The first Test of the Wisden Trophy has just concluded with West Indies chasing down 200 quite comfortably in the end by four wickets.
England was a very good Test side between 2010 and 2013.
But since then, they’ve been pretty average and despite series wins in Sri Lanka and South Africa in the last 18 months, they still have a lot of work to do to regain the number one spot.
These are my top five Test knocks I’ve seen by an English batsman in the past decade.
5. Ben Foakes – 107 versus Sri Lanka, Galle, 2018
In the first Test against Sri Lanka, England were in serious trouble. On a raging turner against the spin trio of Rangana Herath (who was playing his final Test), Dilruwan Perera and Akila Dananjaya, they slumped to 5-103 in the second session of Day 1. Out came the English wicketkeeper Ben Foakes needing to rescue England.
The debutant was very cautious and watchful as he took 44 balls to hit his first boundary in international cricket. Following a 61-run stand with Jos Buttler (38), he rallied alongside the English bowling all-rounders in Sam Curran (48) and Adil Rashid as he reached his half-century off 111 balls.
Foakes defended the good balls but attacked the Sri Lankan spinners with an unusual but effective sweep through square leg. Foakes was on 95 when England lost their ninth wicket. With only Jimmy Anderson left to support him from the other end, he decided to take a few more risks. On 99, he drove Suranga Lakmal down the ground to notch his century – the 107th Test cricketer to score a hundred on debut. Foakes was dismissed for 107 as he was chasing quick runs.
Foakes wasn’t originally in the England Test squad for the tour of Sri Lanka. Following an ankle injury sustained by Jonny Bairstow in the one-dayers against the Sri Lankans, Foakes was called in as cover and grabbed his opportunity with both hands.
I rate this knock by Foakes because he had a different mindset compared to the English top six. Rather than attacking the Sri Lankan spinners on a pitch turning from ball one, he waited for the bad balls to come and capitalised on them. Foakes is England’s best keeper and it was surprising to see him dropped after just five Tests despite not doing anything wrong to warrant him being dropped. England ended up winning the Test and the series 3-0 and Ben Foakes played a massive role in setting the tone in England’s favour.
4. Kevin Pietersen – 227 versus Australia, Adelaide, 2010
Having restricted Australia to a below-par 245, England were in the driver’s seat. Despite an early blip with the bat, the Poms were comfortably in front when Kevin Pietersen walked out at 2-176.
His innings was flawless. After a watchful start, Pietersen was merciless to the Australian bowlers. He formed a 175-run stand with Alastair Cook (148) as he reached his 17th Test century. If the Aussie quicks pitched it up, he played some classical drives. If they pitched it short, he pulled it past square leg.
But the inexperienced Xavier Doherty faced the heaviest brunt of the Aussie bowlers. Pietersen drove him through the covers, smashed him down the ground, hoicked it over midwicket and played some of the best sweep shots I’ve ever seen. He drove Doherty to mid on for a single to bring up his maiden double century of his career. Pietersen would depart on 227 as he chased quick runs before England declared.
The reason I rate this knock in my top five is because Pietersen was terribly out of form. He hadn’t scored a Test century since March 2009. He could’ve easily been dropped a few times. But he’s a match-winner and when match-winners perform to their standards, you know the opposition is in big trouble. Pietersen’s knock led to an England innings win and would help England retain the Ashes on Australian soil.
3. Alastair Cook – 235 versus Australia, Brisbane, 2010
The first Test match in the 2010 Ashes is remembered for Peter Siddle’s hat trick on his birthday. But this gem of a knock by Alastair Cook seems to go under the radar. Trailing by 221 runs, England were staring at the possibility of an innings defeat.
Alongside his captain Andrew Strauss (110), the pair were dogged in defence, taking England to 0-19 at stumps on Day 3. The openers put on 188 before Jonathan Trott joined Cook. Strauss’ dismissal did no damage to Cook as he continued to grind out the Australian bowlers. He cut one past gully for four to reach his 14th Test ton off 204 balls.
On 103, Cook mistimed a hook shot but was fortunate that Peter Siddle’s attempt fell just short. He continued to bat with Trott (135 not out) as he punished anything with width. The England opener scored his maiden double century when he nudged one to deep fine leg. After reaching 200, Cook went all guns blazing before England declared at 1-517, Cook 235 not out.
England may not have won this Test, but Cook ensured that they didn’t start the Ashes with a loss. The Gabba is a fortress for Australia, yet Cook had breached that fortress. His determination and grit was key for England to go to Adelaide with the series 0-0. By deflating the Aussie bowlers over 152 overs, England’s bowlers were refreshed as they would win the series 3-1 and retain the urn.
2. Ben Stokes – 135 versus Australia, Leeds, 2019
Say what you want, but this isn’t the best Test innings I’ve seen by an England batsman in the past decade. Chasing 359 for victory, Stokes walked in with England 3-141 and the Test right in the balance.
Stokes started slowly. It was almost as if the left-handed Rahul Dravid came in to bat. The all-rounder took 83 balls just to reach double figures. He put on 86 for the fifth wicket with Jonny Bairstow (36) before he was starting to run out of partners. He reached his 50 off 152 balls, but soon after that, England were 9-286. Stokes took on the Aussie attack and with nothing to lose, everything was paying off. When he reverse-swept Nathan Lyon for six, the English crowd went nuts. He reached his hundred soon after that and when the scores were tied, he punched Pat Cummins past cover to level the Ashes at one apiece with two Tests to play.
I remember celebrating wildly when Stuart Broad got out. But I just had a feeling that Stokes had something up his sleeve that could do the unthinkable. While it was a quality knock, that was some of the worst captaincy I have seen in Test cricket. The lack of game awareness from Tim Paine was painful to watch.
With two balls to go in the over, Paine stationed many fielders on the boundary and allowed Stokes to take a single and go again the following overs. His use of the DRS when Jack Leach was given not out when it was clearly miles outside leg would cost Australia dearly in the following over when Stokes would’ve been adjudged LBW on 131 had Australia not used up their reviews. While Stokes played a brilliant innings, Australia would still end up retaining the Ashes almost two weeks later in Manchester.
1. Kevin Pietersen – 186 versus India, Mumbai, 2012
Down 1-0 in the series, England were up against it on a rank turner as India posted 327 batting first. The signs seemed to favour an India victory when Jonathan Trott departed for a duck and England were 2-68. Kevin Pietersen walked in at number four and needed to revive the England innings or else they could say goodbye to their chances of winning the Test, let alone the series.
Pietersen was in the mood to attack as he drove Harbhajan Singh past the covers for a boundary in his first ball. While his skipper and batting partner Alastair Cook (122) was playing in a defensive mode, Pietersen continued to attack. He reached his half-century off 63 balls and scored his 22nd century in 127 deliveries.
Despite Ravichandran Ashwin ending the pair’s 206-run stand, Pietersen continued to take on the Indian bowlers, especially the spin trio of Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha. Pietersen kept on chipping away as England got past India’s first-innings total before Ojha had Pietersen caught behind for a tremendous 186 off 233 balls.
Pietersen is a wonderful player of spin, but he’s had his fair share of troubles against left-arm spinners. He was very watchful against Ojha’s left arm offies while taking the odd risk, but he never held back against Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh. His counter-attack put India on the back foot as Monty Panesar spun a web around the Indian batsmen in the second innings.
England would end up winning the Test by ten wickets and Pietersen was named player of the match. The reason I rate Pietersen’s knock over Stokes’ is that England came back from 1-0 down to win the series 2-1 in India – the first team to win a series in India since Australia in 2004. Since England’s series win in India, no other team has won a Test series in India after that.