The 5-Yr Journey of Cricket’s ‘Big 4’ – Virat, Smith, Kane & Root
It was in 2014 that four batsmen from different countries around the cricketing world began to set themselves apart from the rest of the lot. Virat Kohli and Steve Smith were aged 25 then, with Kane Williamson at 24 and Joe Root, the youngest of the four, at 23.
While all four had played barely 30 Tests each, it was evident that each of them would blossom to become the leading batsman for their country in a few years and go on to lead their sides in all probability.
The Lull Before the Storm
For all their talent, their careers did not pick up without some teething troubles. After kicking off his Test career with a 131 on debut against India, Williamson could not repeat the feat in his following 19 innings, after which he struck a free-flowing century against South Africa.
Kohli did not click in Test cricket instantly either, but it was his maiden Test ton in Adelaide, in his 14th Test innings, which gave us a sign of things to come.
After a 73 against India on debut, Joe Root's first century came after eight more innings, against New Zealand.
Steve Smith, who is currently at the pole position among the Fab Four, was the slowest starter and took as many as 23 innings to score his first Test century. However, once that happened, he raked up three more in his following 15 innings, and has not looked back since.
Impact of Captaincy
Root was the only batsman among the Fab Four in 2014 to have a batting average of over 50, a substantial 10 runs more than each of Williamson, Kohli and Smith.
As expected, each of the four went on to captain their Test sides in due course, and this is where the tables began to turn.
While all three of Kohli, Williamson and Smith amped up their averages considerably post the added responsibility, Root's average dipped.
Home vs Away
The real test for a batsman comes when he ventures out to counter alien conditions. The batsman obviously becomes quite adept in conditions in which he grows up and plays all his cricket. When the time comes to test his skills, tailored as per home conditions, and translate his success on foreign soil, it's the most challenging and satiating thing at the same time.
But, as long as they keep scoring at the average they currently are, no one's really complaining. In fact, Kohli's average of 46.12 is third among the quartet but that has been skewed by his failures in 10 consecutive innings on the England tour of 2014.
Apart from his dominant average at home, Virat Kohli has done well in places like Australia (55.39) and New Zealand (71.33). In conventionally slow and low conditions such as Sri Lanka and West Indies, he does not have that impressive a record with the numbers dipping a bit.
At the same time, Kohli has done well in South Africa with an average of 55.80. He has scored at just over 36 in England, but that again is offset due to a disastrous 2014 tour.
The only country where Steve Smith averages below 40 is Bangladesh but that is understandable, given the absolute dust bowls that the Tigers have produced of late. Smith has an average of around 60, both in India and in England and over 40 in South Africa and Sri Lanka. It leaps past 130 in New Zealand and West Indies.
Kane Williamson naturally feels at ease in Australia with conditions being quite similar to home and has an average of over 55. But, he does not have great numbers in India, England, South Africa and Sri Lanka.
While the Kiwi averages in the 30s in India and England, he has an average of 26.71 in Sri Lanka, and his lowest of 21.17 in South Africa. Interestingly, Williamson has also excelled in conditions quite contrary to that at home, with an average of almost 65 in UAE and 83.33 in Bangladesh.
There is not much of a pattern to the numbers of Joe Root. While he averages below 25 in Bangladesh and New Zealand, two contrasting set of conditions, his average in India is surprisingly more than 53. Possibly, that has been buoyed by his earlier tours.
Root averages 38 in Sri Lanka and Australia, again two contrasting set of conditions. In South Africa, where conditions are not generally considered conducive for batting, he has an average of over 55.
Since the beginning of 2018, Virat Kohli is the undisputed champion when it comes to the number of runs while Steve Smith is head and shoulders above the rest with regards to batting average in Test cricket.
Kohli's rise in the longest format along with his hunger for daddy hundreds is spectacular. But Smith has taken the contest to the next level with his batting exploits despite missing a good one year of Test cricket due to his ball-tampering ban.
Joe Root has clearly been on the decline – having gone through 14 Test innings without a century. His Test average this year has also dropped to a shocking 27.40. Kane Williamson has steadily held strong with a Test average of over 60 since the beginning of 2018.
With Joe Root having not scored a century since February this year and results not going in England's favour, there has been clamour around his elite status. Many believe that England need to look elsewhere in terms of Test captaincy. The English management, though, is backing Root at the moment.
However, another failure in the second Test against New Zealand, followed by an ordinary South Africa Test series can well strip Root off his Fab Four club membership and hence, alter the face of ‘Fab Four’.
The question then is which other batsmen around the world are capable of filling that void. Some say Babar Azam, some say Marnus Labuschagne, but the Test careers of these two are too young for them to stake a claim for now.
With all the members of the Fab Four at around 30 years of age, we are probably standing right at the midpoint of their Test careers. Batsmen peak at around 28-30, they say. If that is indeed the case, there will be no dearth of breathtaking batsmanship and a constant tussle for one-upmanship among the Fab Four in the coming five years.
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