Test cricket tiers: Steve Smith and Virat Kohli top list of 'Fab Four'

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The ongoing Test battles all across the globe, including the Ashes in England, has once again reaffirmed the five-day format’s status as the greatest examination of a player’s technique – and one that separates the true greats from the mere mortals.

While a patient batsman is a rare commodity in today’s game, the very best of this era would flourish in any.

Here, in the second piece of our series ranking the top Test players in the world, we divide the best openers around into four tiers. Click here for the openers.

Tier 1

Steve Smith, Australia

CheteshwarPujaraIndia (1)

It’s a story to warm the cockles if you’re an Aussie, a triumph of evil over good if you’re an English punter booing from the stands.

There’s no denying however that cricket’s anti-hero has a firm claim of being the best Test batsman in the post-war era. Somewhere in the heavens, Sir Don is grinning with approval.

Subdued at the World Cup, Smith returned to his natural habitat at the Ashes and proceeded to flay poor English bowlers to all corners.

Only a Jofra Archer bouncer stopped him in his tracks – momentarily. The 30-year-old will be back and likely improving his eye-watering 63.24 average before the summer is out as those sandpaper jokes wear increasingly thin.

Virat Kohli, India

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Smith is in good company with arguably the greatest multi-purpose batsman, past or present, on the planet.

Test cricket was Kohli’s Achilles heel before he brought it to heel. His short ball troubles are little more than a footnote in the great compendium of innings that he has now produced in whites.

Just this past year he dispelled the notion that he could not perform in the seamer’s paradise of England, manipulating the hosts’ bowling at will to compile 593 runs.

There’s being ‘in’, then there’s Kohli ‘in’. The 30-year-old had scored more Test hundreds than fifties – 25 to 20 – and is the craftiest chase-builder around.

The only knock on the great man is his captaincy, having lost seven Tests in 2018 despite India’s almost bottomless resources. But when he’s at the crease? Wonders never cease.

Tier 2

Kane Williamson, New Zealand

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It’s only two per category, but Williamson should really sit at tier one-and-a-half.

If it is assumed every genius sportsperson needs a hint of arrogance then the Blackcaps stroke-maker eschews that belief with a humble grin, the one that melted hearts after having his broken by England at the World Cup.

There is nothing modest about his Test statistics. When he was dismissed for the first time in six innings against Pakistan last December, he walked back to the pavilion a beaten man for the first time in 865 runs.

Perhaps his secret was written plain on his face that unbelievable day at Lord’s. Phlegmatic, unflappable, accepting of the vagaries of cricket but treating it as yesterday’s baggage.

Joe Root, England

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The pressures of the England captaincy have added a few wrinkles to the cheeky chappy who scored 180 as a 22-year-old in his first Ashes series at Old Trafford. The runs have rarely ceased since then and it is inevitable that, alongside Sir Alastair Cook, he’ll have reached five figures in Tests by the time his career is up. The only question is exactly how many.

Apart from his recent travails against Australia – though his crucial and overlooked 77 in that outrageous Test at Headingley was a return to normalcy – Root collects 50s like they’re loyalty stamps at Starbucks. The problem is that he so often fails to convert.

Indeed, since July 2017, Root has scored 16 half-centuries but just five centuries. For comparison’s sake, in that time Kohli has a 9/6 ratio.

These are the standards we must hold Root to, as a technically flawless, rare talent equally comfortable on the front and back foot. He’s slipped behind the rest of the ‘Fab Four’ – Smith, Williamson and Kohli – because of this, but his abilities are very much at a par.

Tier 3

Cheteshwar Pujara, India

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Ask Cheteshwar Pujara to watch his step and he’ll gladly stare at the floor for hours.

In this era of thrill-seeking multi-taskers, Pujara is an outlier. He has two jobs: score runs and stay put. He’s not so fussed about the former but he loves doing the latter.

That’s why Pujara averages over 50 in Test cricket at a strike-rate of just 46. In a bygone era, scoring at nearly two a ball would have sent hearts fluttering but the 31-year-old has been impermeable to change.

Bowlers very rarely get any change out of the Rajkot-born right-hander. He does unfurl to give them a chance but usually after a good session or two, when the ball is soft and dispositions are sulky.

The one accusation over his career was a fallibility on his travels, yet he made a mockery of that with three hundreds in four Tests in a wonderful series victory over Australia last winter.

