As the northern hemisphere winter tours draw to a close, one of the stories of the winter in the longest form has been Joe Root’s return to genuinely world-class form with the bat. Top scoring in both the Sri Lankan and Indian series’, his return of 794 runs at an average of 61.17 across all six Tests has reignited the argument of who is the best of the best when it comes to Test batsmen of the current era?
For the past five or six years, the general consensus was that there were four men who were in the highest echelon of red-ball batsmanship: Root, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli. The quartet were the most consistent run-scorers all around the world, and the debate often had amongst cricket fans was who was the doyen of this elite foursome.
However, the Englishman’s form had waned over the previous 18 months or so with only one century since early 2019, whilst there has often been the accusation that he fails to convert promising starts of 50+ into match-winning centuries. These prompted questions from some as to whether he was still deserving of mention alongside the unwavering reliability of the three other superstars. These doubts were then allayed over the course of this sub-continental tour, though, as Root confirmed he is well and truly one of the world’s best – out scoring Kohli (172 runs) by almost 200 runs across the India-England series with his total of 368, no less.
Here, we will take a deep dive into the statistics of all four players, analysing, comparing and contrasting their records to produce a comprehensive cricket analysis on their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Before we begin to examine the minutiae of their statistical records, we’ll look at the more readily discussed and traditional figures used when quantifying and comparing players’ abilities such as average, strike-rate, number of 50s and 100s and so on. The below dashboard provides all such information and more.
The first particular used as a measure of any player’s skill is their average – seen in the top left-hand graph above, plotted against the player’s strike-rate – and when analysing the four here it is Smith who is by far-and-away the stand-out. His average of 61.8 is eight runs higher than Williamson in second, although he scores at a quicker rate then the New Zealander, of 55.11 runs per 100 balls faced compared to 52.12. The Australian’s rapacious appetite for batting is well known, and his average is the second-highest of anybody to ever play the game having scored over 2000 runs – behind only the great Don Bradman – and so even being mentioned in the same breath as him in this regard is still an accolade. Smith’s scoring speed is marginally bigger than Root’s 54.95, although Kohli is the fastest scorer at his rate of 57.12.
Moving on, as already mentioned, Root’s detractors often point to the fact that his conversion rate of 50s to 100 is poor, and well below what a player of his calibre should be producing. As can be seen in the top right-hand graph above, his number of half-centuries – 49 – is 17 higher than Williamson in second. However, with 20 three-figure scores to his name, he is well behind his Kiwi opponent’s 24 in this regard, and even further adrift of the 27 collected by Smith and Kohli. Looking at this in terms of actual conversion rate, Root’s conversion rate of 28.99% is not comparable to Kohli (55.1%) – the only one of the four to have more centuries than 50s – Smith (46.55%) and Williamson (42.86%).
How do they fare against each major Test nation?
Such is the nature of cricket nowadays, fixture congestion of the cricketing calendar is an issue that does not look to be going away. The relentless nature of current scheduling sees the world’s best pitted against each other in various formats for various teams almost constantly, and so as soon as technical flaws are highlighted in a player they are soon picked up and preyed upon. Much of the battle for players is finding ways to evolve and improve their game so as to negate their shortcomings against the regular opponents they face, with the best in the world being able to get the better of their top-class adversaries time and time again. The below dashboards present their records against each major Test nation.
Without analysing the specifics of each graph, there are various key takeaways that we will analyse in this section. The first notable conclusion is that against Australia, none of the three (Smith is obviously excluded from this category) average over 50, the only instance of this within this dataset, and there is also the lowest mean average (43.16) – the average of the star foursome’s respective averages – of against any country. Australia’s bowling attack has been fearsome for a number of years now – as we have previously analysed here – and this fact speaks volumes for their efficiency and potency given that they have been able to tie down the world’s best to the slimmest average.
At the other end of this spectrum, the country against whom they have enjoyed the most success is the West Indies, with a mean average of 81.11. The heavy lifting here is done by Smith, who boasts a whopping average of 165.11 from his seven innings’ against the team from the Caribbean. However, it is worth noting that this sample size is much smaller than his peers, with Root (average of 54.88) and Kohli (43.26) having had 19 knocks against them, with Williamson (60.62) only a couple behind with 17. It is therefore no surprise that this is also where the greatest spread of the data lies, the difference of 122.4 between Smith and Kohli being the largest range against any nation.
