Ben Stokes’ astonishing ton to win the third Test has set off debates about the best Test innings of all time.
It got me thinking about the other extraordinary knocks I’ve seen played against Australia in the longest format.
Such lists always provoke over-heated debate, and there were so, so many that came to mind, but in the end it came down to these other five innings, in order, as the greatest I’ve witnessed versus Australia.
VVS Laxman (281) at Kolkata, 2001
The single greatest Test match innings I’ve seen. Some knocks stand out due to the sheer quality of the strokeplay. Others rise above because of how significant they were in a Test, a series or an entire era.
Laxman’s epic double ton scores top marks in both of those categories.
The Indian is one of the most graceful batsmen to play the game. His leg-side strokes, in particular, were joyful. Throughout this knock he looked in complete control, to such an extent that I saw Shane Warne looking defeated, appearing bereft of answers for the first time ever.
India were gone when Laxman came to the crease. The hosts were following on, after being skittled for 171 in their first innings, and still needed another 222 runs just to make Australia bat again. The Aussies were already 1-0 in the series and 2-0 was all but assured. They were on a world record run of 16 consecutive Test wins and appeared indestructible.
Then Laxman batted for almost two full days, buried Australia’s bowlers into the Kolkata turf, won the match and swung the series. Utterly extraordinary.
Brian Lara (153) at Bridgetown, 1999
Lara is my favourite batsman of all time. He earned that status back in 1993 when he hammered 277 against Australia in Sydney as a 23-year-old greenhorn in just his fifth Test. I was ten years old then and enthralled by this Caribbean maestro. He made me wish I was left-handed.
Six years later he was now the world’s best batsman. He owned the highest-ever scores in both Tests (375) and first-class cricket (501*). Yet both of those knocks pale in comparison to what he did against Australia in Bridgetown.
The Aussies were rampant at this stage of the late 1990s, thanks in a large part to their remarkable bowling attack. The four-Test series in the Caribbean was deadlocked at 1-1 leading into this match. The Windies were set a very difficult chase of 308 on a worn Bridgetown pitch offering sharp spin. They duly fell apart, collapsing to 5-105 as Glenn McGrath ran amok.
Then Lara began clattering them to every sector of the ground. Scything cuts, thunderous pulls and flowing drives poured off his blade. With eight wickets down the Windies still needed 60 to win. Lara thrashed most of those runs himself, leading the West Indies to a jaw-dropping one-wicket win and a 2-1 lead in the series.
Kevin Pietersen (158) at The Oval, 2005
Another of my favourite batsmen of all time, Pietersen’s ability to dominate the godly Australian pair of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne set him apart from his peers. What he achieved in that 2005 Ashes series still astonishes me.
In his debut Test series, Pietersen finished as the leading runscorer from either side with 473 runs at 53.
From his first match at Lord’s, where he scored twin 50s, he clearly shocked that commanding Australian side. Rarely had their champion bowlers been treated with such disdain and never by a rookie like Pietersen. He batted without fear.
Never was that more evident than in this innings in the fifth and deciding Test at The Oval. Soon after Pietersen came to the crease England found themselves in a precarious situation in their second innings, leading by just 129 runs with only five wickets in hand. Australia were on top and Warne and McGrath were turning the screws.
Pietersen didn’t come out blazing – he was 16 from 31 balls as he played himself in. Then he cut loose. He smashed Warne for two sixes in one over and then hooked Brett Lee deep into the crowd. As Lee cranked his pace up to 156kmh, Pietersen hammered him for five boundaries in the space of six balls.
To score a big ton in such a momentous Test against that Australian attack was a massive feat. But to completely dismantle them in the way Pietersen did, scoring at almost a run a ball and slamming 102 runs in boundaries, was truly phenomenal.
Kusal Mendis (176) at Pallekelle, 2016
Australia’s 3-0 humiliation in Sri Lanka in 2016 was one of the lowest moments in modern Australian cricket history. It led to a major overhaul in Australia’s approach to playing Tests overseas. The following summer they began using the English Dukes ball in the second half of each Sheffield Shield season to try to produce better-rounded cricketers and the next time they toured Asia their thorough preparation saw them perform well in India and Bangladesh.
It’s easy to forget, though, that Australia looked headed for a 1-0 series lead at Pallekelle. Sri Lanka has been rolled for 117 in their first innings and were 3-45 in their second innings, needing another 41 runs to make Australia bat again. Mendis was 21 years old and playing in just his seventh Test.
Mitchell Starc was in the best form of his career, Josh Hazlewood was bowling beautifully, and spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe were looking dangerous. Mendis absorbed all that pressure.
Then he began to counter-attack. He was assured against the quicks and aggressive against the spinners.
In a match where only one other batsman passed 50 – Steve Smith with 55 – Mendis’ 319-minute knock was breathtaking. It seemed to break the Australians’ spirit, who were non-competitive in the series from then on.
AB de Villiers (126*) at Port Elizabeth, 2018
Similar to Laxman, Lara and Pietersen, de Villiers seemed to save his best for the Aussies. The South African legend made 2,068 Test runs against Australia, including six tons from just 24 matches.
Several of those centuries weren’t just great innings but extraordinary ones. He made 103* in the second-highest run chase in Test history when the Proteas mowed down a target of 414 in Perth in 2008. That was an insane innings.
But in the past decade never have I seen a batsman look more in control against Australia than de Villiers did in Port Elizabeth last year. Australia, who hadn’t lost a Test series in South Africa since 1970, had easily beaten the Proteas in the first Test.
Now, in the second Test on a tricky pitch at Port Elizabeth, SA were in danger of falling behind in the game at 6-183, trailing Australia by 60 runs. Then de Villiers began motoring. He looked so untroubled by Australia’s elite bowling unit that it appeared as if he was facing a grade attack.
Not only did he very, very rarely play a false stroke during this ton, but he scored at nearly a-run-a-ball without any undue risk. De Villiers made facing this on-song Aussie attack look oh so easy.