Best middle-order batsmen in Tests: Steve Smith is still the king as new challengers emerge
The biggest run-scorers in the format usually bat between numbers three to five, with the openers bearing the brunt of the shiny new red ball.
The current era is lucky to have some prodigious middle-order batting talents in the form of the ‘Fab Four’. Below, we have picked our top eight middle-order batsmen in the Test format by ranking them in four separate tiers.
Performances over the last three years have been given greater consideration.
Henry Nicholls (New Zealand)
After a stellar 2018 campaign, the New Zealand batsman has gone off the boil in recent times. Ranked among the top 10 batsmen at one point, Henry Nicholls displays in the past 15 months or so have been less than ordinary.
A century against Bangladesh in early 2019 is the only time Nicholls has crossed triple figures in his past 14 innings for New Zealand. Poor series displays against Australia and India have halted the impressive progress made previously by the left-handed batsman.
He was on a roll in 2018 for the Kiwis and averaged more than 73 in the calendar year with the help of three tons. Although his recent performances have let him down, the 28-year-old can certainly be counted among the best if he rediscovers his former heights.
Cheteshwar Pujara (India)
The India stalwart is now completing a decade at Test level and has been a real force while batting at No3.
Since the beginning of 2017, no other batsman has faced more deliveries than Pujara’s 5,995. A proper old-school Test batsman who exudes the virtue of patience at the crease, the right-hander has a solid technique which is tailor-made for the five-day format.
His greatest moment in the last three years came in Australia in 2018-19, with the 32-year-old registering three tons to help the visitors attain a maiden series win Down Under.
Like Nicholls, Pujara has gone quiet of late too, with his last Test century coming in Adelaide over a year ago. He wasn’t his reliable self in India’s series defeat at the hands of New Zealand earlier this year, and that display has played its part in dropping down to the fourth tier.
Joe Root (England)
While he might be a part of the Fab Four, Joe Root’s recent performances in the format do not warrant a position higher than the third tier. Only Virat Kohli has scored more Test runs than Root since the start of 2017, though the India man has averaged a superb 59.43 in comparison to the Englishman’s 42.92.
The hundreds have dried up for the England skipper ever since he took over the role from Alastair Cook in 2017, with just six of his 17 Test tons coming during his tenure as captain. His form since the turn of 2018 has been particularly poor by his high standards and a double ton in New Zealand last year remains one of the rare occasions where he has been at his brilliant best.
Root’s class with the bat has never been in question and there is definitely another gear left in a batsman who was ranked at No1 in 2015. He is still only 29 and can become England’s greatest run-scorer if he can overcome his lean run.
Babar Azam (Pakistan)
Joining Root at tier three is a batsman who is poised to reach the very summit if he keeps up his current trajectory. Babar Azam has long established his credentials in the limited-overs formats, but question marks remained over his Test chops until the beginning of 2018.
However, a run of four centuries in his last five Test appearances seems to indicate that the Pakistan star is finally ready to take his place among the big boys. His display in Australia last year against a formidable pace attack was a sign of his rising maturity and he has taken it to a new level on the return of Test cricket to Pakistan soil.
Since the start of 2018, Babar is averaging more than 65 with the bat in the Test format and it is the highest managed by any batsman with a minimum of 400 runs in the same period.
Kane Williamson (New Zealand)
The New Zealand skipper is the epitome of consistency and has continued to maintain the lofty standards he set in 2014. Since then, in only one calendar year has Williamson not managed to average at least 50 in the Test format. That anomaly occurred in 2016 when the Kiwi star still managed to average an excellent 47.06.
His most recent series display against India was a downer, though such performances have been a rarity for the 29-year-old in his long career. Seven centuries and an average of over 55 in his last 24 Test appearances show that the Tauranga man is at the peak of his career and could breach several milestones in the coming years.
He will, without a doubt, go down as the greatest batsman ever produced by New Zealand. His 21 tons is already the most by any Kiwi batsman in the history of the format.
Marnus Labuschagne (Australia)
Few would have expected Marnus Labuschagne to be ranked as high as No3 in the ICC rankings and above Williamson when he made his Test debut against Pakistan in 2018. A turn of fate and an English county stint with Glamorgan has seen the right-hander script a most incredible rise in the past year or so.
Since he came on as a concussion substitute for Steve Smith in the 2019 Ashes, no other batsman has scored more runs than Labuschagne. Having seized that opportunity, the 26-year-old has amassed 1,249 runs in this period at a sensational average of 83. 26.
He was in irresistible form in Australia’s last home summer, registering four tons including a maiden double-century against New Zealand in Sydney. Lining up alongside Smith, Australia have arguably the best Test batting unit in the world at present.
Virat Kohli (India)
Smith has reclaimed the No1 Test ranking from Virat Kohli in recent months, but the India superstar remains a class above most. His 3,031 runs since the start of 2017 are the highest by any batsman in the same duration and have come at a staggering average of nearly 60.
In this duration, Kohli has notched up overseas tons in South Africa, England and Australia while also helping himself to four double centuries.
His recent escapades in New Zealand have slightly dented his credentials, though the 31-year-old still remains the best among batsmen not named Steve Smith. It has taken a freakishly good Smith to consign Kohli to the No2 spot, and the India man’s achievements are often overshadowed by the Australian’s prolific runs.
Steve Smith (Australia)
Having cooled his heels on the sidelines for an entire year due to his suspension for ball-tampering, Smith wasted no time in reclaiming his throne with what has been an epic comeback.
The 31-year-old was on fire in the Ashes, racking up 774 runs in seven innings at an average greater than 110. Pundits have often wondered if Smith could maintain his staggering numbers, but the right-hander’s stunning showing on his comeback indicates that he is not slowing down any time soon.
His career average of nearly 63 is the highest by any batsman (minimum 5,000 runs) since the retirement of the great Don Bradman and shows the kind of level that he is operating on.
Even though the likes of Kohli and Williamson are on their way to achieving greatness, Smith is eclipsing them with some ease in what has been an extraordinary Test career to date.