Who is the best Test batsman in the world? It is one of the most frequent debates in cricket. Everyone has different opinions and, if that player is from your particular country, a biased view could well take over. However, there are several elements needed to really underline a player’s status as the world’s finest, especially in Test cricket.
Scoring runs consistently, scoring them away from home and making contributions when their team most needs it are particular signs of great batsmanship. And popular opinion is that until a batsman achieves those three feats, they can not longer be considered a great player.
Such is the depth in quality in world cricket at the moment when it comes to batting, it is an extremely difficult task to choose the world’s current best Test player. So what is perhaps easier is to pick four.
Few can argue that the quartet of Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson are the game’s leading batsmen. They set the bar both technically and mentally, showing prolific form over the last few years in the longer form of the game. They are not only the present, but they are also the future of the game. So here is an analysis of the things they do right and work they have to improve on in order to be considered as the best.
ICC Test Player Ranking: 1
The Australian captain is a terrific accumulator of runs. Many remain puzzled at how he remains so consistent, given his unqiue and unorthodox technique. However, Smith’s extravagantly open stance allows him to work the ball freely to his favoured on-side, even when the ball is pitched outside off stump. He remains balanced while executing his shots and as a result, more often than not becomes extremely comfortable at the crease.
A particular criticism of Australian players in recent times, ever since the plethora of great players before them had retired, is that they only perform to their best at home on the traditionally quicker, harder wickets. A particular culprit is David Warner who, for all his game-changing abilities, has only scored four of his 18 hundreds away from home, with his average dipping below 40.
Smith, on the other hand, is different. For all the talk about his struggles in England, he still managed to walk away as the series’ highest run scorer (508) at an average of 56.44. In the recent series in India, despite his side’s disappointing 2-1 loss, Smith was the standout batsman, scoring one short of 500 runs with three centuries, making him only the third visiting captain to score three hundreds in India. It was a sparkling performance. Smith has also performed admirably in New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies in recent times.
What Smith is is prolific. He senses a chance of a big score and takes it more frequently than others in the game at the moment. He already has 20 Test hundreds and is leading from the front by consistently making match-winning scores for his country. And you would be forgiven to predict many more coming his way in the near future.
While it is difficult to spot weaknesses in both Smith’s game and his record, a certain black mark remains against his name after the Ashes series in 2015. The 27-year-old scored the majority of his runs at Lord’s and The Oval, both grounds that possess flat, Australian-like wickets. Batting becomes even easier when the sun is out, as was the case during Smith’s two mammoth knocks of 215 and 142 in 2015.
Yet it was the two Tests at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge that really put Smith under the spotlight. Scores of 7, 8, 6 and 5 represented disappointing returns but the mode of dismissals underlined a certain weakness for Smith against the moving ball. The likes of Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Steven Finn reduced him to becoming very square on in his stance and in the process, causing him severe problems. And although it is perhaps the only challenge that Smith is yet to conquer, it is something that fans will hold against him until he does so.
ICC Test Player Ranking: 4
After initially making his name as a supremely talented one-day player, Kohli has adapted and improved his game into the Test arena. He had a sensational 2016, scoring 1215 runs at an average of 75.93 – the highest of anyone with over 300 runs in the calendar year. It was a year to remember for India’s superstar.
Kohli’s technique is exemplary. With an emphasis on a full presentation of the bat’s face, as well as remaining balanced at the crease, he has been able to improve his game to higher levels. His application and risk-free batting have allowed him to play patient, yet controlled Test match innings in recent times, whilst remaining at his entertaining best.
Despite his obvious success with the bat during India’s long home season, Kohli has sparkled in other areas of the world too – a feat so important to the reputation of Asian batsmen. The 2014/15 series in Australia was perhaps a turning point in his career. Not only did he score a remarkable 692 runs at an average of 86.50, but he stood up to an Australian attack that dismantled England 5-0 only a year before. Kohli also scored his maiden Test double century in the West Indies last year.
The 28-year-old has also become more ruthless in converting starts. Of the last seven times Kohli has passed 50, he has gone on to score a hundred on five occasions. And given the notion that scoring centuries plays a big part in winning Test matches, Kohli has used the captaincy to lead by example and drive his team towards doing just that.
