An article published on The Roar about Sri Lankan master Kumar Sangakkara provoked some healthy debate about his qualities. And one innings that was cited several times by his proponents was his magnificent 192 in Hobart in 2007.
It got me thinking, what have been some of the best innings played in Australia by visiting batsmen in recent times?
What follows is a sample of some of my personal favourites – I’ve picked a mid-1995 as the cutoff, which is the point where Australia took over the Frank Worrell trophy from the West Indies and announced themselves as the reigning world champions for most of the next 15 years.
It covers the point when Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath were established members of the side and frequently operated in tandem, which was one of the main reasons batting here was so difficult during this period.
I’ve gone for innings based on degree of difficulty, adversity, quality of bowling attack, match situation – all highly personal variables I’ll grant you, and feel free to tell me why I’m wrong or what I’ve missed in the comments.
Runs alone don’t necessarily make the cut – I don’t rate many of the English innings in 2010-11 for that reason, because the Australian bowling attack was rubbish, and the team was a basket case. Sorry Kevin Pietersen – bashing Xavier Doherty and an overweight Doug Bollinger around the park for 226 doesn’t cut it. Each to their own though.
I’ve listed the innings, match result and the main bowlers used by Australia in the innings, just to give a bit of context as well.
VVS Laxman – 167 from 198 deliveries, Sydney, 2000
Australia won by an innings and 141 runs.
Bowlers: Warne, McGrath, Damien Fleming, Brett Lee.
Laxman saved up his best innings for matches against Australia, and he first announced himself with this superlative effort in a losing cause. With India behind by 402 runs at the start of their second innings and losing Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar for four runs between them shortly thereafter, the game looked like dwindling to an embarrassing annihilation.
But the man they would call ‘Very Very Special’ played a remarkable knock, cutting and driving with elegance and precision. His 167 out of a team total of 261 came close to unseating Charles Bannerman’s record of percentage of team total, and it would be far from the last time that the Australian bowlers would be creasing their brows in frustration when bowling to this man.
Graeme Smith – 108 from 147 deliveries, Perth 2008
South Africa won by five wickets.
Bowlers: Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Jason Krejza.
There have been bigger knocks that didn’t make the list, but I’ve chosen this one because of how significant it was. Set 414 to win, a world record at the time, and given Mitchell Johnson had just taken 8-61 in their first innings, not many people gave South Africa a chance.
But skipper Graeme Smith, after years of frustration against Australia, was determined to upset the narrative. Coming off some brilliant form against England in the summer – his 154* to win the game at Edgbaston was one of the greatest innings of all time – he shrugged off his recent tennis elbow complaints to play a real captain’s knock and set his side well on the way towards victory.
When he departed with the score at 172 after only 50 overs, South Africa were well and truly in the hunt, and half centuries from Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, JP Duminy and an excellent hundred from AB De Villiers sealed a memorable victory.
No-one celebrated harder than Smith when the winning runs were hit either. A thoroughly deserved victory and fitting recompense for Smith for his years of captaincy and struggles against a dominant Australian side. This victory made possible the subsequent Melbourne triumph.
Michael Vaughan – 183 from 278 deliveries, Sydney, 2003
England won by 225 runs.
Bowlers: Jason Gillespie, Lee, Andy Bichel, Stuart MacGill.
Vaughan was about the only good thing in an otherwise awful tour for England in the summer of 2002-03 – he won man of the series for his lone hand with the bat, and this was probably the best of his hundreds.
Coming into bat with the scores basically level at the start of the third innings, and having just seen Steve Waugh bring up a memorable ton at the end of the previous day, he drove imperiously against all the Australian bowlers, particularly Jason Gillespie – foreshadowing the pasting he’d cop in the 2005 Ashes when Vaughan romped to 166.
By the time Vaughan finally went, lbw to Andy Bichel, England were 350 runs ahead and the game was only ever going to have one ending.
Brian Lara – 226 from 298 deliveries, Adelaide, 2005
Australia won by seven wickets.
Bowlers: Warne, McGrath, MacGill, Lee, Andrew Symonds.
One of three masterpieces from Lara to feature in this list – and if the cutoff went a bit further back, his best knock of all, a chanceless 277 in Sydney in 1992, would have featured as well. Against Australia’s very best bowling attack, and already down 2-0 in the series courtesy of some thumping defeats, he shrugged off recent bad form when coming to the crease at 2-19, and survived a tricky spell to the lunch interval.
The afternoon saw an innings everyone there described as vintage Lara – powerful drives, cuts and pulls, along with chanceless footwork to the spinners. The new ball didn’t do much except come off the bat even faster, with Lara bringing up his double with a savage pull for four off Brett Lee. He finished on 226, with the next highest score being 34, with the West Indies’ first innings mustering 405. A masterful individual effort and a firm contender for the best knock of all.
JP Duminy – 166 from 340 deliveries, Melbourne, 2008
South Africa won by nine wickets.
Bowlers: Lee, Siddle, Johnson, Nathan Hauritz.
You could argue that the bowling attack was a little weak, given Brett Lee limped off after bowling 13 overs, but the fact remains that playing in only his second Test match, and with his side at 7-184, Duminy played one of the best knocks seen by a visiting batsman, particularly given the circumstances, and the long history of South Africa stumbling while holding the upper hand over Australia.
