Test cricket is a funny thing. Some consider it the real form of cricket - a five-day test of skills that demands the best from players in terms of discipline, fortitude, and fitness. It’s gladiatorial, almost. No protective rules favoring the batsman and few restrictions on bowlers. A cricketer’s skills, his entire childhood’s worth of training, and all of the ink expended in the hype around his exploits in T20s or One Day Internationals can come to naught if he fails to make the cut in Test cricket.
Yuvraj Singh, the flamboyant all-rounder who won India the 2011 World Cup, wrote, “From a spectator point of view, Test cricket is not important; people hardly watch Test cricket. But as a player, Tests are the real thing. You have to concentrate for five days. It's a lot of time, and not easy to do it day in and day out. If people have played 70-100 Tests, it's a lot of cricket, a lot of concentration and dedication.”
Others regard Test cricket the dinosaur of the sport. Too big, unwieldy and slow - a stodgy, lumbering relic of the past that should be done away with. As American comedian Robin Williams once joked, Cricket is baseball on Valium. George Bernard Shaw, who apparently never really cared for any sport besides boxing, said, “Baseball has the great advantage over cricket of being ended sooner.”Cricketers themselves sometimes acknowledge that Tests are probably more important to players than spectators. Virender Sehwag, the only Indian batsman to score triple-centuries in Test cricket, said, “Does it make a difference if I score 8000 or 10,000 runs in Test cricket? Not in anybody's life.” Mind you this is the same Sehwag who said he dreamed of playing 100 Test matches.
Like I said, Test cricket is a funny thing. You can love it dearly, but you are often left wondering why.
So it’s no surprise that performances in Test cricket are the benchmark for greatness in cricket. You bring your best to a five-test of your skills and longevity. And today, we’re taking a look at the five best Test batsmen of the 21st century. Granted, the century is only 18 years old. But we’ve had some scintillating Test cricket played in the last decade and a half, especially after the advent of T20 cricket. Further, a successful modern Test cricketer is a different sort of player - a lot more versatile, a lot more busy and far more skilled. Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, Kumar Sangakkara, even Brian Lara, who played until 2004....these men played with an intensity over long professional careers, and with very public pressures that probably didn’t exist in earlier decades.
So let’s examine who the best Test batsmen are since the year 2000.
Is there any list in cricket batting that doesn’t have Sachin Tendulkar at the top? Especially in the case of Test cricket, Tendulkar is master of all he surveys. In his final Test match, a banner summarised Tendulkar’s place in the pantheon of Indian cricket: India – divided by religion, united by Sachin. If ever there was a player who was bigger than the game, it was this man.
Though he debuted in 1989, and rose to legendary status by the mid-1990s, he was always overburdened. It was perhaps the pressure of having to perform extraordinarily every single time, to save the pride for a country that could never really win matches. Horatio at the bridge, every time he batted. That phenomenal 136 in the 1999 Chennai Test sums up Sachin of the 1990s. His back gave out while chasing a famous win and a high-quality opposition, and he got out. And the dread that went through every Indian viewer at that moment was very real. The rest of batting - 7 wickets! - were skittled out for just 17 runs! And he was 26 years old at the time. As former Australian captain Mark Taylor said, “We did not lose to a team called India, we lost to a man called Sachin.”
That’s the thing about Sachin. Such was his longevity, his records generally factor in 20th century performances, even though he was 27 when the 21st century came along. He spent the next 14 years establishing a list of records that may never be surpassed.
Tendulkar’s impact after the year 2000 was phenomenal. When compared with the elite of this century’s batsmen, Tendulkar has a superior average playing away from home - 56. His average at home was 51. A fitting nod to a faultless batting resume. Impregnable in defence, unstoppable in attack and blessed with infinite patience, the Little Master adapted his style of innings to the demands of the situation. A big Tendulkar score always seemed around the corner. When he had his mind set on making an impact, nothing could stop him. This is the man who scored 241 runs during a bad run of form, ignoring every ball bowled outside the off stump. Every ball. That epic innings in Sydney in 2004 was testament his greatness. Out of form and battling a tennis elbow, he ground Australia into the dust for 10 hours, overshadowing Steve Waugh’s farewell in Tugga’s final Test match. Tendulkar has 51 centuries in Test cricket. And 29 of them came after the year 2000. His defining Test innings of the latter part of his career was again in Chennai - he scored 126 against Australia in the deciding Test of that fantastic 2001 series. 15 boundaries, included three from one Shane Warne over, and reaching his century with a straight six back over the bowler’s head. Fittingly, it was an innings that set up series success for India against an all-conquering Australian side that dominated Test cricket.
In public perception as well, Tendulkar is the greatest batsman of his generation, and beyond. Barring, of course, Don Bradman. There’s no matching that 99 Test average. And the Don himself was mighty impressed with Sachin, so that should tell you something. If you care for online polls, Sachin Tendulkar was voted the Best Test player of the 21st century in an online poll conducted by Cricket Australia’s website.
Sachin Tendulkar - 200 Test matches; 15,921 runs; 51 centuries, 68 half-centuries, a highest score of 248 and an average of 53.78.
It is quite surprising that a batsman as good as Kumar Sangakkara wasn’t recognised on the same level as batting greats like Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting and Kallis. Sangakkara started his Test career in 2000 as a wicketkeeper-batsman. The stylish Sri Lankan left-hander ditched the gloves to focus on his willow work, and that produced phenomenal results. Sangakkara finished with an average of 57.40. Steve Smith is the only 21st century batsman who averages more than Sangakkara. At his peak, the Sri Lankan had an average of 68.82! Sangakkara was scoring a Test ton every 2.8 games since relinquishing the wicket-keeper’s gloves – unheard of in the modern era. Against every nation, Sangakkara averages more than 40, and has scored centuries against every opponent. It is that desire for big scores that made Sangakkara a captain’s eternal headache. Starting in 2002 with 230 against Pakistan in Lahore, he has amassed eight double-centuries, and two triple-centuries. He also has a 199 not out to his name. Sangakkara’s has scored everywhere in the world. He excelled against mighty adversaries, and made his mark in Australia as well.
He recalls, “...Australian wickets, once you understand how good they are for batting, and what you have to do to find your rhythm and be in sync, you actually start to really enjoy the challenge...Yes, they are quick, bouncy tracks, but at the same time that allows you so much more freedom to bat, so much more opportunities in different ways to the subcontinent to score runs...It becomes a joy – and understanding that helped me a lot.”
There you go. While most subcontinental batsmen dread the pitches in Australia, a select few relish the challenge. And Sangakkara, an articulate man on and off the field, found joy in that challenge. A true great of the modern era.
Sanga has an airtight, upright and simple technique, with nary a flaw to be found once he got going. As test captain, Sangakkara scored seven centuries at an average of 69.60. Sure, Sanga does not receive the accolades that the Pontings and the Sachins get, but his legend will stand the test of time. After all, he averages more than them and, unlike Ponting and Tendulkar, has two triple centuries.
Sangakkara’s best Test innings that could stand the test of time will most likely be his colossal partnership of 624 runs with good friend Mahela Jayawardene in 2006. The two Sri Lankan greats batted for 157 overs before Sangakkara was dismissed for 287 in a crushing innings victory over South Africa.
Kumar Sangakkara: 134 Test matches; 12,400 runs; 38 centuries; 52 half centuries; an average of 57.40; a highest score of 319 runs.
What can one say about Ricky Ponting that hasn’t already been said. India’s nemesis. The champion batsman in a champion Australian side. Master of his craft. Master of all he surveyed. The only blemish in Ponting’s stellar career - and mind you, it was stellar - was that his tenure as captain marked a low in Australian cricketers’ behavior. Which probably isn’t that terrible a blemish, if cricketing lore is anything to go by.
The one thing that stands out about Ricky Ponting, besides his trademark pivot and pull off the back foot, was that he made batting look exciting. An aggressive batsman who was a joy to watch. Partly Australia’s answer to Sachin Tendulkar through the opening decade of the 21st century, Ricky Ponting had one advantage - If Tendulkar was Horartio, Ponting was Hercules. He was part of an all-conquering team, and he was the one to put the opposition’s bowling to the sword. Ponting began the 2000s with an unbeaten hundred and was relentless thereafter. The Tasmanian’s natural aggression shone through in his batting. He relished taking on the world’s fastest bowlers, invariably sending them through midwicket with that incredible pull shot. From 2003 until the end of 2006, no-one came close to Ponting as cricket’s most dominant batsman. He was the benchmark. Australia’s reliable and attacking number 3 batsman averaged an incredible 72 over 47 Tests, scoring 19 hundreds. He had the highest batting average - 59.99 - after 100-plus Tests, Ponting was irresistible and nearly impossible to dislodge through much of his career, save for that 2001 series in India. An instrumental figure in Australia’s golden era, Ponting has won 20 more Tests (88) than his nearest rival since 2000, was among the finest fielders and catchers of his generation, and despite losing three Ashes series as skipper, emerged as a successful captain. He inherited a great team from Steve Waugh and led them to even bigger victories. Ponting’s best performance is hard to pick. There’s that incredible 257 against India at the SCG. Then there’s the final-day 156 at Old Trafford in the 2005 Ashes, which saved the match for Australia against one of the best attacks of the modern era. Unfortunately, what most Indians will remember is the 153 in the 2003 World Cup final. Demolition job that. Typical Ponting. But his ODI success is a story for another day.
Ricky Ponting: 168 Test matches; 13,378 runs, second only to Sachin Tendulkar; 41 centuries; 62 half-centuries; highest score of 257; and an average of 51.85.
Brian Lara makes this list despite having played only six years into the 21st century. Brian Charles Lara was 30 as the new century came around, and his legend had already been writ. Lara is considered by many, if not most, as the premier batsman of his time, and second only to Bradman. There was a constant debate about who was the best - Tendulkar or Lara? While Tendulkar had a classical style of batting that even won the admiration of Don Bradman, in terms of sheer talent, Brian Lara was perhaps the superior. Tendulkar’s career, while stupendous, contains no triple centuries. The outrageously gifted, and always entertaining, ‘Prince of Trinidad’ toyed with bowlers and their equally hapless captains. Lara has a triple century and one 400 not out. He has a record in first-class cricket of 501 not out!
At his peak, Lara was an unmatched batting genius against pace as well as spin who could outplay Tendulkar, Ponting or anyone else. And he made massive hundreds – six scores over 200 came after the year 2000. His legendary 400 not out against England came in 2004.
In a career dotted with controversy thanks to a difficult relationship with the West Indies cricket board, Lara even took on captaincy, but, much like Tendulkar, did not have a happy stint. It might be that such batting geniuses needed to be left unbridled by such responsibility if they were to fully and successfully express themselves. Lara, in particular, was a crowd-pleaser whose true value will forever be remembered by the colossal hundreds he scored.
Mukul Kesavan, a writer and an unabashed cricket fan in the classical mould, weighed in on the Tendulkar-Lara debate. He wrote in an ESPNCricinfo piece, “...it is the comparison with Brian Lara, by common consensus Tendulkar's greatest batting contemporary and his closest contender for the title of the best batsman of the fin de siècle, that speaks most directly to the "dying of the light" argument. Look at Lara's last 25 innings. He averaged just under 45, more than ten runs an innings better than Tendulkar [who averaged 28], but that's almost beside the point: it is his big scores that stand out. Lara hit two centuries and two double-centuries in his last year of Test match cricket. Teams give ageing, inconsistent geniuses the benefit of the doubt because they believe they are still capable of match-turning bursts of inspiration. Lara repaid that faith; Tendulkar hasn't.”
Muttiah Muralitharan hailed Lara as his toughest opponent among all batsmen in the world. Glenn McGrath, the man who spearheaded that great Australian bowling attack in the 90s and early 2000s, said of Lara, “...very flamboyant, loved to play his shots. He was the one guy I could never tie down or get him to change his game...Sachin, I felt, if I bowled well to him, he would wait for the bad ball. Brian did not want to wait for the bad ball; he just wanted to be up there playing his shots...he has scored some big hundreds, some big double hundreds against Australia. If you wanted to pay to come and watch a batsman, it would be Brian. He was an entertainer, played all the shots, his footwork was good.”
By the time he retired in 2007, Lara had the record for the highest Test score, the second most double centuries of all time and three of the greatest innings ever compiled, according to Wisden. But what made him great was the overwhelming responsibility he held for nearly the entire duration of his career. He almost always played a lone hand, more so than even Tendulkar, as his teammates crumbled around him. Shivnarine Chanderpaul was the only other WIndies batsman who scored consistent runs for a significant period of time. But he was clearly a different player away from home, with no centuries in Australia and having a difference in average of over 16 runs in countries that were outside of the Caribbean.
Lara relished his opportunities abroad, scoring big hundreds in South Africa, England, Australia and the subcontinent. But he was always weighed down by the responsibility of being a genius batsman in a pedestrian side. As one writer out it, For 17 years, Lara was the West Indies cricket team; opposition sides knew if he were to be removed early it was literally game, set, and match.
It would be easy to pick that 400 as the best of Lara’s many spectacular innings. He scored 21 hundreds between 2000 and 2006, at an astonishing rate of one century every 3.14 matches. The 400 came against England’s famous 2005 Ashes-winning attack.
His most famous innings might be the match-winning 153 not out against Australia in Bridgetown in 1999, That innings was rated by Wisden as the second best batting performance in the history of Test cricket, next only to the 270 runs scored by Sir Donald Bradman in The Ashes Test match of 1937. The Windies needed 308 to win the third test against Australia. Chasing that big target while facing Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill, Lara is said to have practiced batting in front of a mirror, planning his time at the crease in a clinical and focused manner. He found himself in familiar circumstances - half the team gone for 105, with 38 the second-highest score, he scored the last 63 runs with Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh for company. The West Indian win against Australia after a humiliating loss in the first test, following a 0-5 thrashing on the tour of South Africa, was a much-needed boost in morale for the beleagured team that could have been fashioned only by the genius of Brian Lara.
Brian Lara: 131 Test matches; 11,953 runs; 34 centuries; 48 half-centuries; highest score of 400 not out; average of 52.88.
There’s little that can be said of Rahul Dravid that hasn’t already been said a hundred times. His arrival essentially changed Indian cricket. Tendulkar finally found a partner with whom he could score big runs, and on occasion, even boss opposition bowling attacks. Dravid scores tons of runs at a steady clip that frustrated bowlers and fans alike. But, most importantly, Dravid’s presence in the team instilled confidence - when he was standing vigil, you could rest assured India never gave up the match.
They call him The Wall for a very good reason. No one has faced more balls in Test cricket. Few have worn down bowlers by sheer force of will the way Dravid has. And no one prized their wicket more. Dravid’s iron-clad defence was as difficult to crack, with only the most skilled practitioners in the world able to get past his bat. Supremely fit - mentally as well as physically - and Unfazed by sledging or fast bouncers, the determined right-hander made a career out of grinding down opponents to become a mainstay of India’s middle order. At one point, it was debated whose wicket was more precious - Tendulkar or Dravid?
Dravid’s match-winning feats in Adelaide in 2003 and a massive 270 against Pakistan in Rawalpindi in 2004 fortified his place in cricketing folklore. His time as captain of India, arguably the hardest leadership position in world cricket, reduced the flow of runs but Dravid led with distinction and clarity. Technically flawless, Rahul Dravid is Test cricket’s fourth most prolific run-scorer, finishing with over 13,000 runs at an average of 52.
His most famous performance was the 180 runs he scored in the second dig of the 2001 Kolkata Test. He shared a 376-run partnership with VVS Laxman at Eden Gardens in 2001 that would change Indian cricket. That 180 was one of the finest knocks in one of the greatest Test series of all time.
It is a testament to his skills that anyone batting at number three in Test cricket for India will forever be compared to Rahul Dravid.
Rahul Dravid: 164 Test matches; 13,288 runs; 36 centuries, 63 half-centuries; highest score of 270; and an average of 52.31.
These are the five greatest Test batsmen of the 21st century, who have come to define batting in the longer version of cricket as it was played in the first two decades, and henceforth.