The England Cult Heroes XI

So what are you up to at the moment? I bet you’re bored silly (if you’re not feeling absolutely rotten). We’re just a couple of days into the UK lockdown and I’m already tired of watching TV, having all my upcoming copywriting projects ‘postponed’ (code for cancelled) and, perhaps worst of all, ‘home schooling’ the kids.

As my children are rapidly discovering, there’s only one thing I can teach – the value of a solid forward defensive shot. Geography? Sorry son, I only know the location of cricket grounds. Maths? I can do run rates but that’s where it ends. French? I know the rules of French cricket but I’m not sure that counts. Therefore I’ve let Mum take over for the time being.

Fortunately shirking my educational responsibilities has freed me up to focus on the following England cult hero cricketers XI. Therefore, I kindly ask you to put your shoes on and take a trip down memory lane with me. It might be the only time you leave the house today.

Marcus Trescothick

Any XI of cult hero cricketers has to begin with Banger. He was a much loved entertainer whose modus operandi generally involved ‘standing tall and giving it a whack’. It worked. He scored just shy of 6,000 Test runs at a healthy average of 44 in 76 Tests. That works out at 77 runs per Test – exactly the same as Alastair Cook but in an era when the bowling was slightly stronger.

We can only imagine what Tresco would’ve achieved for England had he not been sawn off in his prime by that stress related illness. It was such a shame.

Crowds loved Marcus because he played a bit like a club cricketer – he relied on a hand-eye coordination rather than perfect footwork. He also had the physique of an ordinary bloke (something I’m sure many of us can relate to).

I personally loved Trescothick because of his approach. He was always proactive and took the attack to the opposition. His quickfire 90 off 102 balls at Edgbaston in the 2005 Ashes set the tone for England’s comeback after the disaster at Lord’s. It showed that England wouldn’t be bullied.

Alec Stewart (capt)

As a lazy old sod who’s a bit of an individual, I’ve always had enormous respect for workaholics who are absolutely and wholeheartedly (almost obsessively) dedicated to the cause. This was Alec in a nutshell. Playing for England meant absolutely everything to him and it showed.

Although he couldn’t play spin for toffee, I think Sir Alec was arguably the best player of quality pace bowling that England have had in recent times. He embraced opening, loved the extra pace on the hard new ball, and timed the pants off it.

I loved Stewart because, a bit like his opening partner here, he would never cower in the face of hostility. The quicker the bowling, the quicker it would disappear to the boundary. His twin tons in Barbados summed it up for me. Curtly Ambrose was pissed but Alec didn’t care. He just kept picking him off.

Stewart was good enough to average 52 against Waqar and Wasim, 37 against Ambrose and Walsh, and just shy of 40 against Donald and Pollock. The only flaw in his resume was his mediocre record against Australia – largely because his exquisite pulls and peachy back foot drives didn’t really work against Warne’s leg-spin.

Robin Smith

Another fearless batsman who took on the pacemen, The Judge was courageous, aggressive, and always worth watching. He also possessed the best square cut I’ve ever seen.

Smith quickly became the man us supporters looked to when England were under pressure. Rather than being intimidated by the pacemen, Robin actually seemed to relish chin music – so much so, in fact, that he rarely even bothered wearing a grill on his helmet. This alone qualifies him as one of my favourite cult hero cricketers.

With massive forearms that made Roberto Carlos’s thighs look like drumsticks, Smith was clearly England’s alpha male during the 1990s. He was a complex character behind the scenes but on the field he made it look so simple – except when the spinners were bowling, of course.

Graham Thorpe

David Lloyd once called him ‘surly’. I call him bloody brilliant. And that’s why he joins my list of cult hero cricketers here.

In my opinion Thorpe was the best batsman England of the last 30 years. He was more reliable than Pietersen, more versatile than Root, more talented than Cook, and had no discernible weaknesses in either his technique or temperament.

If you wanted someone to take on the opposition’s best bowler then Thorpe was your man. He had all the shots, could play all around the wicket, and was never intimidated. But equally if you wanted someone to grind it out, occupy the crease, and rotate the strike, then Thorpe was equally in his element.

Thorpe was a brilliant player of spin and also fantastic player of pace. He was a thinking cricketer, a brave cricketer, and his only lean spell in an England shirt came when he was suffering from a back condition. Otherwise his resume is flawless.

Like Marcus Trescothick, it’s amazing to think what Graham might have achieved without those mental demons. His autobiography is one of the most fascinating (if a tad sobering) cricket books I’ve read.

Paul Collingwood

Good old Brigadier Block. Collingwood was always England’s man for a crisis. If the chips were down, and several wickets were also down, then Colly was the man most likely to bail us out.

