Best batter since 2019? Hard to look past the usual suspects

Root, Smith, Kohli, Williamson, Babar, Labuschagne are all in the mix, despite a few of those players having hit rough patches

Ian Chappell
Ian Chappell
Virat Kohli has averaged about 36 from the start of 2019, while Kane Williamson is 20 percentage points ahead. Both have made roughly 1500 runs, but Kohli has taken eight innings more  •  AFP via Getty Images

Virat Kohli has averaged about 36 from the start of 2019, while Kane Williamson is 20 percentage points ahead. Both have made roughly 1500 runs, but Kohli has taken eight innings more  •  AFP via Getty Images

Who is the best Test batter in recent times?
The list is long and, not unsurprisingly, filled with many deserving players, but everybody has a glitch. Statistics for the last three and a half years, starting January 1, 2019, cover both normal and Covid times, so I accept them as a good range of scoring tendencies.
Statistics aren't my forte - I tend to favour players who are aggressive and aesthetically pleasing - but they are a good guide to being on the right path.
The list of contenders includes the big four: Joe Root, Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson. Two younger players, Babar Azam and Marnus Labuschagne, deserve to be included.
Root comfortably heads the list on both runs scored and centuries made, and has also played the most innings. He has an engaging desire to score and collects runs all round the wicket, with a wide array of shots. He is renowned for compiling centuries but he is the only player in this period to reach double figures in terms of hundreds made. Nevertheless, his inability to score a century in Australia despite having played 27 innings there overall is damaging. He has got to 50 on nine occasions without converting any of those into a century. A string of low scores at home against South Africa's strong pace attack this year is also a warning.
Smith is a very unorthodox player who is extremely difficult to either contain or dismiss. If this list had been compiled before the pandemic, he would have been the automatic No. 1. However, a recent tactical change by oppositions, who have resorted to the occasional short-pitched barrage and a straighter line of attack, with the appropriate field placings, has exposed a chink in his formerly impregnable armour. At least now he looks human.
Kohli is a fine player with a great stroke range, a highly competitive nature, and a thoughtful approach to batting. When asked why he doesn't indulge in typical short-form risky shots, he replied: "I don't want them to creep into my Test game." However, whatever the case - the ageing process, or his having retired as captain - Kohli's output has started to wane and he needs to rekindle the magic.
Williamson is a dogged competitor who has a good back-foot game as well as a fascination with running the ball to third man. There is a tendency to underrate him because of his simple technique but he has a great record despite having battled a serious elbow injury.
Since he played as a concussion substitute for Smith at Lord's in 2019 and then establishing himself as a valuable No. 3, Labuschagne has blossomed into a run machine. Like Smith, he is an idiosyncratic batter but highly effective, as he tends to be correct at the point of contact. In a short period Labuschagne has been extremely fortunate as the opposition have dropped many of his offered chances, among them some absolute sitters. How he fares when his luck normalises will determine this innovative player's worth.
Babar is a complete player with his flowing drives and all-round shot range. His footwork is neat and there is an enjoyable artistry that makes his batting compulsive viewing. To round out the picture, he has a game that fits all three formats but his Test batting, with an ability to compile centuries, stands out. Josh Hazlewood dominated Babar in Australia in 2016-17, and this created some concerns about his ability on bouncy pitches. However, on his second tour of Australia he produced a couple of gems to enhance his reputation as a player to follow.
It's hard to choose the best player from that talented group. And when you consider that some old-timers preferred Victor Trumper's artistic style over the acknowledged best batter, Sir Donald Bradman, the difficulty is not surprising. From among these players on their best days, it's hard to surpass the highly competitive Kohli. His twin centuries in a failed but brave victory attempt at Adelaide Oval in 2014 remain my favourite innings among those produced by this group.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is a columnist