The country for which there is the closest consistent form between the group is Pakistan, with a range of 5.22, although Kohli is excluded from this given the current hiatus in Tests between the two countries due to ongoing political tensions. Although the mean average against Pakistan is just the fourth largest of all countries, all three batsmen have an average in excess of 50 – the only occasions this occurs against any country.
Home or away?
Seemingly as time has gone on the harder it has become to win a series away from home. Home advantage is now arguably the biggest factor in a side’s chances of success in a series, with any overseas win now rightly lauded for being an extremely well-earned, and indeed rare, triumph. The best players are those that have proven their worth all over the globe, able to cope with the swinging and seaming ball at Lord’s just as well as the spitting pitch of Mumbai and the bouncy track of the Gabba. So, how do our fab four fare at home and away?
The player who is best at exploiting favourable conditions is Smith, whose home average of 67.72 is the highest of the four. Williamson (65.31) and Kohli (64.31) are not too far behind the 31-year-old, although the same cannot be said for Root – his average of 50.55 is significantly behind the rest of the group. Looking at overseas averages, Smith again leads the way with an exceptional mean score of 60.15 – the only one of the quartet to have a figure in excess of 50 – whilst Root finds himself in second place with his score of 47.4.
In order to quantify a player’s ability at home and away, for the purposes of comparison we have devised what we are calling an ‘overall average’ – calculated by adding a player’s average at home to their average away and then subtracting the difference between both scores away from the overall sum. This then suitably rewards a player who produces consistently high scores in both locations and punishes those who may have significant favouritism of batting at home and then struggles in foreign climates. The respective players’ overall averages can be seen below.
Unsurprisingly, Smith reigns supreme here – boosted by a difference of just 7.57 between his home and away averages – meaning he is the only player within the group to possess a three-figure overall average. However, although Root is last when just combining both scores, as seen in the ‘Sum of averages’ table above, he moves up to second for his overall average, as Messrs Kohli and Williamson and hindered by their disparity of 20.08 and 22.78 respectively.
Can they handle leadership?
As is often the case in junior or school cricket, the best player will frequently be the player to captain the side, purely by virtue of their supreme skill in comparison to their peers, and this is a trait that is regularly mirrored at the highest level – and particularly in Test cricket. With bowlers rarely handed the task of leading the side, commonly a team’s best batsman is the individual asked to captain the group – as has, ultimately, proved to be the case with our star-studded group here, although as a result of the infamous ‘Sandpapergate’, Smith has since been stripped of this elevated position. The various extra tasks and pressures of captaincy can usually be taken in two ways by a player: they either rise to the challenge, strut that bit more and relish leading their country; or they diminish under the responsibility, too heavily weighed down and burdened by the stresses and strains of the top job. Which of these is relevant for this quad, though?
Put simply, all bar Root have raised their game when being the skipper. The 30-year-old is the only one to see his average drop when leading the side, his figure of 45.71 the only one that is below 50 – the nearest to him in this regard is Kohli with 58.6 – with their two antipodean adversaries both averaging over 60, Williamson at 62.81 and Smith at a huge 70.36. Root also occupies the crease for a shorter amount of time than his contemporaries, moving from 96 balls per dismissal when not captain to 83.26 when leading his team.
When looking at the scoring speeds of all four, they do all possess a higher strike rate when captaining – albeit Root only marginally, with an increase from 54.89 to 55.00 – although only Williamson and Kohli have a lower balls-per-boundary when captaining with their respective figures of 14.97 and 14.90.
Do they favour a particular bowling type?
As already mentioned, home dominance is huge in present-day Test cricket, with the majority of batsmen favouring facing the type of bowling they grew up and honed their technique against. Looking specifically at our fabulous four, one would expect Kohli to stand out against spin, giving his development on the sharp turning Indian pitches, whilst, following this train of thought, Smith would excel against pace given his growing up on the fast pitches of his homeland. Does this ring true, though?
In a word: yes. Kohli’s average of 60.85 against spin is the only one to be above 50, with Williamson’s 48.58 the closest he comes to being challenged here. However, the Indian maestro drops to last when it comes to facing quick bowling with his average of 39.66. Similarly, Smith’s exceptional record with the ball coming onto the bat is highlighted thanks to his average of 52.08 against pace. In the middle are Root and Williamson, who, having grown up in similar climates where there is not a necessity for out-and-out pace or vicious spin, sit away from the extremes of Kohli and Smith and thus have a middling average against both bowling forms. As done before, the sum and overall averages of the four players against pace and spin can be seen below.
