Although the issue of the best ever complete Test team has been discussed to death on many occasions, I have rarely ever seen a comparable one for the greatest ODI unit to have graced the cricket field. So here is my choice.
The 1999 Pakistan team: the greatest ODI team of all time?
Amidst rising political and social disturbances in colonial India, a philosopher and Cambridge graduate named Choudhary Rahmat Ali proposed the term 'Pakstan' in his 1933 pamphlet entitled Now Or Never, now known as the Pakistan declaration. Composed of letters taken from the names of all 'homelands' - as stated by Ali - the author also attributed the meaning to be Land of the Pure from the Persian root word pāk.
However, the history and development of Pakistan cricket can't possibly be further from the ideals strived by the Muslim League and Rahmat Ali. The Pakistan cricket team has faced many controversies over the years, from the spot-fixing trials of 2010, claims of hookers in rooms and constant allegations of match-fixing throughout the mid-to-late 90s to infighting, ball biting and ball tampering. Certainly, the global image of the team has never initiated thoughts of purity or clean cricket. The list of taints is lengthy and makes for painful reading, but ultimately it is what makes Pakistan cricket the double-headed monster that it is.
And thus it is here where we reach the story of Pakistan cricket in the 1999 WC. Wasim Akram had been appointed as Pakistan captain for his fourth term despite the huge controversies surrounding his previous stints and Pakistan had yet again staved off accusations of match-fixing in 1998 to emerge as comfortable winners of both the Coca-Cola Cup held in Sharjah and the tri-series held in India in 1999. The Pakistan team arrived on British shores brimming with confidence and a multitude of in-form players.
To many that experienced it, 1999 was a great year for Pakistan cricket in general. I have regularly asserted that it was the greatest World Cup of all time due to the extremely high standard of competitive cricket on offer, not least due to Pakistan's amazing team in the tournament. The fact that Pakistan's dismal collapse in the final appears to have been erased from the memories of many who recount the time attests to the overwhelming and countless joyful moments felt by those who watched the youthful side featuring in majestic lime green.
The other less positive connotations of Pakistan cricket may appear to only serve as tarnishes on Pakistan's distinguished sporting history in the eyes of a casual fan. But, in my opinion, these have additionally strengthened the aura of unpredictability surrounding the words 'Pakistan cricket team'. The Pakistan team has long been synonymous with zeal, mercuriality and passion, so it is no surprise how they set alight the 1999 World Cup.
However, there is something to consider about this intrinsic quality. Surely, if a team performs unpredictable acts with such ease, nobody should bat an eyelid when another occurs, considering it attains a status of being normal procedure?
Yet this wasn't the case during the 1999 World Cup. It seemed the journey to the result in every match could be described in a few words that also emphasised the very binding fibre from which Pakistan cricket is made.
West Indies - aggression. Scotland - crumbling top-order. Australia - passion. South Africa - unpredictability. India - disappointment. Semi-final - euphoria. Final - desolation, depression and calls of match-fixing.
At Kolkata, Shoaib Akhtar had removed Rahul Dravid and the master batsman Sachin Tendulkar in successive balls in front of a packed Eden Gardens crowd. It followed a devastating reverse-swing spell of 5/44 at Durban the previous year.
A young and rampaging Shoaib setting the Kolkata Test alight with his pace and adrenaline-fuelled belligerence.
But Shoaib truly immersed himself into global spotlight after his fiery spells in the West Indies game - a memorable hostile bouncer for his first ball in the World Cup was hurriedly top-edged by Sherwin Campbell way over third man for six. The result was an awestruck crowd and commentator Ian Botham. The myth of Akhtar had been born, partly because of how he had replaced Waqar Younis who for so long had been a menacing tormenter of many batsman the world over.
Wasim Akram's reigns as captain had never been calm in any sense; the one in 1999 was arguably the most relaxed of all. The now ageing magician put in a great stint to lead his roaring tigers in 1999, relying upon his guile and experience to ensnare opposition batsmen. He concluded a wonderful summer with 15 wickets at 22.80 in the WC, utilising his box of tricks even if the pace was on the decline.
