Quality over quantity? Runs over reputation? The 2021 men’s Test team of the year
By retaining the urn and winning Australia’s first Twenty20 World Cup, selection chair George Bailey has set the bar high for all in this vocation.
I fear I will fall short of the Tasmanian’s lofty standards in my first year in the role after replacing my colleague Jon Pierik, who has stepped down after five years to take a rare, and well-deserved, Christmas holiday.
Unlike Bailey’s teams, though, my XI cannot be beaten. It will not play a game, picked purely to stimulate discussion, settle arguments and, hopefully, start a few others.
This has not been an easy year to conduct such an exercise. Turn on the TV and India and England will be playing Test cricket somewhere. Not so Australia or world Test championship winners New Zealand.
How do you assess the claims of Marnus Labuschagne, Kane Williamson and Steve Smith, who shone in just a handful of games, against Pakistan pair Abid Ali and Fawad Alam and Sri Lanka’s Lahiru Thirimanne, who played against weaker opposition? Is Williamson’s half-century in the WTC final worth more than a double ton in Bangladesh?
What weight should be given to the performances of Pakistan pacemen Shaheen Shah Afridi and Hasan Ali, who played largely against lower-ranked Test nations, compared to, say, Pat Cummins, Trent Boult and James Anderson, who featured in heavyweight series?
India’s Rohit Sharma.Credit:AP
The axe was swung, with seven of last year’s 12 punted, including five Englishmen (what was Jon thinking?). Only two Australians made the XI. Virat Kohli missed out – again. And there was no room for three of the top five wicket-takers.
This team has been picked with the view of being able to play in almost all conditions, though we have reserved the right to make one change should we encounter a green top. Read through to find out why.
Rohit Sharma (India)
11 Tests: 906 @ 47.68, two centuries
Once thought of as a white-ball specialist, the India opener has established himself as a bona fide Test star. After failing to fire in Australia, Rohit hit his straps at home against England and was just as effective in the return series in English conditions. His 83 set up victory at Lord’s and his ton turned the game India’s at The Oval, earning him player of the match honours.
Dimuth Karunaratne (Sri Lanka)
Seven Tests: 902 @ 69.38, four centuries
The Sri Lanka skipper forced his way into the side through the tried and true way of runs, runs and more runs. Only Joe Root made more centuries than Karunaratne’s four in what was a career-best year for the left-handed opener. Admittedly, he was helped by some mammoth scores on flat tracks at home against weak opposition but a century in South Africa underlined his class. David Warner and New Zealand pair Devon Conway and Tom Latham missed out due to a lack of game time.
Kane Williamson (c) (New Zealand)
Four Tests: 395 @ 65.83, one century
I can see what you’re already thinking. How can Conway and Latham miss out, but Williamson gets in? In this case, it’s quality over quantity. Let me point you to the world Test championship final. He may have played in only four games but fired in the one that mattered. In a low-scoring game, the Black Caps superstar made 49 and a nerveless 52 not out under immense pressure to steer his country to the inaugural title. He gets the nod as skipper as well.
Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne took the No.1 men’s batting ranking in 2021.Credit:Getty Images
Marnus Labuschagne (Australia)
Five Tests: 526 @ 65.75, two centuries
It is a measure of his reliability and consistency that the Queenslander was one of the first names slotted into the batting line-up despite playing so few games. The Australian No.3 enhanced his already lofty reputation by topping the runs list in the Border-Gavaskar series, including a century at the start of the year in Sydney, and was instrumental to his country’s success in the Ashes. Crowned in December as the world’s top-ranked batter, he firmly belongs among the game’s elite willow wielders. Unless the captain wants to give up his spot at first drop, I’m comfortable with him at No.4.
Joe Root (England)
15 Tests: 1708 @ 61, six centuries
After three relatively quiet years by his exemplary standards, the England captain re-established himself as one of the game’s best batters. A minor tweak to his technique, which now sees his back foot move straighter back instead of across the crease, shored up his defence, allowing him to enjoy one of the most prolific years of all time. Home or abroad, it did not matter for Root, whose epic tons in Galle and Chennai inspired his team to victories – yes, England beat India in India. His leadership has been questioned in Australia, but he has been one of the better performed players in the Ashes. Where would England be without him?
