In July of last year, Che Pujara played two innings in the West Indies where his strike rate in both was in the twenties. After the series, where a wash-out and a famous draw deprived India of the no. 1 rating, Pujara’s captain publicly made an issue of the batsman’s strike-rate. Many people, including Anil Kumble, who within a few weeks of that statement went on to coach India felt that strike rates were irrelevant in Test cricket. But Pujara knew that it was an issue for his captain, and so he responded in the best way possible. Only two of his remaining fourteen innings had a strike-rate below 49, and his average was just under 65 during this period. It was a very positive response by a player under scrutiny for perhaps an over-exaggerated weakness. The greater problem with Pujara’s record is that it can be argued he never had to make hard runs. His average dropped from 60 in the first two innings to 45 in the latter two in 2016, suggesting that he prospers most when the match is still open. Then there is the question of pitches, and with India playing home Tests throughout the coming year, their continued dominance and particularly their batting would be criticised as one-dimensional by some. While that may be debatable, the quality of the opposition spinners was a more obvious complaint. Adil Rashid, who took twice as many wickets as any other opposition spinner, also had the ‘best’ record - an average of 37 and a strike-rate of 60. No other visiting spinner averaged under 48. In contrast, Ashwin took 55 wickets at 24, and Jadeja took 40 at 25. But these are minor quibbles against a player who has shown his quality repeatedly, despite sporadic support from his selectors.
After a largely successful tour of South Africa batting at no. 4, Joe Root found himself elevated to no. 3 for the rest of the year after the second innings at Lord’s vs Sri Lanka, and save for opening in two innings in India, he stayed there for the entire year. It spoke of the responsibility entrusted in England’s brightest star, but also of the need to stabilise what was otherwise a largely changing top order. While Pakistan played brilliantly in their tour, they were helped a lot by how England regularly had several walking wickets playing around Root and Cook. The situation improved a bit during the long stay in Asia, but Root routinely found himself as the mainstay of the innings. This meant that his like Pujara’s strike-rate, his conversion rate became a much bigger issue than it deserved to be. Five times in 2016, Root crossed 76 and got out before getting to a century. With England facing down imposing totals in India, a run of 78, 77 and 88 in each of the final three tests left his team crying out for more. Otherwise, it was a stellar year for a fast maturing cricketer who hit hundreds in India and South Africa and a career best versus Pakistan. He was also a superb fielder, taking 26 catches in 31 innings. Then there is his role as the main custodian of the ball England’s bowlers use to reverse swing with devastating effect. And while Adil Rashid had the best record from the regular spinners to tour India, Root took two wickets (from just sixteen overs across four Tests) to end up with an average under 30.
Despite a pretty good record overall, Amla’s 2016 saw his ‘brand’ suffer several blows. It started with his decision to resign from the captaincy midway during the series against England, ending a largely terrible run in charge. Rain in Bangladesh and poisonous pitches in India hadn’t helped, but Amla never looked like being a good captain. Despite scoring a double hundred in the drawn Test which ended up as his last as skipper, the focus stayed on his disappointing captaincy in a series his team went on to lose. He then went on a run that seemed to make the disappointments worse. In his remaining eight innings this year (excluding against Sri Lanka at the Boxing Day Test) he was dismissed between 45 and 58 four times, suggesting squandered opportunities. These perceptions were made worse by the fact that the remaining four innings saw him score 1, 0, 1 and 5. Indeed, the Australia tour made Amla look like a weak link in a team playing well above its potential, and Hazlewood dismissing him five times in three tests meant he had been bunny-fied as well. That being said, this is a guy who scored two hundreds, a 96 and three 50s this year. If anything, Amla’s record and image both suffered from South Africa’s once invincible Test side going through a transition, and in many ways he became the face of their fall. It doesn’t matter that much though, because he remains their spine as well.
A clear pattern emerges in our look at the four contenders for the number 3 spot. Both Pujara and Joe Root had long series to play, and faced opponents at least thrice, giving them some time to adjust. Amla and Williamson on the other hand had to deal with more truncated series - Williamson played four opponents this year, each for two Tests only. The only three-test series New Zealand played saw him miss a match due to illness. He ended with at least a 50 against each of the opponents, but with two 90-odd scores and another in the 70s, he was another player who could have gotten more. Perhaps most surprisingly, he didn’t quite cash in against a rather hapless Pakistani side visiting the shores. But other than that, Williamson continued to ooze quality in a Kiwi side that had to deal with the loss of their talismanic captain - Brendon McCullum - to retirement at the start of the year. Both him and Root also played more diverse locations than their other two rivals, and Williamson easily dealt with the greatest weight of expectations. He is also the only captain on this list, which gives his runs further value. Indeed, he has taken to the role naturally, and more so than his predecessor, will need to carry this team on his slender shoulders.