The Durham stalwart saved numerous games for England when a draw looked about as likely as any cricket being played this summer. However, I think the supporters loved him so much because he maximised every ounce of talent he had. We can’t get enough of triers who give everything.

I sense we often prefer honest pros like Colly to uber-talented megastars who frustrate and occasionally disappoint because they could / should have achieved even more. It’s interesting to compare Collingwood with Pietersen. They were the perfect foil for each other in many ways but which player was more popular with supporters?

Andrew Flintoff

Freddie ticked all the boxes cult hero cricketers tick: he was capable of brilliance but also highly relatable and eminently human.

Like the aforementioned Trescothick, our Fred was a bit like a club cricketer too. He was a tad overweight at the start of his career and seemed to play like a club cricketer at times: he smiled a lot, gave it a whack, and enjoyed every moment. In fact, he was more Botham-esque than any other ‘the next Botham’ we’ve ever had.

Flintoff obviously evolved as a cricketer over time. He always loved the big stage but his bowling improved, his batting fell away, he lost the weight, and ultimately became the finely tuned athlete you’d expect an England cricketer to be.

However, the rigours of the international circuit came at a cost to both his physical and mental health. He just didn’t seem to enjoy the game as much. This was a massive shame as he really could’ve achieved more.

Freddie was also the very first TFT interview I did. He was a really good bloke.

Jack Russell

Russell’s batting looked like a dog’s breakfast. But it worked. His keeping was also immaculate despite his somewhat idiosyncratic style.

They don’t make ’em like Jack anymore. In fact, it seems a tad bizarre that such an eccentric chap was a top international sportsman not so long ago. Today’s players almost seem dull and corporate by comparison.

Jack is included in this cult hero cricketers XI because he’s the best keeper I’ve seen in an England shirt (sadly I didn’t get to see Bob Taylor) and life was rarely dull when he was playing. He also wound the opposition up something chronic.

Supporters tend to love players who add colour to proceedings. Being a brilliant artist, Jack knows a thing or two about that.

Phil DeFreitas

‘Daffy’ was a legend. A more than useful bowler, a superb athlete, and an entertaining batsman. He was like Chris Lewis. But good.

We’ve included quite a few agricultural cricketers with a hint of the amateur about them above so picking DeFreitas, who was as smooth and stylish as the pink panther, provides a nice contrast.

There were times when Daffy seemed to carry the whole attack on his shoulders during the 1990s. He was supremely talented and I bet he would’ve excelled at any sport.

Darren Gough

I almost omitted Goughie here because we’ve talked about him a lot recently – it’s why I left out Gower by the way – but in the end I just couldn’t resist. After all, Gough was probably England’s most popular cricketer for nearly a decade.

Dazzler had so many qualities I could describe here – boundless enthusiasm, determination, and energy amongst them – however I don’t think these are necessarily the qualities that made him such a cult hero. After all, plenty of cricketers give everything.

I think Goughie was loved so much because he was exactly what England needed at the time. We’d grown tired of tall medium-fast pie chuckers. And we’d grown very tired of having our behinds handed to us on a plate by the Aussies (and everyone else for that matter).

Gough was a bit undersized but made up for it through aggression and a fast arm. He really stuck it to the opposition – thus providing us with someone who could give a bit back. Darren perfectly encapsulated our underdog spirit of the 1990s.

cult hero cricketers

Matthew Hoggard

How many cult hero cricketers have a dog named after them – not least a famous commentator’s dog?

We all loved Hoggy. He seemed like an ordinary bloke doing what he loved most. And we all loved watching his journey from likely lad to England mainstay.

Although he started out as a bit of a tearaway (people forget that he was quite brisk when he first burst on the scene) he eventually found his rhythm as a top class medium-fast seamer.

People claimed that Hoggard needed the ball to swing to be successful but this simply wasn’t the case – his 7-109 in Adelaide on a flat deck and his 7-61 at Johannesburg (he took 12 in what was a high scoring game) prove it. He was a very skilful bowler.

Hoggy had all the hallmarks of a crowd favourite – a gutsy cricketer with signature hair and no hint of pretence.

Monty Panesar

I’ve been reading Monty’s autobiography in recent weeks and I can confirm that he’s as daft as a brush – despite being a pretty high academic achiever. When David Graveney called to inform him that he’d been picked for England for the first time, dear Monty didn’t even know who Graveney was! Incredible really.

I think we all loved watching Monty because he was like a child living his dream. He could also bowl. Boy could he bowl. At his best he was incredibly accurate and gave it a tremendous rip with those long extra-terrestrial fingers.

