanced side (although D’Oliveira as opener is an unorthodox choice), and one that I would expect to be able to give a good account of itself. As always, there was an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I will limit the honourable mentions here to two (though you are welcome to weigh in with your own): Arthur Edward Jeune Collins who scored 628 not out, then the highest innings ever recorded in any class of cricket, in a house match at Clifton College and did not go on to make a name for himself and Amar Singh, the first great fast bowler to come out of India, and a worthy spiritual forebear of current ace Jasprit Bumrah, who died young having had few opportunities outside his native land, but not before he had captured 506 wickets at 18.35 in 92 first class games.


Well, that is the ‘what might have been’ XI in all its glory – feel free to post your own suggestions, or if you are really up for a challenge to create your own ‘what might have been XI’, and all that now remains is my usual sign off…

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Two very welcome visitors yesterday eveing, this jay (six pics)…

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…and this muntjac (14 pictures), whcih put in an appearance during the twilight hours

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swooping black headed gulls.

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What Might Have Been XI
The XI with abridged comments.

Author: Thomas

I am a founder member and currently secretary of the West Norfolk Autism Group and am autistic myself. I am a very keen photographer and almost every blog post I produce will feature some of my own photographs. I am an avidly keen cricket fan and often post about that sport.

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