The Fantasy XI to take on India in India
India look unbeatable at home at the moment, and it's got some fans asking: what if we bent the rules and allowed a Rest of the World XI to play a Test series in India?
What would it look like? And would even a selection like that stand a chance? We asked 11 of our writers from across the globe to make fantasy XIs from current Test cricketers to take on India on their own patch. The combined XI is below, along with each writer's XI. Steven Smith, Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins and Dimuth Karunaratne were the only players who were in each XI. There was a tie for the second opener's spot, with Azhar Ali and Dean Elgar getting three votes each, so we split it by asking those who had voted for neither to pick, and Elgar made it to the XI. Ben Stokes and Shakib Al Hasan were separated by a single vote.
Dimuth Karunaratne, David Warner, Steven Smith, Joe Root, Kane Williamson (c), Ben Stokes, Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Yasir Shah, Josh Hazlewood
What does a team need to beat India at home? Winning tosses would be a start, but among the controllables, lots of first innings runs, the ability to sustain pressure on the India batsmen, and the heart and the skill to last the distance if the match becomes a second-innings shootout. With this in mind, most of my picks are obvious. Smith and Williamson walk in, and though Root's form has tapered off recently, he can play spin. Warner is my X-factor pick: even though his IPL record shouldn't count, knowing the conditions does matter. I considered Shakib, but Stokes has the bigger heart, and his bowling would be handier if the ball is reversing. Mushfiqur's batting in these conditions got him in. Yasir wasn't an automatic pick given India batsmen usually have legspinners as their major meal, but then who else? And finally, Jofra Archer was a temptation, but I stayed with Hazlewood for his experience.
Whatever the outcome, it will be a hell of a contest.
Dimuth Karunaratne, Azhar Ali/David Warner, Steven Smith, Joe Root, Kane Williamson (c), Ben Stokes, Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Yasir Shah, Mohammad Abbas/Jofra Archer
What do you need to beat India in India? A (not necessarily mutually exclusive) mix of patience and genius. There's 13 players here, with two spots that are impossible to decide upon. Azhar's patience and experience of Asian wickets helps but his recent form is poor - peak Azhar may be behind us. Warner doesn't have an outstanding record in India, or Asia generally, but he's capable: his 133 in Dubai in 2014 was a masterpiece against spin, and even in India, there have been glimpses.
The flipside is if he does get going, that is setting up the game up top. The middle order hardly merits mention so iron-clad it should be. Stokes or Shakib is a toughie, but Stokes' batting has shifted to a different level this year, and he has a serious bouncer when the mood takes him - something that might come in handy at some point of a long day or two of Indian batting. Cummins and Lyon brook little debate. A confession: Yasir is the 2015 Yasir. He and Abbas are picked on the grounds that India would not have faced either. Abbas also brings control, which is key, although Archer brings the unexpected, which is also key.
Tom Latham, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kane Williamson, Steven Smith, Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), Ben Stokes, Dhananjaya de Silva, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Yasir Shah, Josh Hazlewood
You can't pick spinners for the sake of it, but you're in a good place if you have two quality spinners in your attack, which is why I've included Yasir alongside Lyon. I'm not convinced of Shakib as a spinner on flat pitches (see how often he leaves the donkey work to Taijul Islam and Mehidy Hasan when Bangladesh go overseas, including during the one Test they played in India two years ago), so I've left him out. As much as Archer's flat-out pace is exciting, I want to watch him bowl in India before I pick him. Cummins and Hazlewood had an excellent tour in 2016-17, and they're both in, which means three out of the four main bowlers are Australian. Stokes is around for a few overs too - I was tempted to go with Jason Holder, who bowled really well in the Hyderabad Test last year, but with the allrounders I was looking for guys who could score hundreds rather than bowl long spells. Dhananjaya de Silva fits this description and is also someone who raises his game in difficult situations while looking like he hasn't got a care in the world. Williamson, Smith and Mushfiqur pick themselves, as does Karunaratne, who's played some of the best knocks on Asian pitches in recent times. Latham looked a proper player of spin when New Zealand toured India in 2016 and he's become an even better all-round batsman since, someone capable of sticking in and making really big hundreds.