Rishabh Pant is hugged by Mohammed Siraj after India won the series against Australia at the Gabba.Credit:Getty
Rishabh Pant (India)
12 Tests: 748 @ 39.36, one century
The position of wicketkeeper was all but locked in by mid-January so well did he play in Australia. Pant’s fearlessness and enterprising strokeplay against Australia’s vaunted attack drew comparisons with the great Adam Gilchrist. His 97 saved India from defeat in Sydney, while his rollicking 89 not out in Brisbane secured India back-to-back series wins on these shores and breached Australia’s Gabba fortress for the first time in 32 years. Fourth on the runs charts, his dynamic play edged him ahead of Pakistan’s Mohammad Rizwan.
Ravichandran Ashwin (India)
Nine Tests: 52 wickets @ 16.94, three five-wicket hauls, 355 runs @ 25.35, one century
The India spin wizard retains his place in the side after finishing 2021 at the top of the wickets list. Yes, he was helped by his team’s heavy home schedule, but his rivals also benefited from games on spin-friendly tracks. His four wickets in the world Test championship final settled any doubts over his ability to play on the road. It was not his best year with the bat but a century in Chennai and a game-saving knock in Sydney were enough to have him at seven to fit in a second spinner.
Kyle Jamieson (New Zealand)
Five Tests: 27 @ 17.51, three five-wicket hauls
The giant Kiwi quick is another whose performance at Southampton pushed him into the XI ahead of England veteran James Anderson and Pakistan’s Hasan Ali, who both claimed more wickets. Starting the year with a bang with 11 wickets against Pakistan in Christchurch, Jamieson sealed his place with an agenda-setting 5-31 in the decider. His bag included the big scalps of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant.
Axar Patel (India)
Five Tests: 36 @ 11.86, five five-wicket hauls
A controversial choice as his numbers, though dominant, are inflated by playing exclusively at home. Not a great turner, the left-arm finger-spinner does not appear to be a dangerous adversary, but it’s his ability to slide the ball straight on which leads batters to their demise. Eighteen of his 35 wickets (51 per cent) came through bowled or lbw. As a comparison, 25 per cent of Nathan Lyon’s 411 Test wickets have come via these modes. He carries the drinks if we encounter a paceman’s paradise.
Pat Cummins (Australia)
Four Tests: 21 @ 18.76, one five-wicket haul
In a year when he has become his country’s 47th male Test captain, this is arguably his finest achievement, isn’t it? While his pace cartel teammates ran out of puff against India, Cummins held his form against strong opposition on unfavourable pitches in Sydney and Brisbane. Other bowlers have taken the spoils in the Ashes, but his first-day contributions set the game up for his side. It is to be hoped Cricket Australia is more prepared to travel in 2022 as it would be a shame for him to play so little during his peak years.
Shaheen Shah Afridi (Pakistan)
Nine Tests: 47 @ 17.06, three five-wicket hauls
The final pace berth was the most difficult decision to make. The Pakistani got the nod ahead of his new-ball partner Hasan Ali, veteran Anderson and New Zealand swingman Tim Southee. Being a left-armer adds variety to the attack, but it was the 198-centimetre seamer’s ability to extract bounce from lifeless pitches, and accuracy, which gave the 21-year-old his first appearance in this illustrious side. His opposition – Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and the West Indies – may not be the world’s best but nor did he play in regions conducive to his style of bowling.
Steve Smith (12th) (Australia)
Five Tests: 430 runs @ 53.75, one century
We’re all prone to recency bias, so it’s easy to place more emphasis on his last month of 2021 than his first when he found a way through India’s stifling tactics. The superstar Australia batter gets into the squad ahead of the likes of Abid Ali, Fawad Alam and Lahiru Thirimanne partly due to reputation and the quality of his opposition. And if you were on a green mamba, would you want any of them batting for your life ahead of Smith? He takes Patel’s place in the XI should we encounter such a track.
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