Why Steven Smith is the best of the Fab Four

"I said during the summer that Virat Kohli is the best player I have ever seen but that is just another level… he is the best problem-solver in the game."

Those were the words of Justin Langer, Australia's coach, after Steven Smith's utterly monumental effort at Edgbaston. He scored 39% of Australia's bat runs (runs excluding extras) in the Test, was in the middle when Australia scored 74% of their total runs (571 out of 771), and became only the fourth batsman in history to score 140-plus runs in both innings. All this in the opening match of an away Ashes series, in hostile conditions, in his first Test in 16 months. Just another day (or five days) in the office.

Inevitably, there were comparisons with Kohli - who got hundreds in each innings in Adelaide in 2014, and has been prolific over the last three-and-a-half years - but also with England's captain Joe Root, who has had a bit of a batting slump recently, and who only managed 57 and 28 in the two innings at Edgbaston. ESPNcricinfo presents a comparison among this generations fab four batsmen, along a few key parameters since the start of 2016.

Runs, and contribution to the team's total

The overall averages since the beginning of 2016 shows a clear gulf between the top three and Root. Smith, Kohli and Kane Williamson all top 60, while Root languishes at 44.95, below Cheteshwar Pujara, Henry Nicholls and Tom Latham. The fall for Root has been quite significant: before 2016, he averaged 54.68, which means he has dropped around 18% in the last three-and-a-half years.

Smith, though, is distancing himself even from this very elite group. Since the start of 2014, he averages a staggering 73.53 and has contributed 20.6% of Australia's total bat runs. In the last three-and-a-half years, his average has seen a very marginal drop - to 70.60 - but Australia's dependency on him increased even further: he has scored 21.25% of the team's bat runs. That is a whopping 35% more than the percentage contribution of Root to England's runs (15.76%). Kohli and Williamson are somewhere in between, but still considerably higher than Root's percentage.

In the Edgbaston Test, Australia scored 74% of their total runs while Smith was out there in the middle. He was involved in 11 partnerships over the course of his two hundreds (came in at two-down, and was last out in the first innings and fifth out in the second). That is an average of 5.5 partners per innings in the Test. For Root, the corresponding values in the Test were 38% and 2.

The values for: Smith - Partners per inns: 2.68, % team runs: 41.98; Williamson - 2.52, 32.60; Kohli - 2.37, 34.14; Root - 2.22, 29.19

Edgbaston was obviously an extraordinary Test for Smith, but the graph above plots those two values for all top-order batsmen in Tests since the start of 2016. A high value for both indicates two things:

  • Most of the team's runs are scored when the batsman is at the crease, which means he is a key member of the batting line-up

  • He tends to bat through several wickets falling at the other end, which suggests an ability to bat in difficult conditions/ when there is lack of support at the other end

As the graph indicates, Smith stands out on both counts. He bats, on average, with 2.68 partners, and Australia score about 42% of their runs when he is at the crease. For Williamson, the corresponding numbers are 2.52 and 32.60, for Kohli 2.37 and 34.14, and for Root 2.22 and 29.19. Thus, Smith's partners per innings is 21% better than Root's, and his team run percentage is about 44% higher. Kohli's partners per innings is slightly lower than Williamson's despite him having a marginally higher run percentage, which indicates more support from other batsmen, mainly Pujara.

Absorbing the pressure of early wickets

In both innings of the Edgbaston Test, Smith walked in to bat early: Australia lost their second wicket at 17 in the first innings, and at 27 in the second. On both occasions, he bested the conditions and the match situation - Australia were also facing a 90-run deficit in the second innings - with great skill and even temperament. In fact, in the 13 innings since January 2016 when Smith has come in to bat at No. 4 before the score has reached 50, he has scored 873 runs at an average of 72.75. He has three centuries in these 13 innings. Apart from the two at Edgbaston, the other one was also in an Ashes opener, at the Gabba in 2017, when he came in at 30 for 2 and remained unbeaten on 141. There was also that unbeaten 48 in Hobart against South Africa in 2016, when he came in at 2 for 2 and watched the entire team collapse for 85, with the next-highest score being 10.

Outside of these 13 instances, there were also seven other times when he came in at No. 3 before the total touched 50 (Actually, Australia didn't even have 25 runs before they needed him). And in these seven innings, Smith scored 458 runs at 65.43, including three hundreds - 119 in Colombo, 109 in Pune, and 111 in Dharamsala. Australia lost two of those Tests, winning in one in the middle. There were also two other instances when he came in at No. 5 before the total reached 50. In all, there have been 22 times that Smith has come in to bat before the total reached 50 in these last three-and-a-half years and he averages 68.45. That is way higher than Kohli, Williamson and Root in similar situations.

Kohli, in fact, averages the least in this group. As a No. 4, he has begun 22 of his innings before India could get to their fifty, averaging 43.9 with three hundreds - one each in Centurion, Visakhapatnam and Perth - but also four ducks and four other single-digit scores. His overall average of 39.42 in these situations includes a couple of instances of him batting at No. 3 and No. 5, and coming in before India reached 50.

Williamson's average touches 50 when he comes in before the team reaches 50, and in 26 innings when he has come in before 25, his average is nearly as good - 49.54. Root averages 42.46 in the 25 innings at No. 4 when he has come in before 50, and 38.94 in 18 innings when he has come in at No. 3 before 25. He did score 254 from No. 3 against Pakistan at Old Trafford when he came in at 25 for 1, though.

Control factor

In fairly challenging conditions at Edgbaston, Smith achieved a control factor of 84.9 compared to Root's 79.4. However, over these last three-and-a-half years, among batsmen who have faced 2000-plus balls in Tests and scored at a strike-rate of over 50, neither of them is on top. That honour goes to Williamson, who seldom looks ungainly even when he gets out for a low score. His control percentage is 90.2, followed by Smith's 88.72. Kohli is fifth and Root eighth, with not too much separating them. (The strike rate cut-off is taken to compare the control percentages of batsmen who are reasonably aggressive as well.)

Stats against the top bowlers

And finally, a look at how these batsmen have fared against the top bowlers since 2016. The table below lists the top batsmen against bowlers who have taken at least 30 wickets at an average of less than 32 during this period. Thirty-seven bowlers make the cut, and among the 20 batsmen who have scored 1000-plus runs against them, Smith leads the way, again, though his average drops from 70.6 against all bowlers, to 54.87 against this set. Similarly, Kohli's average drops from 65.8 to 46.21, while the drop for Williamson is around 10 runs. The surprise is Root, whose average actually goes up marginally, compared to his overall average during this period.

While Smith leads the averages overall, the break-up of numbers when splitting up this group by pace and spin is quite remarkable. Against the fast bowlers in this group, Smith's average soars to Bradmanesque heights - 93.16, which is twice as many as Kohli and Root; Williamson averages less than 40 against them. Smith's average against the spinners in this group drops considerably - 31.90, and 23.14 against left-arm orthodox spinners. Rangana Herath dismissed him five times for 79 runs, though all of those were in spin friendly conditions in Sri Lanka.

* Bowlers with 30+ wickets at an average below 32 since Jan 1, 2016
If conditions at Lord's provide some assistance to spin, England will hope that their newly inducted left-armer Jack Leach will invoke the spirit of Herath, and do what Stuart Broad and Co failed to at Edgbaston. In almost all the other parameters save the one against spin, Smith is well ahead of his peers. Over the last few years, he has taken Test batting to new heights, and these numbers only further illustrate how and why he is the fabbest of the four.