Henry Nicholls

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Due to the presence of Williamson and the minimal fanfare surrounding New Zealand, Henry Nicholls has ever-so-quietly established himself as one of the best batsmen around without establishing the reputation to go with it.

Even a player like Williamson needs an able deputy and with Ross Taylor’s powers wavering, Nicholls has proved an incredibly obdurate No5 batsman who can score at a decent rate of knots when the tail starts to appear.

The left-hander’s quite brilliant unbeaten 145 against England last year – it won’t surprise you to learn that the touring side made a combined first-innings 58 – swiftly followed by his next century alongside Williamson in Abu Dhabi against Pakistan, showed the mental fortitude required to shine when his country needs him the most.

Tier 4

Kusal Mendis

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The post-Sangakkara and Jayawardene era has predictably been an arduous one so far for Sri Lanka. Few of the next men up had been around long enough to benefit from the tail end of that historic duo’s careers.

Despite those arid conditions Mendis has blossomed. Having made his Test debut against the West Indies as a 20-year-old in 2015, rashness has been gradually displaced by a sturdier resolve against the red ball.

Mendis is a naturally aggressive shot-maker – he’s fired off 26 maximums in 40 Tests, so more often than not you’ll see him send one sailing over the rope – and it is that impulse which saw him thrash 176 against Australia in Pallekele three years ago. It may not have been Kusal Perera versus South Africa, but it’s certainly in the same tier of great Sri Lankan knocks.

The challenge now is to develop the consistency of the great men that came before him, which would certainly be no mean feat.

Azhar Ali

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His last Test saw him suffer the ignominy of a first-ball duck but with a new decade in sight, Azhar Ali should be judged on the CV he has compiled with Pakistan over the last 10 years.

Many of his most famous feats have come while opening, not least the unbeaten triple century against the West Indies in Dubai in 2016, but such is his adaptability that he ceded the role to the likes of Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq as Pakistan offered opportunities to the next generation.

Azhar, at 34, is still the here and now for the men in green. He announced his retirement from one-day internationals after criticism for his moderate strike-rate but Pakistan do not have enough players of his ilk, who can grind attacks to dust whatever the format.

The scorer of 15 centuries at an average of 43, he remains too much of a rarity for Pakistan to let his international career fade away to nothing.

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Ashes 2019: Jos Buttler's miserable form and other worrying signs for England ahead of fourth Test

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Jos Buttler has been dismal with the bat.

A Ben Stokes special at Headingley managed to salvage England’s hopes in the ongoing Ashes series against Australia, but there remains plenty of work to be done for the hosts if they are to reclaim the historic urn.

With the series level at 1-1, Joe Root and his men will feel that the momentum has decisively shifted in their favour ahead of the fourth Test, they will, however, be mindful of Steve Smith’s ominously impending return for the visitors.

Besides Smith’s return, England will also be concerned by the several holes which still exists in the squad and were papered over by Stokes’ brilliance in the third Test.

Here, we take a look at three worrying signs which still exist for England heading into the fourth Test at Old Trafford.

Fitness concerns for Woakes?

While England have much to feel optimistic about after Jofra Archer’s fiery Test introduction, the news of veteran pacer James Anderson being ruled out for the remainder of the series will come as a bitter blow.

Anderson’s continued absence since the first Test will only further put the spotlight on Chris Woakes, whose bowling output in the series has been peculiarly low. The seaming all-rounder has particularly been underused with the ball in the second innings of all three clashes leading to suggestions that he might be carrying a niggle.

At Edgbaston, he bowled just 13 out of the 112 overs in the second innings while part-time spinners Joe Root and Joe Denly threw down 12 and 14 overs respectively.

Meanwhile at Lord’s, he was bafflingly given just three overs to bowl despite having a bowling average of 9.75 at the venue before the start of the series. His batting returns have also diminished significantly but England will still have to think twice before giving him a rest at this stage with Anderson’s injury blow.

Woakes has been surprisingly underbowled.

Woakes has been surprisingly underbowled.

Roy’s red-ball travails

The biggest talking point from England’s 12-man squad for the Old Trafford Test is the fact that Jason Roy has been retained despite his dismal displays.

The limited-overs stalwart’s technique has been put through a baptism by fire in his maiden Ashes series with the right-hander able to muster only 57 runs in his six innings so far.

That he still continues to retain the faith of the team management screams more about England’s lack of options in the opening positions than his vulnerability to the moving ball. The hosts are reportedly considering moving Joe Denly to opener for the Manchester Test with Roy dropping down to No4 but what change in the fortunes, if any, that move brings remains to be seen.

