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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