Although there was some truth in Shane Warne’s observation that Monty played the same Test every time, he brought enormous joy to crowds everywhere he went. The supporters loved him because he was so human. He never even attempted to hide his emotions and his fallibility (especially in the field) made him seem real.

Honourable mentions

Devon Malcolm, David Gower, Syd Lawrence, Ryan Sidebottom, Tim Bresnan.

So there you have it folks – a TFT cult hero cricketers XI. Who have I missed out? Who were your favourites? Joining the debate below has got to be more interesting that watching the lockdown paint dry.

James Morgan


  • A fine team of cult heroes. I think such a team needs an out of the box choice as skipper to complete the job – I nominate Panesar. I am glad you playing Stewie as an opener btw, even though I could only get him into my all time Surrey XI by naming him as wicketkeeper (see for full details)- an opener was his best role.

    • Thanks. I agree re: Stewart. He averaged 45 as a pure opener. That’s incredibly good for the era he played in. He also averaged 47 when not keeping. His average fell to 35 when he had the gloves.

  • I obviously go back a bit further than you. Some of my cult heroes include Colin Milburn, Basil D’Olivera, Botham of course, Dominic Cork and Phil Tufnell.

      • Didn’t he get disciplined by a ridiculous umpire for bowling two bouncers – off his four pace run up?

        • Reminds me of a dispute I had when captaining our club a few years ago. The opposition skipper argued that our 17 year old off spinner should be over limited (like young seamers) as his quick ball was faster than our opening bowlers. He had a point.

  • Good to see the workaday pros getting a look in along with the matchwinners.
    Going through your selection, how many of them would be classed as good solid county pros who managed to raise their game enough to do a job at the top.
    Certainly Trescothic, who played the same way whichever format he was in. Similarly with Collingwood, Panasar, Hoggard and De Freitas.
    Would never describe Stewart as a cult hero, far too straight laced and Thorpe, though Consistently effective never had that aura for me. Can’t compare him with a Goughie or Flintoff.
    Robin Smith had enormous talent but for me never quite fulfilled his potential and again didn’t have that aura, a bit like Hick.
    For me the likes of Tavare fits the bill, almost a fish out of water. Certainly from that era Willis, Gower, Botham obviously Knott and Grieg, not forgetting the irrepressible Randall, going through to Lamb, who certainly had that aura.
    Personality has to be a major feature of any cult hero, ideally with an area of vulnerability.

  • David Steele probably fits the bill. Samit Patel maybe?

    Jack Leach from the modern era and Moeen – we have too many spinners!

    • David Steele would be first on the list. Debuts in his 30s against the most fearsome fast attack ever (the 70s Windies) in glasses and a cap, and performs so well he gets the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. I would add Brian Close; anyone who is recalled to open against Roberts, Holding and Daniel (at the age of 45) and decides to go down the wicket to them (without a helmet) is either mad or brave beyond commonsense. More recently I would go for Dermot Reeve. He certainly had more personality than any other cricketer in the last 30 years.

    • Good shout. Can’t believe I forgot Steele. He certainly fits the bill in the same misfit way as Tavare. No one could discount Dermot either, personality in spades, the captain everyone loved to hate, though never really produced the goods at international level.
      Jack Leach is a curious one, a bowler who’s major achievements came with bat. Watching him bowl was a bit of a turn off. I suppose we should mention the ‘king of Spain’ as a figure of fun. Top class county pro, but never had enough subtleties to worry the top players.

  • Was about to say David Steele, but someone’s got there first. Derek Pringle must have been a cult hero of the selectors for them to find a reason to chose him 30 times. Then again, same might be said for Daffy DeFreitas – great bloke, but you also wonder how he played 44 tests with a bowling average well north of 30 and batting under 15 …

  • Interesting how almost nobody from the last decade has cult hero status (Bell perhaps?). They all feel too robotic for that.

    I’d second the existing nominations for Randall and Edmonds.

    What about Angus Fraser? The sense of a career slightly unfulfilled and the hang-dog air seem good cult material. Is it the subsequent career in selection and administration that disqualifies him? I’d select Mark Lathwell but most people seem to have swallowed the “crazy selection who embodied everything that was wrong in the 1990s” narrative rather than awesome lost talent which having seen him make a double century against Surrey and an unbelievably good 90 on a Hove bunsen is how I regard him. They aren’t English but I’d also put words in for Ole Mortensen and Andre Van Troost who enlivened the county scene in their time and could be real handfuls on their day (Van Troost bowled the fastest spell I’ve seen in the flesh in a match at Bath – and I saw a lot of Malcolm Marshall and some of all the other major speedsters except Jeff Thomson).