At the moment, Roy is looking like a walking wicket and Australia’s pacers will be licking their lips at the prospect of bowling to him again.

It has been a tough start to Roy's (r) Test career.

It has been a tough start to Roy’s (r) Test career.

The Buttler dilemma

Roy’s miserable form along with Stokes’ brilliance has meant that Jos Buttler has escaped most of the spotlight despite the middle-order batsman currently undergoing a slump of his own.

Bar one decent outing of 31 with the bat in the second innings at Lord’s, the right-hander has done nothing of note in the Ashes and has become an increasing liability for the hosts.

Buttler’s five other innings in the series have aggregated just 24 runs with his excellence in 2018 in the Test format looking like a distant memory at the moment. England did have the option of bringing in young Ollie Pope for the fourth Test but the Surrey batsman has been ignored with selectors keeping their faith in Roy and Buttler for now.

The duo will need to repay that trust soon because it is only so long that Stokes can continue to bail out England from their batting mess.

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West Indies vs India: Jasprit Bumrah's hat-trick and Hanuma Vihari's maiden ton inspires visitors

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Bumrah writes himself into the record books.

It turned out to be quite the eventful day two in the second and final Test between West Indies and India at Jamaica with the visitors seizing complete control.

The day started with India extending their first-innings total to a daunting 416 before their bowlers reduced the hosts to 87-7 before stumps were drawn at Sabina Park.

With the visitors already leading the two-match series by 1-0, the writing seems to be on the wall for West Indies who now have a mammoth task on their hands to avert another clean sweep.

At the end of a remarkable day two at Jamaica, we take a look at the key talking points.

Vihari impresses with maiden ton

India’s day with the bat got off to a poor start with Rishabh Pant falling on the very first delivery but the visitors’ innings was kept afloat by Hanuma Vihari.

The middle-order batsman was a resolute figure at the crease and he found an unlikely ally in the form of Ishant Sharma who registered his maiden Test fifty. Together, the pair added 112 runs between them for the eighth wicket with Vihari going on to notch his maiden Test ton.

The Kakinada right-hander missed out on a well-deserved century in the first Test at Antigua when he was dismissed for 93 but he would not be denied this time around with another well constructed innings.

The significance of Vihari’s efforts were not lost on his team-mates with Kohli leading the Indian dressing room in their appreciation of his magnificent ton.

A deserved maiden Test ton for Vihari.

A deserved maiden Test ton for Vihari.

Holder brings up his own century

While there wasn’t much to shout home about for the West Indies on day two, their skipper Jason Holder could not be faulted for his tireless efforts with the all-rounder bringing up a century of Test wickets.

Holder had bowled excellently on the first day to grab three wickets and he claimed two more on Saturday including Vihari’s to bring up 100 Test dismissals. It also means that Holder has now picked up three consecutive five-wicket hauls at Sabina Park after he claimed 11 wickets against Bangladesh in his previous Test appearance at the venue.

The Barbados man bowled a mammoth 32 overs in India’s first innings and he once again led from the front while the rest around him floundered. Since the turn of 2018, he has claimed 47 wickets in just 10 Tests at a bowling average of less than 15. He has also scored 612 runs with the bat at an average greater than 47 in the same period.

Holder's brilliance shone despite West Indies' woes.

Holder’s brilliance shone despite West Indies’ woes.

Bumrah becomes third Indian to claim Test hat-trick

India’s day went from good to excellent with Jasprit Bumrah turning on the heat with the ball on Windies once again.

The pacer claimed sensational figures of 5-7 in the second innings at Antigua and he turned in another devastating display at Sabina Park that also saw him become the third Indian bowler to claim a hat-trick in the Test format.

Six of the seven Windies wickets to fall were clinched by Bumrah and it took the India pacer just nine overs to weave his wave of destruction.

The 25-year-old wrote himself into the record books when he dismissed Darren Bravo, Shamarh Brooks and Roston Chase off successive deliveries with the final wicket of the three coming after Kohli opted to take a DRS review to a turned down lbw appeal.

It continues an extraordinary rise in the Test format for Bumrah who has already become the first Asian bowler in the history to claim five-wicket hauls in England, South Africa, Australia and the West Indies.

The plaudits and accolades continue to pour in for the India star with Windies bowling great Ian Bishop labelling him a ‘once in a lifetime talent’ after that stellar display.

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