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Smith, Kohli, Root or Williamson: Who is the best Test batsman?

Nick Kelland Roar Guru

By Nick Kelland, Nick Kelland is a Roar Guru

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67 Have your say

    In any cricket team, from the Australian national side, to the Lindfield U/8 Cs, the best batsman has to be your captain.

    They are the rock of the side. The person the batting order can be built around, and that individual who, when they walk to the crease, makes all around them breathe a calm sigh of relief.

    Currently the four best Test batsmen in the world happen to be the four captains of their respective national outfits. Steve Smith (Australia), Joe Root (England), Virat Kohli (India) and Kane Williamson (New Zealand)

    The fact of the matter is, these four names have dominated batting charts, and indeed conversation, in world cricket for the past two or three years. So dominant have they been in fact, that if you quickly searched the ICC batting rankings, they take up 80 per cent of the top five positions; the only anomaly being Indian captain Virat Kohli who just sits fifth after a shocking Test series against Australia.

    After Joe Root’s sparkling 190 against a fired up Proteas attack last week, his first Test as England’s Test captain, we can now try and go some way to settling the debate that has dominated armchairs worldwide for far too long. Who is the best of this awesome foursome?

    England's batsman Joe Root holds his head as he walks back to pavilion

    (AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)

    I was terrible at maths at school, but I figure this question can’t be answered, nor will my assertions be taken seriously, without a solid foundation of evidence; some numbers and quantifiable data to support the statements that follow.

    With that in mind, I burrowed away in my bedroom last night, and formulated this table of what I felt were the key statistics and measures of each individuals influence, both on their team, and the run-scoring table. Of course, this is not completely holistic, and I’d be interested to hear other opinions on what should and shouldn’t be taken into account when trying to answer this question.

    ICC Ranking Hundred percentage Conversion rate Average in second innings winning and losing causes Average Average away from home Total score
    J Root 848 (3) 12% (4) 31% (4) 39.19 (4) 53.80 (2) 52.70 (2) 19 (4)
    S Smith 941 (1) 20% (1) 50% (2) 39.95 (3) 61.05 (1) 70.22 (1) 9 (1)
    V Kohli 818 (4) 16.5% (2) 53% (1) 44.27 (2) 49.41 (4) 43.41 (4) 17 (3)
    K Williamson 880 (2) 15.5% (3) 40% (3) 55.50 (1) 51.16 (3) 51.99 (3) 15 (2)

    Key: 1 = First in category, 4 = Fourth in category

    So… Let’s unpack this table and make sense of what it all means.

    ICC ranking
    The ICC Test ranking works by allocating an overall, ever changing ‘score’ out of 1000 to every single batsmen who has ever completed an innings in a Test match. Therefore, it is a useful indicator of current form.

    It is a complicated, but completely objective, algorithm that combines a number of far-reaching factors; from runs scored, to whether or not they finished not out. It also assesses the quality of the bowling attack the batsman is facing, and whether or not their team won the match.

    As it currently stands, Steve Smith sits comfortably clear at the top of the pile on 941 points. To contextualise the significance of this figure, only four batsmen in the history of the game have sat on a higher total.

    You may have heard of them – Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Len Hutton, Sir Jack Hobbs and Ricky Ponting. Hobbs and Ponting’s highest scores were 942, one ahead of Smith. It is entirely feasible that come Australia’s next Test series against Bangladesh (assuming it goes ahead), that Smith could move up to third on that all time list.

    The battle for the podium spots are a tighter tussle. Currently, the Black Caps skipper, Williamson, sits second on 880 points, while Root breathes down his neck on 848. Kohli sits fifth, largely owing to his horror series against Australia where he averaged under ten before sitting out the fourth and deciding Test with injury.

    Winner: Steve Smith

    Hundred percentage
    This statistic merely took the number of hundreds scored by each batsmen as a percentage of the number of innings they’ve played in Test cricket. Again, the Australian captain came up trumps, scoring a century once every five times he walks to the crease.

