When probed at a promotional event in Delhi, former Australia captain Ricky Ponting wasn’t being diplomatic when he refused to pick either Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Joe Root or Steve Smith as the best batsman in cricket currently. In keeping with his nickname “Punter”, Ponting was cleverly hedging his bet.
At this point in time, it would be perilous to root for one, as Ponting would know from personal experience. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, his own form and runs compelled experts to reassess who the best batsman of his generation was. What looked like a two-horse race between Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara soon became a three-pronged battle, with Ponting also in contention after an extended spell of aggressive run-getting.
More dimensions were added to a fascinating story in the early years of this millennium when Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Virender Sehwag consolidated their careers and touched dizzying heights.
Comparing batsmen of the same era has always been a favourite pastime of cricket buffs and critics. Go back and forth in the history of the sport, and you will notice that such debate has been perennial—except, of course, where Don Bradman is concerned.
In the 1960s, the debate largely centred around Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Colin Cowdrey, Norman O’Neill and Tom Graveney. The 1970s and 1980s were dominated by Vivian Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Javed Miandad and Greg Chappell, before the baton was passed on to Tendulkar, Lara and Co.
The current situation is no different. Cricket is flush with some exciting batsmen. With expansive television coverage, their talent is more visible, and this invigorates the comparison game.
Picking the best, however, has become even more difficult. The addition of the Twenty20 format has made Test cricket quicker, richer (despite the misgivings of die-hard traditionalists), but also more difficult.
There is a complexity involved in adapting to the different formats. You can be a Test specialist (Alastair Cook) or a limited-overs major (Chris Gayle), but you don’t qualify as the best unless you excel in all three formats.
Only the most skilful, versatile and ambitious can achieve this with a high degree of success, consistently and over a fair period of time. This narrows down the list of claimants.
I would imagine that Ponting’s reluctance to choose in Delhi was due to the long and tough Indian season that commences this month, starting with the series against New Zealand, followed by England and Australia. That must be the only reason why a batsman like A.B. de Villiers did not find mention (South Africa aren’t playing). Nobody in the modern era has shown quite the same mastery as him in all three formats over an extended period.
I, however, find the omission of David Warner surprising. The Sehwag-like swashbuckler opener has been a match winner in every format (though he struggled in Tests in Sri Lanka recently) and could be the most dangerous batsman for India’s bowlers. I would include him in my list.
This makes for an excellent quintet. All five—Kohli, Root, Warner, Smith, Williamson—have, over the past couple of years, scored runs prolifically and handsomely almost everywhere; indeed, they have been guiding their team’s fortunes. All of them are different types of batsmen and cricketing personalities, which adds to the flavour of the contest. How bland a comparison would be if these batsmen were all cut from the same cloth!
Williamson has classical technique and strokes of divine finesse. Smith’s quirky footwork may make purists wrinkle their noses, but this has not stymied his big scores. Warner has outgrown the image of being a limited-overs slog monster to become the most dangerous opener in the world. Root, weaned on orthodox English technique, has shed his inhibitions and is unafraid to improvise. He is the most reliable batsman, with the widest repertoire of strokes in his team. Kohli plays with a dazzle, panache and ruthlessness that has captivated fans not only in India, but all over the cricket world. Since the tour of Australia in 2014-15, when he scored 696 runs in four Tests, he has found his “zone” and hasn’t looked back.
Since all five are in the same age group—in the mid- or late-20s—they should be at, or approaching, their peak. Interestingly, all have played approximately the same number of Tests and have fairly similar run aggregates, though the averages differ.
Kohli, in fact, trails the others in Test average. But his record in One Day Internationals is stupendous (7,212 runs), which more than levels things out. Moreover, his recent, spectacular run-making in Tests shows no signs of waning.
Inevitably, in such a competitive situation, each of them would derive motivation and succour from the other. It’s essentially a battle of nerves and ambition, with a little bit of luck thrown in. You can take your pick of who will emerge the best from among them. I’ll take cover in Ponting’s hedge. We should have a clear answer by the end of this long and riveting season.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.