The world’s most accomplished cricketers will gather in Melbourne and Sydney during the next three weeks for three one-day internationals, a six-day Test match and a rare opportunity to celebrate the game without the element of nationalism.
They are there because of a bright idea on the part of the International Cricket Council when it launched the game’s inaugural world championship ranking system in 2001: at the end of every four-year cycle, the leaders of the Test and one-day tables would play a Rest of the World XI in that format. The resulting Super Series, however, has raised the ire of traditionalists.
That Australia – who head both leagues by big margins – deserve to host the showpiece is unquestioned. It is the ICC’s insistence that performances be included in official records that has infuriated leading statisticians and guardians of a game.
They can cite two precedents. When the 1970 tour of England by the South African team was called off following anti-apartheid protests, a Rest of the World side was hastily assembled to fill the void. Those fortunate to see any of the five “Tests”, which were initially granted official status, rate them as some of the most enjoyable of the age; yet they were subsequently declared ineligible for statistical purposes.
The justification was harsh but just about defensible: Test records should apply exclusively to official Tests, which are played only between national teams. The upshot was a distortion. Geoffrey Boycott hit 157 at The Oval against the strongest attack he had ever faced, but finished sharing the English record of 22 Test centuries instead of being the outright holder.
The 1971-72 series between Australia and “The World XI”, also replacing a planned tour by South Africa, was similarly downgraded. In Sydney, Garry Sobers struck an impeccable 254 that, 20 years later, Sir Donald Bradman was still hailing as the finest innings he ever saw. In effect, the greatest innings ever seen by the game’s greatest batsman simply did not count.
Thirty-five years on, for all the complaints, there is no immediate prospect for a reprise of such revisionism, though a switch to a format whereby the top nations in each league play each other every year would end the argument once and for all.
The competitiveness of the 1970 series surprised pundits and spectators alike – a strong England team lost 4-1 but might easily have won 3-2 – and this time there is no reason to assume Australia will preserve easily their record of not having lost a Test rubber at home since early 1993.
Indeed, the Super Series menu proffers a variety of delights: Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee going head-to-head in the battle between the 100mph speedsters; Graeme Smith opening the batting with Virender Sehwag, a double act that might even intimidate Glenn McGrath; Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting straining every sinew to pay back Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison for those Ashes indignities.
Most intriguing will be the return of Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan to his least favourite haunt: a fuse awaiting a light. No-balled for throwing on his first tour of Australia, he also suffered jibes about his freakish action that saw him vow never to return again. With Shane Warne in opposition, eager to prove a point to the man who will one day seize his Test wicket-taking record, Muralitharan’s mood is unlikely to be soothed by recent rumblings – which he has strongly denied – about an alleged connection with a Mumbai bar dancer and, through her, with betting syndicates.
Nothing, though, quickens the anticipation quite like the prospect of Warne spinning his magic to Brian Lara while Flintoff paws the turf at the non-striker’s end.
There is also the political context. Led by a black man, Sobers, those original Rest of the World XIs boasted the cream of South Africa’s white cricketing elite – Eddie Barlow, Barry Richards, Mike Procter and the Pollock brothers, Graeme and Peter, who were all denied an international stage by the Republic’s excommunication from sanctioned representative sport.
That two white South Africans, Smith and Shaun Pollock, will captain these latest World sides affirms how far the wheel has turned. And how far – notwithstanding the encouraging presence of black Africa’s first cricketing hero, Makhaya Ntini – it has yet to turn.