The famous quote from Allan Border goes, “If I was reborn, I’d be Wasim Akram”. And who better to be reincarnated as, if not the cricket equivalent of the commanding Carthaginian leader of antiquity, Hannibal. Hannibal revolutionised battle tactics which brought a superior and much vaunted Roman Army to its knees, whilst Akram revamped left-arm bowling and fast bowling in general into an attacking form of bowling apiece with a myriad of variation.
Both however did not manage to fully conquer their respective enemies; the Romans and the Australians. Hannibal was shamed at the Battle of Zama after years of being back-stabbed by his political opponents in Carthage who refused to send him the resources to vanquish Rome completely - the parallel of infighting and backstabbing, along with an inability to truly subjugate those before him can be seen in Akram’s several incumbencies.
A distraught Wasim Akram in the Hobart Test and the 1999 WC final at Lord's, respectively.
Akram had been the one to take the decision to promote a 19 year-old Razzaq to the important #3 spot in the pivotal Australia match at Headingley - even after failing the initiation VS Scotland. He was also crucial to Saqlain Mushtaq's selection in the ODI squad in 1995, especially in his decision to opt for him in the death overs.
The 1993 revolt occurred as a result of his dictatorial captaincy style but by 1999 Wasim Akram had managed to pacify his own temperament to an extent and led a side oriented around youth with immense authority. Considering his skill with the ball, it was no surprise at the level of progressive style of tactics employed with him at the helm. So much so that even after Justice Qayyum advised him never to be given an authoritative position in the team again, he was still arguably the real brain behind all of the tactics of the team when Moin Khan acquired the captaincy in 2000.
After an exuberant display in the Australian game at Headingley, where Inzamam-Ul-Haq top-scored with 81 - ably supported by Razzaq's 60, Moin Khan's late-over heroics, the seamers and a healthy dose of fervent Pakistan support - Pakistan yet again threw down the gauntlet in the match against NZ after posting a hefty total of 269/8. It was to be a coast for Pakistan after the New Zealand top-order was craftfully dismantled by a dazzling Shoaib Akhtar and the in-seamers of Azhar Mahmood.
Shoaib during the 1999 World Cup
Similar performances followed in the later matches, not to mention the depressing lows. This is the tale of the 1999 World Cup, the tournament which I believe featured the greatest Pakistan ODI team of all time and undoubtedly for me the most watchable team to have graced the field. Ebullient, thrilling, hypertension-causing whilst simultaneously being huge underachievers and infuriatingly depressing: the showing at the 1999 World Cup epitomised into one what Pakistan cricket is all about.
Therefore for me personally, the team in 1999 was the greatest ODI unit ever. It might not have been the most temperamentally stable team to have played but purely on paper it surely ranks amongst the top to have ever graced the field of play.
The title of the greatest Test team falls to Steven Waugh's noughties team or Clive Lloyd's late 70's/early 80's side but in my eyes the '99 Pakistan team was comfortably the best ODI XI to have appeared together for the same team.
Yousuf Youhana usually batted at 6 in the 1999 World Cup but it is blatantly obvious in the years that followed that he was totally suited to batting in the middle-order and Razzaq was principally a late-order hitter. Thus, I would swap their positions and this would be the team combination:
The batting line-up was all about attack rather than defence. The Kirsten-Gibbs and Waugh-Gilchrist were superior and significantly more stable opening duos but in terms of destructive force on their day arguably no duo could arguably eclipse the combination of Anwar-Afridi, particularly on the flat batting pitches at Sharjah/in Asia.
Even if the destructive Afridi was to fall early in a hypothetical match, Anwar would be able to battle with the best. As Rameez Raja once commented: "Anwar used an eclectic approach to batting – classical betrothed to unorthodox, footwork against spin as quick as a hiccup supple yet powerful to brush the field like a Picasso." Shane Warne also deemed him to be the greatest all-round batsman he has ever bowled to. No compliment can ever hold as much precedence as this considering Warne's stature as at least being the greatest spin bowler to have featured internationally, and possibly the greatest of any style.