What more can be said of Virat Kohli in 2016? There isn’t a format left in which he hasn’t showcased his greatness, but this year he elevated his test stature to a new level. Four centuries, including three doubles are definitive enough, but what was most impressive was how Kohli stamped his image on the team he has built around himself. As captain, Kohli’s India has been defined by his aggression and desire to dominate, and he’s used his home advantage to tremendous effect. As a batsman, Kohli left the critics with nothing to argue with. When Jimmy Anderson tried to bring up Kohli’s one bad tour of England as a major weakness, it felt a lot like the Messi-at-Stoke meme - a tired, stupid excuse to deny a player at the top of his craft. That being said, it almost feels like a waste to see Kohli exclusively facing teams at home for the foreseeable future. The weak quality of opposition attacks almost feels an affront to his batting. At this point, Kohli will only really be tested by assorted world XIs trying to take him on. Anything else just feels futile at the moment.
The role of the Australian captain is of huge significance not just in the country, but in the cricket world at large. For most of the game’s history, the person in that role leads one of the best teams in the world, and more often than not is a fine player himself. Steve Smith’s record in 2016 was stellar, but he seemed to be leading a rather sorry side. The year started well as Smith scored heavily in the dispatching of the Kiwis. But then, the July tour saw him oversee one of Australia’s most humiliating defeats ever. Granted they had been thrashed by both India and Pakistan in Asia, but to lose 3-0 to a Sri Lankan side full of novices was beyond shocking. Smith himself average 41 in the series, with a hundred and a fifty. But he looked helpless as Herath in particular left him at sea, dismissing him five times in six innings. Smith then ended the South Africa series averaging 42, but again was unable to prevent a crushing series loss. Perhaps his most poignant innings was at Hobart, where his unbeaten 48 made up more than half of his team’s total of 85. Thankfully for Smith, the arrival of Pakistan helped him fill up his boots, and his win tally, but even there he almost saw a shocking defeat. Faced with all these pressures, Smith’s response spoke volumes of his character. Indeed, Kohli’s supremacy in Tests were not in lone stand roles, but Smith’s runs all came under far more pressure.
It might be a bit of a shock to see Kausal Mendis in this poll, but bear with us. For starters, there aren’t that many candidates after the first two heavyweights. Both South Africa and England kept changing their no. 4 batsmen. Joe Root’s record was good enough at 4 to be considered for this list, but still his team tried six (!) other players at that position. Younis Khan averaged below 30 at the spot, while Taylor’s average of 60.1 was built largely against Zimbabwe. Even AB de Villiers averaged under 25 from five innings at that spot. In contrast, Mendis scored as many runs as JP Duminy at 4, but in two less innings. He started his year playing in England at 3, and after a duck at Headingly in the first innings he went on to score in the double digits in every other innings of the tour. In the second innings at Galle, he was dropped to four for the first time, and it was there that he played arguably the best test innings of the year. Sri Lanka were 86 behind at the start of their innings, and he walked in with the scored at 6/2, which soon became 86/4. Playing with extraordinary composure, Mendis eventually scored half of Sri Lanka’s runs, making an exhilarating 176. The highest score in the match after Mendis was Steve Smith’s 55. Remarkably, Mendis only had one first-class century before this, and it was his innings that gave Sri Lanka one of their finest Test wins. He top scored in the next innings he played, as Sri Lanka established a 2-0 lead. But from there Mendis faded away, and averaged under 20 against Zimbabwe.
If you thought that Mendis was a left-field call, then the sight of Ervine on this list must feel outrageous. But think about this for a second - a Zimbabwean Test batsman averaging over 50 at two-down isn’t a feat to be sniffed at. Playing in two series of two matches each, Ervine hit a century and a 50 against the visiting Kiwis and then two 50s in a match against Sri Lanka. His efforts, which all came in losing causes, were easily the most consistent in a weak Zimbabwean line-up. His only real support came from Sean Williams, who averaged 37.5 for his 300 runs. Significantly, in eight innings during the year, Herath was the only bowler to dismiss him more than once, and with two wickets it wasn’t quite the hoodoo. For a batsman who was the sole target for opposition bowlers, it suggested an important strength in character.