Since the last five years or so, the ‘Fab Four’ of Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root have topped nearly every batting chart in the sport.
The manner in which they have been able to translate their brilliance across various formats is what separates them into an elite category occupied by very few batsmen in history.
While the debate rages on over who is the best all-format batsman of the four, there is no denying that Smith has simply been a class apart in Tests. The Australian’s No1 ICC ranking and a staggering batting average of 62.84 are enough indicators of his Test supremacy over the other Fab Four counterparts.
For a man who initially came into Australia as a bowling all-rounder, Smith’s transformation into a run-scoring machine has been astounding in every way.
However, there is much more to Smith’s sublime genius in the five-day format apart from just batting averages and rankings. Below, we examine the Aussie’s numbers closely and explain why he is head and shoulders above his rivals.
A good parameter of a batsman’s credentials is how well he performs away from home. In this department, Smith is a sheer force. Even at home, his average of 71.4 towers over the others, bar Kohli, who is a close second with an average of 68.42. Root and Williamson, meanwhile, average 51.55 and 58.31 at home respectively.
When it comes to overseas performances, Smith blows away the competition with a staggering average of 57.10 after 74 innings. That 13 of his 26 Test tons have come away from home just goes on to reinforce his overseas superiority. Kohli’s overseas average drops down drastically to 44.36, although he does have 14 tons away from home.
Root and Williamson fare marginally better than Kohli, with away averages of 45.13 and 45.58 respectively.
Smith clearly loves batting in England in particular, with six of his away tons coming at the home of Australia’s historic foes.
Big highs, small lows
It was in 2013 when Smith’s batting chops came to the fore with an excellent individual Ashes series in England. Since the turn of 2014, he has averaged more than 70 in every calendar year bar one. 2018 was the only exception when Smith was slapped with a one-year suspension for his role in the Newlands ball-tampering fiasco.
Since Australia’s tour of England for the 2013-14 Ashes series, Smith has averaged at least 40 in every bilateral Test series bar three. This incredible consistency has been maintained over a sequence of 19 bilateral series. The lowest he has averaged in a series in this period was 20 against Pakistan last year, after batting for just two innings.
Simply put, the man rarely has any poor displays. He averaged 214 in a home series against West Indies in 2015, and has averaged more than 100 in the two most recent Ashes series against England.
In contrast, there have been two series where Kohli has averaged in single digits while he also had a horrendous 2014 tour of England where he averaged a paltry 13.40.
Williamson has endured a torrid time of late as well, with two poor series performances against Sri Lanka and Australia. He averaged less than 15 on both occasions. Root fares better than Kohli and Williamson in this regard, with his 2013 tour of New Zealand being the only time his average has dipped below 20 in a series.
Raising game with captaincy
All four batsmen have been tasked with captaincy as well, although Smith has been stripped of that position post the ball-tampering scandal. However, it will not be a surprise to see Smith reinstated with the Australia captaincy once Tim Paine hangs up his boots.
Australia would do well to give Smith the job once again, especially considered his performances while donning the captaincy hat.
With the exception of Root, each of the Fab Four have raised their individual levels as captain. None though, have done it as well as Smith who averages a colossal 70.36 in 34 Tests as Australia skipper.
Kohli does extremely well too, with a captaincy average of 61.21 compared to his average of 41.13 otherwise. Williamson averages 49.20 without captaincy, which rises to 54.20 as skipper.
For Root, however, it is a different story altogether. The right-hander was averaging 52.80 before being handed the captaincy, and it has dropped down to 42.92 ever since.
Century conversion rate
This is a benchmark where Kohli does better than most, with the India man converting 27 out of his 49 fifties into centuries. Smith is not far behind, with the Aussie breaching triple figures 26 times on the 55 instances he has gone past 50.
Williamson is a decent converter, although he is not as good as Kohli and Smith. The Kiwi skipper has managed to register 21 tons in 53 innings where he has breached the 50-run mark.
Root, however, is leagues behind when it comes to conversion of centuries. The England ace goes past 50 more often than the other three batsmen, but he really struggles to make it big.
While he has gone past 50 as many as 65 times, Root has only managed to convert 18 of them into hundreds. The England skipper definitely doesn’t lack in consistency, though he lets himself down severely when it comes to walking the extra mile.
A man for all conditions
The hallmark of a great batsman is the ability to perform in various types of conditions and this is another area where Smith excels. The only blot on the Aussie’s resume is his average of 29.75 in Bangladesh. Given that he has undertaken just one tour of Bangladesh in which he batted four times, the sample size is too small to make a judgement of his credentials in those conditions.
India and England are teams with formidable home records and the fact that Smith has managed to average nearly 60 in both countries is commendable. His track record in these countries proves that he is comfortable in seam and spin friendly conditions. One can even argue that his match-winning 108 on a rank turner of a Pune pitch in 2017 is the best Test innings of his career.
He averages more than 100 in both New Zealand and the West Indies, while averaging near 41 in Sri Lanka and South Africa.
Kohli, on the other hand, does not have the best of records in England, New Zealand and the West Indies. His average in each of these countries is approximately 36, and it pales in comparison to what Smith has achieved.
Williamson, meanwhile, averages only 30.88 in England and has really struggled on tours of South Africa (21.17) and Sri Lanka (26.71). It is Root who is closest to Smith in this department, with the Englishman averaging more than 50 in India, South Africa and the West Indies. However, his middling average of approximately 38 in Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka slightly blemishes his credentials.
Contributions towards victory
4,455 of Smith’s 7,227 Test runs have come in victories for Australia. A lion’s share of his Test tons (18 out of 26) have been registered in winning causes as well. His average of 81 in 39 victories is the most by any batsman of the Fab Four. In fact, it is the highest by any batsman in the last decade, with only Quinton de Kock’s 75.87 in South African wind coming close.
What these numbers suggest is that when Smith plays well, Australia end up on the right side of the result more often than not. Only twice have Australia tasted losses when Smith has breached triple figures.
In contrast, only half (13) of Kohli’s Test tons have resulted in India victories while seven of them have come in losses. The Indian skipper has been involved in more Test wins (44) than Smith, though his tally of 3,872 runs and an average of 60.50 is far behind the Australian.
Williamson is more instrumental in New Zealand victories than Kohli and Root, with a tally of 3,354 runs at an average of 71.36. Root averages 61.62 in England wins comparatively, with 3,919 runs to his credit.
While Williamson, Kohli and Root are clearly making sizeable contributions in victories for their respective teams, none of them can match the impact Smith is having for Australia.
One aspect that is not reflected in statistics is the mental fortitude required to succeed at the highest level of the sport. While there is no way of measuring the mental strength of a batsman, Smith’s triumphant return to Test cricket from a one-year suspension tells it own story. Despite being booed massively by a partisan English crowd every time he walked out to bat, Smith shut down his detractors with a sensational individual display in the Ashes.
To score 774 runs in seven innings in enemy territory, after being out of the game for more than a year, is right up there with the best comeback tales in the history of cricket. His huge appetite for runs remains undiminished and has only been bolstered in the interim. Smith has himself confessed to being obsessed about his batting in a manner which borders on unhealthy levels.
However, this insatiable drive and hunger to constantly improve is what separates the elite sportsmen from the rest. It is this same trait which led to his transformation into the world’s best batsman when many had questioned his Australia selection.