What makes Williamson, Smith, Kohli and Root excel?
The four greats of modern batting have their signature ways. Which of them will leave the greatest legacy?
Aged 15, I saw Sir Garfield Sobers make 150 at Lord's in 1973. This was the match of the bomb scare, when play was suspended and the ground evacuated. Umpire Dickie Bird sat on the covers, the self-proclaimed protector-in-chief of the hallowed turf. Rohan Kanhai made 150-odd too; he could really bat. To an impressionable boy these guys were hot stuff. It was fun to see them live because they sure featured in a lot of Test matches in the back garden.
I saw Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock take apart the rebel West Indian attack in Port Elizabeth, and I was mesmerised by Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara from my position at slip in the days when county cricket had them all. We played against Greg Chappell too, and Martin Crowe and Javed Miandad.
These are the best batters I have seen, though two personal favourites in an England shirt - Ted Dexter and Kevin Pietersen - provided enough thrills to match any in the history of the game.
It is impossible to say who was the best, other than Sir Donald Bradman, of course, but it is possible to talk about the players who sit at the high table with the names above.
Over many years, batting has changed. Watching archive footage of WG Grace, Victor Trumper or Ranjitsinhji gives one no sense of their brilliance, especially on the pitches of their day, which was around the time of the invention of the lawnmower.
At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, there is a huge and magnificent black-and-white photograph of Wally Hammond at the wicket, surrounded by close fielders: the pitch is indistinguishable from the outfield. In the corridor that leads to the media centre is a photograph of Sir Garry, perfectly still in his orthodox stance after Dennis Lillee has released the ball. There is another, somewhere, of David Gower, at the WACA I think, equally still in the split second before Jeff Thomson releases the ball. Many a modern player would find these pictures hard to believe but there must be something in the old methods - they have worked across the turn of two centuries.
We are blessed at the moment by amazingly powerful and inventive strokeplay all across the world of cricket and yet the players who most catch our eye have based their game on the traditional ways. Well, three of them anyway; the fourth is an outlier. Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Joe Root, and Steve Smith, the outlier, rank among the best produced by their country. Three of them - Kohli, Williamson and Smith - have been dubbed the holy trinity of contemporary batting; arguably Root lags a tad behind, and only because the captaincy seems to weigh a little more heavily on him than it has on the others.
In Galle earlier this year and then in Chennai, Root played innings of such sublime quality and control that it was hard to imagine anyone batting better. At times, I closed my eyes to think of a Richards or Chappell or Crowe and no, I simply couldn't see them as any more masterful than the boy from Sheffield who has carried so much before him since he made that fabulous first Test match hundred at Headingley in 2013.
Empowered by the time allowed him during the coronavirus heist, Root made small changes to his technique, the most relevant of which was the way that he played the ball later and closer to his body. He was - as Dexter would say - alongside the ball rather than behind it, which is restrictive; or away from it, which leads to a lack of control. He also lowered his stance a little, which allowed his eyes to remain level and on plane with the many spinners he faced throughout those three fine innings.
The bat-in-the-air technique now adopted by pretty much every batter is relatively new - first used perhaps by Tony Greig and then by Graham Gooch. Here is Sir Donald, from his book The Art Of Cricket, on the subject:
"I firmly believe the bat should rest on the ground and the final lifting of the bat should not occur until just before the bowler actually delivers the ball. The bat in the air technique is negative and defensive and I'm sure it inhibits versatility and mobility."
Root waves his bat around a little, as a sort of trigger; Smith, from a very upright stance, does the same. Kohli and Williamson lift their bats to the height of the bails just before the bowler releases the ball but otherwise they remain very still in a more orthodox, lower position. Here is Bradman again:
"The knees should be slightly relaxed and flexed. It is a mistake to stand completely erect. I allowed my bat to rest on the ground between my feet simply because it was a comfortable and natural position."
Kohli likes to play forward but is quick to spring back and pull when required. Smith plays almost exclusively back, after his huge move across to off stump, and then drives the ball from deep in his crease; rarely does he step out to the ball like Kohli, who is a brilliant, multifaceted cover-driver off just about any length. Smith prefers to work it leg side or cut past and over point. Williamson eases into position off both feet and judges what to leave well alone with uncanny accuracy. This makes the bowlers come straighter at him, whereupon he makes fools of them.