Dean Elgar, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kane Williamson, Joe Root, Steven Smith, Ben Stokes, Quinton de Kock (wk), Pat Cummins, Kagiso Rabada, Nathan Lyon, Jofra Archer
There's three South Africans in my XI, which may come across as puzzling considering what just happened to South Africa in India. But there's method to this madness. The South Africans are the most recent players who have first-hand experience of playing in India and who know that conditions are not going to challenge them as much as India's all-round skill. So why not give their best performers some better team-mates? Instead of leaving Elgar to worry about protecting both his wicket and his partner's Test career, pair him with the solidity of Karunaratne. Instead of a top five that collapses at first sight of Mohammed Shami, beef it up with batsmen in form, such as Williamson, Root and Smith, add in a proper seam-bowling allrounder in Stokes and de Kock will be able to play with the freedom we came to love. Give Rabada some proper firepower at his side so they can all run in hard together. There's only one spinner in Lyon, but it could be all this attack needs because as we've just seen, spin is not the only weapon in India.
Andrew Fidel Fernando
Azhar Ali, Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Kane Williamson, Steven Smith, Joe Root, Shakib Al Hasan, BJ Watling (wk), Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Yasir Shah, Mohammad Abbas
There are four viable openers (Elgar and Latham in addition to the two I've picked), but I went with Azhar for his 50-plus average in Asia and Karunaratne because he once made 141 against R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on the rankest of turners, and is otherwise a good player of spin. Root gets in because he averaged 49 in England's most-recent tour of India and also hit a very good hundred in Sri Lanka last year.
Shakib is the best allrounder in the world (you heard me right, Stokes fans) and a no-brainer as the left-armer in a three-pronged spin attack featuring Lyon, who provides a little control, and Yasir, who is the more attacking option. Mushfiqur loses out to Watling on the basis of Watling's far cleaner wicketkeeping. Plus, although Watling's average in Asia is a little under 40, he tends to be inspired by crises, and you're going to get plenty of those in India.
It was a tight call between Abbas and Mitchell Starc, but as Pakistan don't get to play India, let's at least give them as many chances as possible in our fantasies.
At least four of the top five could have been captain, but I went for the left-field and inexperienced option of Karunaratne because it's difficult to underestimate how much he's energised what was a flagging Sri Lanka team. If you can inspire a wildly unfancied Sri Lanka to the miracle of a 2-0 win in South Africa, maybe you can find a way to win in India as well.
Dimuth Karunaratane, Tom Latham, Kane Williamson, Steven Smith, Ben Stokes, Shakib Al Hasan, BJ Watling (wk), Pat Cummins, Jofra Archer, Nathan Lyon, Trent Boult
This XI should cover most bases. There's a risk going in with four left-handers in the top six, but the two right-handers at three and four are handy. The attack is full of variety so should be able to keep challenging India's batting on all surfaces. Archer's selection is based on a small sample, but that extra pace and threatening bounce will be important. Holder came close, but Shakib edged it to provide a second spinner. If anyone can find early swing it's Boult, while he and Stokes are excellent when it reverses.
Azhar Ali, Dimuth Karunaratane, Steven Smith, Joe Root/ Kusal Mendis/Kane Williamson, Shakib Al Hasan, Ben Stokes/Dhananjaya de Silva, Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Mohammad Abbas/Jofra Archer
It is difficult to pick such a squad based on numbers because a lot of these players have had only the odd chance of playing in India. I have gone by numbers in Asia and also their natural ability in these conditions. This is a squad of 15. Ali and Karunaratne have plenty of experience playing low, slow and accurate spin plus reverse swing. Elgar, the best opener in the world, came close to being picked, but the BCCI couldn't promise lodging that would necessarily meet his standards.
That middle order is strong with No. 4 a real tussle between three excellent batsman. Shakib is definitely the first allrounder with Stokes or de Silva getting in based on conditions. Mushfiqur is a highly underrated batsman, especially of spin. I haven't picked spinners for the sake of picking spinners but the best bowlers who will provide me control. Lyon is the best spinner in the world outside Ashwin and Jadeja. Cummins and Starc are quick in the air, and good at reverse if their fielders can maintain the ball legally. Abbas has an average of 17.5 in Asia. Archer is the only unknown quantity; he is in because of his pace in the air. I am assuming we are picking a team to play Tests next month, which is why Rabada is not even a consideration: poor guy badly needs a rest. Babar Azam and Niroshan Dickwella narrowly miss out.