  • Going back to the start of James’ era I suggest Jack Richards – a man so prepared to speak his mind that his career was ended (by the odious Mickey Stewart) only a year after scoring a test century. That he was far and away the best gloveman in England at the time counted for nothing against Surrey politics.

  • My team would be full of players I just loved and I’m afraid it wouldn’t make any sense as an XI. Gower, Botham, Flintoff, probably Stokes as well, though Christ knows how the three of them would get on! Willis, Swan (yes, I know), Arkle, of course – was there ever such a player? – probably Bob Taylor over Alan Knott, though it’s close, Simon Jones… Oh, Trotty, of course, Trotty; maybe even the man with the chair, Tavare. And James Anderson, just because…Pick the bones out of that because I can’t!

    • Easy to ensure Botham, Flintoff and Stokes behave like choirboys. Just select Peter Willey (Popeye) as the spinner. Could bench press 300lb and once informed Botham that if he didn’t behave he would insert his bat handle where the sun doesn’t shine. Noone misbehaved when Popeye was around.

  • Derek Underwood anyone?

    I have never seen anyone bowl like Deadly before or since. Wikipedia describes his bowling as slow left arm but he was faster than more than a few medium pacers. Accurate, spinning, swinging and cutting deliveries made him great at any time and totally unplayable on a damp wicket.

    Anyone who got their maiden first class hundred at the age of 39 is a patron of the Primary Club has to be in this XI surely

    I still haven’t forgiven him for taking an illegally long run up in the John Player Leauge as Kent thrashed Somerset at Taunton though.

    • I was watching what I believe is the only available film of S F Barnes, and there was something in there that reminded me of Underwood. (Bowling action also really reminiscent of someone, probably around the same era, but I can’t think who)

      • I’m sorry I don’t–it was linked from the comments to an article, I think on the Guardian, a few weeks ago. The film was on YouTube though–you could probably find it there by searching.

  • Surely Atherton should be in the list. He was every cricket lovers’ favourite cricketer for years. Remember “we might pull off a draw if Atherton stays in” ….a regular refrain for years.

  • ‘Lend us your brain Tuffers – we’re trying to build an idiot over here’

    Surely worthy of consideration – if only for his fielding !

  • Going back a very long way – how about Sydney Barnes. Any players who drives his captain to declare (when in a storm at sea and fearing sinking) that ‘at least if we go down that bugger Barnes will go down with us’ deserves his place in the all time line up.

    • my God, imagine how Andy Flower, Andrew Strauss and Paul Downton would have coped with Barnes!

    • I like the story from his benefit match, when Gilbert Jessop smashed him around the park. Eventually, Barnes got fed up and snarled ‘Oi Croucher, this is my ruddy benefit, not thine …’ (sounding like a good cross between W. G. and Fred Trueman …)

  • Can I cut out the selection part and just nominate the Essex side of the late 70s/early 80s.

    Full of cult individual figures and also a cult team, mainly for being exceptionally good but still being able to contrive to lose a one-day match from virtually any position of strength. And I mean any….!

    • Gooch and Fletcher’s lot if I’m not mistaken, so your team won’t be able to make room for DI Gower…

      • …quite a conundrum isn’t it, how a team led by as seemingly dour a character as Fletcher produced so many characters…

  • Yes Collingwood for his exceptional fielding more than his batting, which tailed off disappointingly. While on fielding, Botham at 2nd slip standing a yard further forward than anyone else dared and Chris Read, extraordinary keeper and a bit like Russell, didn’t look the polished, coiffured article that selectors prefer

  • Tavare! A genuine character, capable of being a dasher, but best remembered for being an obstinate blocker. Wonderful.
    Devon Malcolm a definite cult hero.
    Monty, didn’t the Sun do cut out Monty masks?
    Two Lancastrians – flat Jack and Austin.
    Also, I didn’t see him play, but Brian Close?

    • Definitely. Most magnificent appeal too. Turned into one of my favourite commentators ever

  • Colin Milburn (from times past) and, more recently, Roger Twose for sticking two fingers up to the England selectors and then rising to no2 in the international white ball batting rankings for NZ.

  • I plan. I don’t do things on the spur of the moment. Never have. I certainly don’t wake up one morning and decide to travel from Manchester (outside Manchester) to Lords.

    And I don’t watch cricket to watch one player. Especially a batsman. Seriously. Why would anyone travel all that distance to watch a batsman who could get out first ball?

    But that’s exactly what I did. England v. SL. 1991. To see Robin Smith. What a player !!!!!!
    I don’t even remember how much of his innings I saw on the day. Or anything else about the day. I just know that when he was hitting the ball it was worth watching.
    And that I travelled a long way to see it.


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