So much of all this is temperament. Crowe used to talk about "traffic" and, by that, he meant in the mind. With traffic you've got no chance, he used to say, but without it you've got no excuse. Barry Richards talks about a zen mind, Tendulkar about the "floating technique". After Lara's masterpiece in Barbados, when his unbeaten 153 carried West Indies to victory over the Australians, Wisden recalled the performance as "transcendent" and played "by the hand of genius".
My guess is that Kohli was close to this in Adelaide in 2014, where he made hundreds in each innings and all but won India the match on the final day.
Of all the players I have seen, Williamson seems to have the most ideal temperament. His batting is minimalist and his mind calm - as if the zen is a given. He rarely plays a shot in anger, while Kohli often appears to do just that on purpose, determined as ever to remind the opposition of his predatorial instincts. Smith is confrontational simply by his actions and idiosyncrasies, his rehearsals and repeats, all of which get under the skin of opponents, taunting them in a manner seldom seen. Put simply, he is asking for a fight. Root too is animated, with his awkward gait and constant movement around the crease, but there is more of the theatre in him than the boxing ring. He smiles when opponents briefly get the upper hand, thinking little of it, and appearing at all times to love the smell and feel of the game - as all cricket badgers do.
Williamson is the least eye-catching of the three but the most efficient; Smith the most eye-catching and almost wholly instinctive. In form, Root's transition from front foot to back is the smoothest and his pacing of innings always fascinating. Kohli is a force of both nature and bristling intent, an incredibly consistent batter in all formats and in all time zones.
Each has a signature. In Kohli it is intensity. He is fleet of foot and mastery through extra cover and midwicket. With Root, it is the stroke through point off the back foot, a stroke verging on genius, and the bold sweeping of the spinners. Smith, of course, fidgets like a nervous child before using the spaces on the leg side to pick off his target in the ruthless way of an experienced assassin. Williamson? It is that minimalism - how long he leaves it to play the ball and then how softly he goes about it. Williamson takes late and soft to its extremity. On a recent Zoom call for charity, a young boy asked him how he played such an effortless cover drive and he answered that there wasn't much in it other than to closely watch the ball.
That Williamson should have finished the World Test Championship final unbeaten and victorious was not the least bit surprising. In the first innings he batted to take the sting out of the Indian attack, occupying 177 balls for just six boundaries in a total of 49 runs.
It was a world away from some of the IPL brilliance we saw from him in the UAE and, briefly, India, but a world in which he is wholly at ease. In the second innings, he upped the ante (it's all relative) hitting eight boundaries in 89 balls and finishing 52 not out. Beneath the damp, grey skies and on the Hampshire Bowl pitch as it was, he figured you couldn't win the championship in the first innings but you could sure lose it. Then, come the second innings and some sunshine, he applied an old rule of thumb - the smaller the target, the more you crack on with the chase - albeit with a reference to good governance. Forever, he will be the captain and batter who led New Zealand to cricket's first ever heavyweight title, and that in itself ensures a special place in the game's history.
Certainly, Williamson has laid claim to be New Zealand's best, though Crowe's achievements against the attacks of the day allow him a place in the ongoing debate. In Crowe's teenage years he started against Lillee and Thomson, before staring down the West Indians of the 1980s and finishing on one knee against Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, among others. Akram thinks Crowe to be the best he ever bowled at.
Kohli has Gavaskar and Tendulkar to fend off, a mission impossible perhaps but not one from which he will shy away.
Smith can forget about Bradman and focus on, well, Ricky Ponting and Greg Chappell for a start.
Root has a way to go if you look at English batting before the Second World War but a decent shout against post-war heroes such as Denis Compton, Sir Geoffrey Boycott, Gooch and Sir Alastair Cook.
Such talk is conjecture and mainly subjective. A stab in the dark suggests that of these modern masters, Williamson and Kohli may leave the greater legacy. There is something delicious about them being polar opposites in so many ways, while at the same time good friends. Smith and Root are able to put down their markers in Ashes series, the match-ups that are said to "define" Australian and English cricketers.
Through August and September, audiences in England will be able to see the Kohli-Root contest up close and in full swing over the arc of five Test matches.
Batting is difficult and often frustrating but even the most prosaic can give pleasure with a moment of inspiration. It is mainly an instinctive skill and yet relies on method for its excellence. Above all batting is fragile; one minute you have it, the next it is gone. The art of batting can be a beautiful journey with a beautiful result. These four fabulous batters have proved that it can be so in a modern, more muscle-bound game. Just as it ever was.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator