Virat Kohli. Joe Root. Both of them scored double centuries last week. Their Test careers are running parallel. Kohli played 42 Tests and Root 44. The Indian has 12 Test centuries, Root 10. Both are different individuals and are heavy contributors for their teams. But in the present era of Test cricket, it is not a two-horse race. Australia’s Steve Smith (42 Tests, 14 centuries) and New Zealand’s Kane Williamson (49 Tests, 13 centuries) strengthen the competition.
Kohli is a dominating batsman. Hence, he is on top in the shorter formats of cricket. His fifty plus average in both ODIs and T20Is speaks volumes about his superiority. His application, especially in ODIs and T20Is, without relying on fancy strokes bulldozes any bowling attack. But he has had problems settling into Test cricket. His technique was exposed in 2014 in England and that remains the only destination where Kohli is yet to prove his mettle.
Kohli’s front shoulder opened up against swing and his half-cock movement forced him to poke at a good-length delivery. The 2014 England tour was a nightmare for Kohli as James Anderson and Stuart Broad made his life hell. In Tests against England, Kohli averages 20 and his current Test average is 46.
But Kohli came back stronger and ironed out his flaws. His stance became narrower, meaning he would not commit on the front foot. Against Australia in 2014, a lot was expected from Kohli Down Under. The Indian Test skipper responded strongly with four-centuries in as many Tests. He picked the right ball for cover-drive and played the horizontal shots to perfection. The narrow stance also checked his commitment on the front foot and enabled him to shoulder the balls outside off. Like his batting, he leads the side with the same attitude. As skipper, Kohli has won six Tests, drew four and lost 2 in 12 games.
All dominating batsmen usually play on the rise and Kohli made sure he avoided that in Antigua. In the first Test, Kohli’s application was special. The bowling might be weak, but he ended up being the only batsman to score runs on that wicket. Kohli checked his cover drive initially and relied on playing the ball closer to his body. Only later, after he scored his century that he produced beautiful drives through cover.
Root, on the other hand, is by far, better than Kohli in Test cricket. His perfect technique and temperament, has made him England’s most valuable player. After Kevin Pietersen left a huge void in England, Root has filled in the big shoes. After Alastair Cook at the top, Root is capable of carrying the side. He sticks to being a conventional batsman and likes to carry his bat through. Root’s average in Test cricket is over 55. At home, he played 26 Tests and averages 60. Baring the Australia Ashes, Root hovers around 40 in sub-continent and over 45 elsewhere. His away average is 46 in 18 Tests.
Root possesses a better footwork than Kohli. Root’s double hundred against Pakistan in Manchester proved how he paced his innings. His wagon wheel showed runs square of the wicket on either side. It showed how late and close to the body Root played the ball in conditions helpful for seam bowlers. Twice he lost focus and went for a drive away from his body against Wahab Riaz but was fortunate to get boundaries through the slip region.
Former England batsman and skipper Geoffrey Boycott said a while ago, “Root has good touch, good footwork, plays the ball late, and it always helps to play at your home ground as you’re used to the pace.” Root is good against spin as well and averages 101 in India. At Nagpur, on his debut, Root had scored 73 on a turner and faced a four-pronged Indian spin attack.
His playing late lends him an advantage on quicker tracks in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. He plays on top of the bounce and follows the swing. Though, Root was tested against Australia in the Ashes of 2013-14. Root averaged 27 Down Under and faced problems against spin and pace. Nathan Lyon got him twice while he gave away wickets on away going deliveries.
Root’s consistency and the ability to score runs in every condition lends him a clear advantage over Kohli.
Smith packs a punch
Amongst these four (Kohli, Root, Williamson and Smith), Aussie skipper Smith is a special talent. He made to the team as a leg-spinner but soon flourished as a batsman. His different approach and an awkward technique might not come across as stylish but Smith too has shown that application can work wonders for a batsman. Out of 42 Tests that Smith has played, he has been part of 21 wins. Root has 18, Kohli 17 and Williamson 15.
Smith had played dogged innings against South Africa, England in the Ashes last year and scored a double-century against the Windies. In this current Aussie side, Smith has been outstanding.Though, with Australia scheduled to tour India later this year, Smith might have been consistent but his agenda will be to win the series.
Then there is Kane Williamson. Tight technique, calm mind and the acumen to score runs provided stability in the batting order. But his away average tells a story. Williamson averages 43 when touring and the reason is his inconsistency. When he toured India in 2010, he had a hundred in the opening Test at Ahmedabad but flopped in the next two games.
Much of the 2011 and 2012 season, he couldn’t convert starts in Australia, West Indies and the sub-continent. But as he matured, consistency is something Williamson banks on these days. His back-to-back hundreds on the Australia tour in 2015 was a proof. On this account, Williamson also loses points to be as the top Test player.
It is just the start of the Test season all of them will be seen playing in whites. Root might be the best Test player but the other three have been in form. The best way to decide is to wait till December and see who among the four perform consistently. Root is the undoubtedly the leader but the rest can certainly catch-up.