Kohli’s huge preference for spin over pace sees him move from the top of the sum averages to the bottom of the overall average, hindered by his clear leaning towards facing spin. Taking into account the difference between pace and spin, Smith sits top with a score of 94, with Williamson and Root in the 80s and Kohi just outside with 79.32.
Honing in more specifically onto right- and left-arm bowlers of each type, as seen above, gives a clearer indication of the strengths and weaknesses of each player. Smith’s love for the ball coming onto the bat is there to see, averaging over 50 against both right- and left-arm pace. Root is the only other player to average over 50 against either form, although his figure of 51.56 against left-arm pace is significantly larger than his average of 39.17 against right-arm quicks.
Moving onto their records against spin, Kohli takes on the role of torch-bearer thanks to his exceptional averages of 58.92 and 69.7 against right- and left-arm spin respectively. Although Smith boasts the second-best form against right-arm spinners, he falls to last when looking at how he has fared against left-arm slow bowlers by virtue of a sub-40 average (39.22).
Can they adapt to the match situation?
The best players are the ones who can score runs not just when things are in their favour, but when their backs are to the wall and the fight is on. With the toss being such a huge part of the advantage a side can get in a Test, how do these four modern-day giants cope when they have to bat at a less favourable time in a game?
Smith’s historical performances when winning the toss are nothing short of sublime, averaging 72.53 from a mean innings length of 128.3 balls. He is the man, though, who sees the biggest difference between winning and losing the toss as his average drops to 50.33. This dip is more due to his outstanding initial score as opposed to having a poor record when losing the toss, though. Root is the other to see a decline in performance levels having lost the toss, his average moving from 51.51 to 46.21. Kohli and Williamson show the opposite trend, though – both of their averages increase when losing the toss compared to when winning it.
Another similar comparison method to measure such ability is by analysing the players’ respective records in the different innings’ of a match – firstly the first or second batting innings, and then the individual innings’ of the match as a whole.
Starting with the batting innings’, it is still the Australian who has the biggest discrepancy between his achievements, but again this is thanks to such incredible accomplishments when batting first. His average here is a whopping 76.66, but this falls to 42.45 in the second innings.
Such is the magnitude of getting big fourth-innings runs, none of the quartet average in excess of 50, with Williamson the stand-out with his figure of 48, whilst the other three all sit in the low 40s. The sum and overall averages for first and second innings runs can be seen below.
Williamson’s leading second-innings form allows him to top the overall averages for this section, with his average sum dropping by only ten to finish on 96. Smith is just able to hang onto second spot with an overall average of 84.9, although Root and Kohli are snapping at his heels with 82.84 and 81.38 respectively.
It is that man Smith who possesses the largest mean score first up, averaging a colossal 87.26 when setting the tone in a Test. His three rivals are nowhere near this – not that that is a disgrace by any means – with the remaining triumvirate all averaging around 50: Williamson with 47.07, Root with 49.44 and Kohli with 52.1. This trend is reversed, though, when analysing their records in the second innings. Smith now has the ‘worst’ score – although still a ridiculous figure by the standards of any mere mortal – at 61.14, with Root next with 64.35. Finally, Kohli, with 69.94 is just behind Williamson’s 70.78.
Looking at the third innings, Smith regains his top spot thanks to an average of 49, although both Williamson (47.56) and Root (45.76) are not too far away from the Australian. However, Kohli is fourth by some distance, averaging just 35.43 here. The last laugh very much is the Indian’s though, his fourth innings average of 50.94 marginally ahead of Williamson’s 49.14, but dwarfing Root’s 32.92 and Smith’s 30.73.
There can be no doubting the supreme quality of all four batsmen, nor the fact that they are the stand-out talents of their generation. However, despite his recent resurgence, Root still remains slightly behind the top three when it comes to the key trait every sportsman yearns for – consistency. His record does not quite match up as favourably to his contemporaries as he would like, and he will clearly be looking to close the gap over the coming years whilst he remains at the top of his game. On the whole, this fabulous four have dominated the international game with the bat for a number of years now, and no matter where your allegiances lie, it is an absolute pleasure to watch four masters go about their craft.