Inzamam's proficiency as a match-winner in ODIs is renowned, and whilst Ijaz's statistics may not be evocative of a legendary batsman, they do not do him full justice. He has the second-lowest innings : Test century ratio of any Asian batsmen playing in Australia (after Gavaskar), a tremendous feat considering the overwhelming strength of the Australian sides of the 1990's. A wonderful back-foot player who scored a Test 115 on a fast WACA pitch in 1999, he also registered a blazing 139* (84) interspersed with 9 sixes chasing 216 against India in a 1997 ODI. An ungainly and awkward batting stance that looked like it would make him a suspect of being dismissed BBW (Buttock Before Wicket), he had a wide array of shots in his arsenal that allowed him to offer something different from the rest.
There have been more formidable batting attacks in ODIs, such as the the great West Indian teams consisting of Greenidge and Haynes at the top of the order with King Viv, Kallicharan and Clive Lloyd and Kallicharan following suit springing to mind. However, nobody within the great West Indian teams of the 1980's managed to buckle down the #6 position and make it their own.
Collis King stole the eponymous title of 'King' from the supreme Viv for his lone claim to flame in the 1979 World Cup final but he never managed to hold the position down, fading into obscurity after his decision to appear in the 1983/84 rebel tour to SA. Perhaps it was due to the fact that dominance in the position wasn't required considering the pre-eminence of the rest of the batting order but this is certainly a gaping chasm in the line-up.
Furthermore, the West Indian batting locomotive was not the same goliath against quality spin as it was against all other forms of bowling. Abdul Qadir showed their disposition to capitulate against quality spin with his wizardry of 21 wickets in the 1986 Test series held in Pakistan - in which he attained 6/16 in the second innings of the Faisalabad Test where the mighty Windies fell for 53 chasing 240 - as well as captivating spells Down Under in the B & H Cup of 1984.
Additionally, the distinction of causing the lowest series batting average for the West Indies during the two decades in which they established an absolute dominion over the cricket world falls to Pakistan in the 1986 Test series held in Pakistan. The combined batting average of the team for the series was a measly 19.40. Moreover, the marauding West Indies only lost two Test series after being steamrollered by the Australians in 75/76 - in India in 1978 and in NZ in 1980, the latter being mainly as a result of unbelievably biased and - although it is debatable - apparently racist umpiring. And whilst many would be fearful of claiming it, I personally believe Richards had a weakness against quality spin, particularly later on in his career.
Besides these two points there is a more conspicuous and indisputable blemish on an otherwise brilliant side: the lack of a quality spinner. Lance Gibbs may have been a quality Test match bowler with 309 wickets at an economy of 1.98 but he never had much opportunity to play ODIs due to his age and the ascendancy of ODIs not correlating. Meanwhile, Roger Harper was undoubtedly an electric fielder but he was in no means a brilliant 'offie' like Saqi, and could not be relied upon to run through sides or perform under the cosh with such prominence as Saqlain did time and time again.
So all in all, despite the commanding and compelling nature of the great Caribbean teams under Lloyds' and Richards' captaincy, there were still a few unfulfilled voids in their line-ups, especially in terms of spin. The frightening pace battery would most likely have struggled (relatively) to have the same potency on the modern Sharjah and sub-continent wickets where the ability to reverse swing the ball is key.
In terms of the noughties Aussie team being the greatest, the case is much stronger. There were arguably no weak links in the numerous great teams they put forward in their WC dominance between 1999 and 2007. They had the greatest ODI finisher of all time in Bevan, a true scrapper in Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, an amazing opening partnership of Gilchrist-Waugh and subsequently Gilchrist-Hayden after their victory in '99 and an outstanding core of Warne, Brett Lee and Mcgrath for their bowling attack. Whenever a player was ruled out due to injury it seemed there was an infinite assembly line of sub-30 bowlers lining up to take the open spot.