There is plenty of depth - not at the cost of specialists - in batting and bowling, which is necessary to win in India. The one slight weakness this team has is if India prepare a rank turner, but I will bank on Lyon, Shakib and de Silva to do the job on it.
Dean Elgar, Dimuth Karunaratne, Steven Smith, Joe Root, Babar Azam, Shakib Al Hasan (c), Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), Yasir Shah, Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins, Mohammed Abbas
Many of these selections are a gimme, and there are cogent for and against arguments around the main choices. Familiarity and success in Indian conditions or Asian conditions is what is paramount in picking the team to take on Kohli's India. It is how Root pips Kusal Mendis, Mendis never having a played a Test in India, and Mushfiqur gets in ahead of Jonny Bairstow or Watling. The presence of three Pakistanis is the X factor because Tests between India and Pakistan have become things of the past. Elgar gets in because he's the only South African who looked like he was in a contest in the recent series and he'd love a second shot with a stronger side around him. Shakib is captain because he's scoring high on leadership points at the moment. Let it not get in Smith's way.
Dimuth Karunaratne, Tamim Iqbal, Kane Williamson, Joe Root, Steven Smith (c), Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), Ben Stokes, Pat Cummins, Yasir Shah, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
I have gone for five bowlers against India as I think it would take that many to pick 20 wickets. Williamson, Smith and Root will be tasked with getting a 400-plus first-innings total. At the top, I have gone for Tamim with Karunaratne, simply because the Bangladesh opener has handled good bowling attacks in Asia quite capably. Mushfiqur is another competent cricketer, especially against spin in the subcontinent. The rest of the job is for the bowlers. Cummins, Hazlewood and Lyon have all done well in India in the recent past, while Yasir is a quality legspinner. Stokes too will be pivotal, as he may be required to chip in with crucial wickets, apart from batting with the tail.
Sir Alastair Cook, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kane Williamson, Steven Smith, Joe Root, Shakib Al Hasan, BJ Watling(wk), Pat Cummins, Jofra Archer/Steve O'Keefe, Nathan Lyon, Mohammad Abbas
Obviously, the first thing I did was ring up Alastair Cook, who may have retired from England duty but is very much still playing - see his masterclass against spin to help Essex secure the County Championship title at Taunton last month - and doubtless would answer the Fantasy XI call for a one-off tour, thereby giving him the chance to swell his record as the most prolific non-Asian Test batsman in Asia. Thereafter, everyone is pretty much nailed on, with Shakib edging out Stokes and "Mr Cellophane" Watling taking the gloves in front of Mushfiqur. My other wildcard picks are conditions-dependent, with Archer's pace (and swag) a tantalising X-factor and Steve O'Keefe deputed to recreate his 2017 heroics in Pune - India's only home defeat in the last seven years.
Dean Elgar, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kane Williamson, Steven Smith, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), Pat Cummins, Rashid Khan, Kagiso Rabada, Nathan Lyon, 12th man: Jimmy Anderson
As Ravi Shastri rightly says, take 20 wickets and half the battle is won. So that is the basis for picking this all-round bowling unit that has the experience, the skills, the pace and an X-factor to challenge India's dominant batting at home. The toughest choice was to keep Anderson out. With his ability to reverse, which has allowed England to succeed in Asia in the past, coupled with his brains, Anderson is the Richard Hadlee of the 21st century. But with Stokes doing a good job as a third seamer, a fourth seamer could be one too many. As for why Rashid Khan and not Yasir (I see the Pakistan fans fuming): Rashid is the X-factor - despite his inexperience at Test level he is super aggressive and some of the key India batsmen have a weakness against the googly. Another strength of this team is the depth in batting - India's bowlers have struggled to wrap up the tail.
The only other big question was making a choice between Root and Babar. As a selector, I wanted aggression to challenge India's bowlers. Both Root and Babar provide that, but in the end I felt Root's experience would count in case the top order is toppled.