    Take into account he began his career as a tail-order leg spinner who didn’t register his first Test hundred until his 23rd Test innings; and this statistic is even more significant.

    Kohli just edges Williamson into second position, his 16.5 per cent hundred rate being one of the best in Test cricket. He registered his first hundred against Australia in his twelfth test innings.

    Williamson is the evergreen centurion of the group, scoring his first ton in his first Test; against India in India. His most recent test innings? A flawless 176 against a very strong South African bowling outfit. His 15.5 per cent century percentage is outstanding. Root sits some way behind his compatriots in this category, but still pulling his weight with a score of 12 per cent.

    Winner: Steve Smith

    Conversion rate
    This statistic is vital in measuring who of these batsmen, if they get to 50 will go on to make a hundred. You’ll want to nab Indian skipper Virat Kohli early in his innings, as he converts his starts 53 per cent of the time.

    Smith comes in second, converting fifties into hundreds exactly 50 per cent of the time he makes it to that first milestone; while Williamson and Root are some way back, on 40, and 31 per cent, respectively.

    Winner: Virat Kohli

    Average in second innings
    It is fantastic to score big hundreds in the first innings of Test matches to set your side up for the inevitable fourth and fifth day push for victory. However, arguably more important is a batsman’s ability to grind out totals in their teams second innings. Be it chasing down mammoth scores, or defending resolutely for a handful of sessions to force a draw – it is a vital statistic in the context of this debate.

    Williamson was our clear winner here. His 55.50 average in New Zealand’s second innings is nothing short of phenomenal, and is perhaps the most telling stat on his influence on his national outfit.

    Kohli came in second, averaging a tick over 44 – while Smith and Root would be disappointed (by their own lofty standards) to average a shade under 40 in the third and fourth innings of Test matches.

    Winner: Kane Williamson

    New Zealand's Kane Williamson plays a shot

    (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

    Average away from home
    We hear the term ‘flat track bully’ get thrown around a lot in Australia to describe batsmen who can perform admirably in their home conditions, but not so well overseas. Players like David Warner fall into this category.

    The mark of an outstanding batsman is their adaptability, and ability to thrive in all conditions. From the flat, bouncy wickets of the WACA and the Gabba, to the turning dustbowls of Dharamsala at the foot of the Himalayas – those who score prolifically in all conditions inevitably have an advantage in this debate.

    Steve Smith trumps any and all in this category. His average of 56 in Australia is world class. His average overseas of 70.22? Extraordinary.

    Perhaps most impressively, Smith averages 60.00 in India, a place where tourists notoriously struggle. His output of 41 against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka is his lowest away from home.

    Root comes in second to Smith, averaging 53.80 away from the seaming green tops of his home tracks. The Southern Hemisphere is an unhappy hunting ground for the English skipper, however. He averages 27 in Australia, and a mere 17 in New Zealand.

    Williamson is next, clocking an impressive 51.99 output away from home. The black mark on his cricketing passport being South Africa, where he averages only 21. He clearly prefers short plane trips, as he has been dominant in his trips to the Great Southern Land.

    Rounding out the group is Virat Kohli with 43.41. The Indian skipper averages 13.4 in England and only in the 30s in the West Indies and South Africa. I know that India play the lion’s share of their Test match cricket at home, but these numbers are a little low for a player of Virat Kohli’s calibre.

    Winner: Steve Smith

    Overall average
    Not much needs to be said about this category. It is the most universally used indicator of a batsman’s output, and it considers total runs scored divided by number of innings played. Smith’s average of 61.05 is scarcely believable, while Root, Williamson and Kohli round out the group (in that order).

    Winner: Steve Smith

    Australian captain Steve Smith

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    The final results…

    All things considered, and using the point calculations prescribed in the table above, as it currently stands, in my opinion, these are the best Test batsmen in the world.