However, in terms of diversity and breadth of a bowling attack arguably nothing has matched the '99 Pakistan side. Wasim Akram played the role of the cunning genius with his complete mastery of seam and swing, and under Akram I believe the other players - especially Razzaq - could have flourished. He may not have been an Imran but by all accounts Akram was a hard taskmaster, and almost certainly would have tried to inhibit Razzaq's spiralling fitness and attitude. Mahmood could also have been prevented from fading into the wilderness had he not been a product of mismanagement by the board/team management.
McGrath the metronome was an asset on all wickets despite what the traditional manuals would suggest about fast-medium bowling on dead and placid wickets but I think the combination of Razzaq and Mahmood would eclipse McGrath - even if by a whisker - simply by the thinking that two is better than one. That is not a smear on either Razzaq's or Mahmood's ability with the ball but rather a judgement on McGrath's profound dominance regardless of the conditions.
However, consider the scenario of if McGrath failed. Brett Lee was certainly a real force to deal with in ODIs but he was not a fearsome or effective as Shoaib - in either pace, bowling skill or psychologically annihilating an opposition. Despite Akhtar's career being earmarked by controversy, bitterness and petty infighting, Akhtar would have made close to his full potential under Akram's wing.
Abdul Razzaq was a genuine 87-90 MPH quickie with prodigious ability to reverse swing the ball when he first appeared on the international scene, as evidenced by his performance against Sri Lanka in an unforgettable, back-from-the-death ODI that took place in Sharjah 1999. To complete the pace bowling set Azhar Mahmood showed from his performances in the 1999 World Cup and the '99 tri-series final (5/33 against India) his subtle control of the seam. In the Pepsi Cup final of 1999 hosted in Bangalore, Geoffrey Boycott termed Azhar Mahmood's deliveries "firecrackers" given their explosive movement off even the flattest of pitches. The Indian middle-order had no protection against the TNT held in Azhar's armoury, and the Indian crowd rioted yet again at the disgust of their team's performance.
An ecstatic Azhar during the tri-series final held in India, 1999.
To conclude, Pakistan’s bowling unit was far more varied than Australia’s. Razzaq and Mahmood offered reverse swing and seam respectively, Shoaib brutal pace and aggression and Wasim the tactical and practical nous unlike any other bowler in history. And then there is the small matter of Saqlain Mushtaq, the greatest ODI spin bowler of all time - both economical and a dynamic wicket-taker - who would pip Shane Warne to the post quite comfortably in the greatest ODI XIs of all time.
So varied was their attack was that during the 1999 World Cup Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed had been omitted from the line-up. Waqar may have been past his prime after being plagued by back injuries, but it is a point to reflect upon that a bowler with his otherworldly reputation was not able to make his way into the line-up solely on the basis of international repute. And whilst Mushtaq may not have tasted the same international success as Waqar, his bucketload of wickets at a great average in several Somerset stints conveyed his prowess on English surfaces. The stature of Saqlain was such though that he could not be dislodged from his position in the line-up.
Pakistan with their three all-rounders (including Afridi and Wasim) had unbelievable batting depth with a double centurion in Wasim coming in at 9, a luxury that was not afforded to the Australian teams of the noughties. If their top and middle-order was to be removed relatively early, nobody with genuine hard-hitting ability lower down the order would be able to rescue their side.
In conclusion, the Australian team may have had more world-class and domineering players but they did not have the overall depth and diversity of the 1999 Pakistan side.
The happiness of the summer of 1999 may have been relatively short-lived but in my opinion, the Pakistan side in the '99 World Cup was the greatest mix of players to have ever appeared on TV, if only on paper.
Has there even been a side with as much overall strength, versatility and ultimately flair and flamboyance?
Pakistan at the 1999 WC: the greatest ODI unit ever?
Pakistan at the 1999 WC: the greatest ODI unit ever?