Jose Mourinho, Sourav Ganguly and all-time XIs
When India toured Australia in 2003-04, David Frith, one of the most formidable of cricket historians, told me that it was the finest batting line-up he'd seen in Australia, even better than the West Indies of the 1980s.
A couple of weeks ago, a much-younger colleague sent me a message, asking how I felt about Jose Mourinho being ranked a place above the immortal Bill Shankly in a website's list of the greatest football managers. I didn't reply, primarily because I felt nothing. Making these lists, like picking all-time XIs, is just an exercise in self-indulgence, subject to the whims and biases of an individual or group.
I could have had a fit and pointed out that Mourinho, who won all his trophies with established clubs - even FC Porto were champions of Europe as long ago as 1987 - was unlikely to have stuck around with a team long enough to take them from second-division obscurity to first-division glory in four years, and then dismantle a fading side and build a new one that his successor would lead into an era of European dominance.
I could have taken even greater offence at Jock Stein being ranked a lowly 17th. Before Manchester United, before Liverpool, and a full 45 years before Chelsea, Celtic were kings of Europe, with a starting XI born within a loud fart of Parkhead.
But what's the point? They know not what they write about, just as I don't if I was ever asked to pick an all-time Indian XI. How could you possibly do that when your cricket memories go only as far back as 1982? How could I possibly judge the qualities of Vijay Merchant, who retired nearly three decades before I started watching the game, against the brilliance of Virender Sehwag, whose Test career pretty much dovetails with the years I've spent writing on the game? How can I compare Shane Warne, whose magical spells are all imprinted in my mind's eye, with Subhash Gupte, who Sir Garfield Sobers reckoned was the best he'd ever seen?
As a result, I rarely pay any attention when someone below the age of 60 makes a sweeping statement about a player or a team. When India toured Australia in 2003-04, David Frith, one of the most formidable of cricket historians, told me that it was the finest batting line-up he'd seen in Australia, even better than the West Indies of the 1980s.
That certainly made me sit up and listen, until I realised that even he was too young to remember the English team that won the Bodyline series, with Hammond, Sutcliffe, Leyland, Jardine, Paynter and the Nawab of Pataudi. We are all hostages of time, and unless one of us can get hold of whatever supplements Methuselah was on, our views have little value outside a narrow prism.
In recent days, I've seen plenty of heartburn and social-media chatter about the Indian XIs that Sourav Ganguly, president of Wisden India's editorial board, picked while on a TV show. Did I agree with them? No. But it was his opinion. Any such exercise boils down to that one fact.
But I will say this: If he had picked Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Bishan Singh Bedi ahead of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, he would have been just another insincere man mouthing platitudes. Both were long past their best by the time Ganguly started playing and following the game. Was he expected to go by numbers and articles from an age that he couldn't recall, instead of the evidence of his own eyes? And how instructive that those taking offence on behalf of the spin duo had nothing to say about the absence of Amar Singh - whose bowling, according to Hammond, came off the pitch like "the crack of doom" - or Mohammad Nissar, who took three five-wicket hauls in just 11 innings.
As someone whose bias is towards the pace-bowling side of the spectrum - blame Michael Holding and the other magnificent men from the Caribbean - I would have loved to watch both, but it would be dishonest of me to pick either ahead of Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan in an Indian all-time XI.
I also defy you to find someone whose XI doesn't change over the course of time. Just this morning, I asked myself who would find a place in my Favourite XI, those I admired or enjoyed watching the most. Picking in strictly stream-of-consciousness fashion, I came up with Gavaskar, Sehwag, (Greg) Chappell, Tendulkar, Richards, Waugh, Gilchrist, Marshall, Warne, Holding and Steyn. Ask me tomorrow, and I might choose Greenidge instead of Gavaskar, Akram ahead of Steyn, or Lara in place of Chappell. On another day, Imran Khan would be captaining the side.
All that my list reveals is my age. It tells you that I grew up watching cricket in the 1980s, and that first heroes invariably have pride of place in the pantheon. Of the XI, only Sehwag and Steyn have played their best cricket in the new millennium.
Next time you see such a list based on impulse and imagination, take it for what it is, a pleasant way to pass the time. As for Mourinho over Steyn and Shankly, I can only conclude that the voting panel didn't have much grey hair.
PS. Since we're on the subject, let me sign off with the XI that I would have loved to watch. Send in yours. It's infinitely more fun than pondering the plunging Sensex, or the latest outbreak of foot-in-the-mouth disease from a sports coach.
1. Victor Trumper, 2. Roy Fredericks, 3. George Headley, 4. Stan McCabe, 5. Frank Worrell, 6. Garfield Sobers, 7. Les Ames 8. CK Nayudu, 9. Harold Larwood, 10. Hedley Verity, 11. Eddie Gilbert.