Supported first by Paul Harris, then by Dale Steyn, he pulled South Africa’s fat out of the fire, and turned what looked like being a 150-run deficit into a 100-run lead. In the process they added 180 runs for the ninth wicket, and he played a massive part in ensuring South Africa celebrated their first ever series win in Australia, and the first by any side in Australia in 16 years.
Brian Lara – 182 from 235 deliveries, Adelaide, 2000
Australia won by five wickets.
Bowlers: McGrath, Gillespie, Colin Miller, MacGill.
The second masterpiece from Lara – he hadn’t had the greatest series to this point, suffering the indignity the previous game of being part of a Glenn McGrath hat-trick, not to mention his 300th Test wicket as well. The 21 runs from four innings so far didn’t prepare anyone for what was coming, as he piled into McGrath and MacGill in particular.
One of Lara’s most dangerous traits was an ability to hit consecutive boundaries and he indulged freely, hitting both McGrath and Gillespie for a hat-trick of boundaries, and MacGill copped plenty of punishment as well. In an all too familiar story of the West Indies of this era though, he received very little support from the remaining batsmen, and Australia proceeded to wrap up the game, and would later go on to win the series 5-0.
Kumar Sangakkara – 192 from 282 deliveries, Hobart, 2007
Australia won by 96 runs.
Bowlers: Lee, Johnson, Stuart Clark, MacGill
One of the great ‘might have been’ knocks, courtesy of a horrible umpiring blunder from Rudi Koertzen. Chasing 507 runs for victory in the fourth innings, Sangakkara stood head and shoulders above his compatriots as an unlikely ninth wicket stand with Lasith Malinga added 74 runs and started to crease a few of the Australian brows.
With the field up in search of wickets, he routinely deployed the lofted drive to go over the top, Mitchell Johnson suffering the indignity of being slogged over cover for six. The Aussies didn’t even look like getting him out until a bouncer from Stuart Clark struck Sanga’s shoulder and he was triggered for 192, which allowed Australia to wrap up the victory.
Coming in the fourth innings of the match, this was one of the best and most defiant innings played by a visiting batsman.
Faf du Plessis – 110* from 376 deliveries, Adelaide, 2012
Bowlers: Ben Hilfenhaus, Siddle, Nathan Lyon.
Similar to Duminy’s knock, in that Australia found themselves a bowler down after James Pattinson predictably broke down during the game, but certainly the best rearguard knock to save a game since Mark Greatbatch defied the Aussies back in 1989.
Facing an immense deficit and with 148 overs to survive, Du Plessis announced himself as a man with immense mental resolve as he, along with AB de Villiers, ground the Aussie bowlers into the Adelaide dirt. Although criticised for their stonewalling, the significance of it would become readily apparent next Test as a reinvigorated Dale Steyn tore the Australian batting apart in Perth, while Amla and De Villiers humbled the Australian bowling to win the series.
More importantly, Du Plessis broke the Australian hearts, knowing that their very best efforts hadn’t been good enough for a win, and paved the way for South Africa to finish on top.
Rahul Dravid – 233 from 446 deliveries and 72* from 170, Adelaide, 2003
India won by four wickets. Bowlers: Gillespie, Williams, Bichel, MacGill.
This is kind of cheating, because it’s actually two innings – but given they came in the same Test, I’m lumping them in together. Even if the conditions were favourable and the bowling attack far from optimal, Dravid batted like god, according to skipper Sourav Ganguly, and on the face of the match, it’s hard to disagree with him.
In the first innings Dravid joined with his Kolkata partner Laxman (who made a handy 148 himself) and ground out Aussie hopes of a win, and then in the fourth innings when India were chasing – coincidentally – 233 to win, he stood alone as wickets tumbled around him, presenting the straightest of bats and extinguishing any Australian hopes of a victory.
In terms of an individual batting effort during a match and the impact it had on the result, it is difficult to think of any finer match performance by a visiting batsman in Australia, not just in the modern era, but ever.
Brian Lara – 132 from 183 deliveries, Perth, 1997
West Indies won by 10 wickets.
Bowlers: McGrath, Bichel, Paul Reiffel, Warne.
The third masterpiece, although the first chronologically. However, I’ve saved it for last, because it was the one where Lara finished on the winning side. Played on a horrible pitch at Perth, with vast yawning cracks already apparent by Day 2, Lara came in at 2-43, with the mercury well past 40 degrees, and in the words of Wisden he “made a century such as only he can make”.
For him, the cracks closed up and the bounce evened out, or so it seemed. His innings grew like a symphony, two hours for the first fifty, just over an hour for the second, and then a crescendo as he hit Warne for 26 in 14 balls.
His innings, played in some of the most adverse conditions imaginable, was the difference between the two sides – by the time Australia came to bat again, the cracks made Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop and Courtney Walsh virtually unplayable.
The image of Greg Blewett, forlornly bowled for a golden duck by an Ambrose grubber, remains a defining scene from the game, as the West Indies quicks destroyed the Aussie batting inside 50 overs to all but win the game, a win made possible by yet another episode of brilliance by Lara.
Well, they are my 10 picks. Honorable mentions to Sachin’s 241* and Sehwag’s 195. As well as a host of innings by all those England centurions in 2010-11 against our motley bunch of pie chuckers.