    In order:

    1st – Steven Smith
    2nd – Kane Williamson
    3rd – Joe Root
    4th – Virat Kohli

    I look forward to reading healthy banter and all of your thoughts below.

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    The Crowd Says (67)

    • July 14th 2017 @ 8:27am
      David a Pom said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      Your away from home stay for smith is incorrect, as it doesn’t factor in ‘neutral’ games ie against Pakistan away from home. This is an important oversight in your analysis. On another note, Root is the best batsman.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 8:34am
        sportstragic said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:34am | ! Report

        Why is Root a better batsman than Smith?

        • July 14th 2017 @ 8:37am
          David a Pom said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:37am | ! Report

          Technique, technique, technique.

          • July 14th 2017 @ 9:57am
            rock said | July 14th 2017 @ 9:57am | ! Report

            Technique doesn’t equal output – as can be seen.

          • Roar Guru

            July 14th 2017 @ 12:20pm
            Chris Kettlewell said | July 14th 2017 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

            Okay, on that count, Shaun Marsh is the best batsman in Australia because he has such a great technique. The fact he averages half what Steve Smith averages means nothing.

            Steve Smith has developed an amazing technique that has allowed him to succeed in all different conditions against all different bowlers to an extent rarely seen.

            The real answer though is: It’s “David a Pom”, of course he’s going to pick the Pom!

          • July 16th 2017 @ 9:19pm
            John Erichsen said | July 16th 2017 @ 9:19pm | ! Report

            Bradman had some technical flaws but went ok. In recent years, Chanderpaul and Amla are others with less than traditional techniques, like Smith, who have been at the pointy end of best test batsmen lists. Root might overtake Smith sometime in the future but at present Smith has him comfortably covered and Joe needs to score his way past Williamson to get a shot at Smith. Kane has a very solid technique, which you seem keen on, so I am rather surprised you didn’t mention him.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 8:30am
      David a Pom said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:30am | ! Report

      Your away from home stay for smith is incorrect, he averages 55 away from home including neutral venues, according to Cricinfo. On another note, Root is the best batsman.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 9:58am
        rock said | July 14th 2017 @ 9:58am | ! Report

        You do realise that the ‘neutral’ venue your referring to is in the UAE – not exactly Smith’s home ground are they………….

      • Roar Rookie

        July 14th 2017 @ 4:42pm
        savage said | July 14th 2017 @ 4:42pm | ! Report

        this is first article i have seen with so many mistakes.

    • Roar Pro

      July 14th 2017 @ 8:37am
      Ben Sewell said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:37am | ! Report

      Love it, couldn’t agree more.
      Smith is the undoubted best batsmen in the world atm.
      Williamson has the best technique of the lot and will continue to do well, even after his reflexes diminish.
      Joe Root has the makings to pass Cook as Englands highest run scorer.
      And Kohli is a genuine Rockstar in India.

      All have claims as number 1, all are greats in their own way.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 8:39am
      Luke J said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      Look I don’t care much for stats, from what I watch on TV Kohli looks like the guy you’d most want as a batsman on your team. He is the best.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 11:04am
        JB said | July 14th 2017 @ 11:04am | ! Report

        Across all formats no doubt but in test cricket Smith has the edge. Exciting thing is there is plenty of cricket left in all of these guys, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next 5 years or so, I think that you will see a new best since Bradman emerge out of these four.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 8:41am
      Vincent said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:41am | ! Report

      Anyone who has watched Kohli bat in full flow will know he is the king, there is no sight quite like it. Throwback to Viv.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 8:42am
      David a Pom said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:42am | ! Report

      Also in terms of how I’d order it: 1st Root; Distant 2nd Kohli; 3rd Smith; 4th Kane.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 12:12pm
        TheCunningLinguistic said | July 14th 2017 @ 12:12pm | ! Report

        No one cares, as your blatant bias gives you zero credibility.

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