Despite his successful tours of Australia, South Africa and the West Indies in recent times, Kohli has yet to have the success away from home as Smith has. Arriving in England with a grand reputation in 2014, he scored only 134 runs from 10 innings, as he struggled to deal with swinging conditions. Kohli had particular problems outside off-stump against James Anderson, who dismissed him four times.
Nevertheless, one would think that Kohli is a better player now, but it will be interesting how he copes away from home following India’s extended home run. Different conditions and different wickets will offer more stern challenges and it may define Kohli’s status as a truly great Test player, as well as the validity of India’s number one Test ranking.
ICC Player Ranking: 5
He made an impression early on and never looked back. Williamson has emerged from a talented young cricketer to one that is so important to New Zealand’s success in future years. Not only is he the pillar of the Kiwi batting line up, but he now has the chance to lead his side as captain. So much responsibility rests on his shoulders.
As a batsman, Williamson possesses a technique that would make the purists purr. He remains very compact at the crease, allowing the ball to come to him, relying on his timing in his attacking strokes. He does not try to overhit the ball or go out of his comfort zone either. His method has proven to be successful in swinging conditions, in his homeland and in England in particular. His masterful 132 at Lord’s against a challenging English attack was beautifully compiled, showing admirable application and skill.
One of Williamson’s great strengths in to be able to perform when his side really needs him. His calmness in pressure situations has won him admirers all over the cricketing world, not least in New Zealand. He was the outstanding player when his side toured Australia in November 2015, scoring two classy centuries – the second of which, 166 at Perth, was described as a ‘batting clinic’ by the Australian Channel Nine commentators.
And for all the excellence of Smith, Kohli and Root, Williamson is perhaps the most relied-on cricketer out of this quartet. New Zealand do not have the depth batting resources as Australia, India and England do, therefore Williamson, as his side’s leading player, is perhaps under the most pressure to perform. And as his supreme recent 176 against South Africa shows, he is more than capable of succeeding under such pressure.
What Williamson does not have, compared to the other three batsmen, is the ability to take the game away from an opposition. Whilst his batting has remained in terrific order, his role is different to that of Smith, Kohli and Root. Williamson’s game is restricted to building an innings at no.3 – a position one higher than where the other three bat. Early on, he chooses the play safe and relies on his sound defensive technique to get his innings going. We are yet to see an innings when Williamson changes the course of a match in a session or two – an ability that, admittedly, few are possessed with.
Another area that Williamson may look to work on is scoring more hundreds. He regularly gets off to a good start but is at times profligate in his mode of dismissals. For a player of his quality, a more ruthless nature when passing fifty could be had, especially given the reliance on him to score runs.
ICC Player Ranking: 3
After promising signs at the start of his Test career, Root’s form over the last three years has established him as one of the world’s finest players. He is the key member of England’s batting line-up and on so many occasions in recent times, he has bailed them out of precarious situations.
Root’s technique has improved hugely since his impressive Test debut in India. Initially, he was predominantly a back foot player but has adapted his game to being a player able to play all shots around the wicket with ease. Two particularly important aspects of his technique include playing very straight, and staying on his toes as the ball is being bowled. The latter has allowed Root to be ready early for either a shorter or a pitched up delivery, helping his reflexes in the process.
As mentioned before, Root has proven that he can score runs when the chips are down. And despite doing this several times during his career, two knocks come to mind. His 98 at Lord’s in the first Test against New Zealand helped England recover from 30-4 to 389 all out – a match they eventually ended up winning.
The other came at Cardiff in the first Test of the 2015 Ashes series. Root hit a superb 134, once again being the catalyst behind another England recovery (43-3 to 430 all out). Not only was it an incredibly gutsy performance to dig England out of the mire, but the tempo with which Root played made it as good a counter-attacking innings as you could wish to see.
One problem that Root has had during his Test career is converting fifties into hundreds. Out of the 38 times he has passed fifty, the Yorkshire man has tuned only 11 of them into centuries. The issue was exacerbated in the winter series in India as Root’s profligacy meant that he passed three figures only once, despite looking in supreme touch. His importance to England is massive and in order for his country to win more Tests down the line, a more ruthless Root will be vital.
The 26-year-old will also look to score more heavily away from home. Only three of his 11 Test centuries have come outside England and this will be a real key aspect when he leads England down to Australia for the Ashes in the winter. It could decide the fate of such a key battle, with the 5-0 drubbing in 2013/14 still fresh in the memory – a series that Root struggled in considerably.