As debate swirls around Australian captain Steve Smith’s ascent to all-time great batsmen status after a stellar Ashes series, it seems as good a time as any to reopen to the perennial debate – who are the greatest to wield the willow in Test cricket?
The top half-dozen more or less pick themselves – though the order in which to place them was much trickier – but after that it becomes much harder.
Smith, who seems destined for ‘best since Bradman’ repute by the time he retires, came under brief consideration thanks to his astonishing efforts, but five summers as a permanent Test player was ultimately too small a sample size.
Similar fates befell South African icons Barry Richards and Grame Pollock, West Indies legend George Headley, and pioneering champions W.G. Grace and Victor Trumper, unforgettable figures whose achievements would have pushed into this list if they had been give the chance to play enough cricket in the Test spectrum.
The careers of all-time greats Ken Barrington, Matthew Hayden, Steve Waugh, Mahela Jayawardene, Everton Weekes and Javed Miandad were also picked apart in compiling this list.
Despite the inevitable howls of protest – which we always welcome in the form of vigorous discussion – we’re pretty happy with this list:
15. Rahul Dravid (India)
Regarded as being one of the last ‘classical’ Test batsmen, Indian legend Rahul Dravid provided the stability and orthodox genius to complement the explosive brilliance of teammates like Tendulkar and Sehwag. Debuting in 1996, Dravid scored 13,288 runs in 164 Tests – a total that ranks behind only Tendulkar, Ponting and Kallis – at an average of 52.31.
He scored 36 Test centuries, though just one in his first 22 matches (he was out in the eighties or nineties eight times during that period). But after gradually establishing himself as an integral part of India’s line-up in the late-1990s, Dravid came of age with a memorable 180 against Australia in Kolkata in 2001 as the hosts recovered from a 274-run first-innings deficit to win handsomely. He then put his skill and iron will on display for Australia crowds during the 2003/04 summer, scoring 619 runs at 123.8 – including 233 and 72* at Adelaide.
Dravid’s highest Test score came against archrivals Pakistan in 2004, scoring 270 at Rawalpindi, and triple-figure scores flowed consistently for the remainder of his magnificent career. He scored three centuries in a heavy four-Test series loss in England in 2011, bowing out after the subsequent series in Australia in the southern hemisphere summer.
14. Greg Chappell (Australia)
Several Australian batsmen have been lavished with the ‘best since Bradman’ label, but few received it as categorically as 1970s and ‘80s star Greg Chappell. The most talented of a trio of Test-playing brothers, Chappell scored a century on debut at the WACA against England in 1970 – the first of 24 Test tons he would amass in 87 matches.
Despite missing two years in the Test arena during the World Series Cricket revolution, Chappell racked up 7,110 runs at the stellar average of 53.86. When Wisden named their 100 greatest Test innings in 2001, he had three entries: 182* against West Indies in Sydney in 1975/76 (26th), 204 versus England in Sydney in 1980/81 (52nd) and 176 against New Zealand in Christchurch in 1981/82 (62nd).
Meanwhile, Chappell’s highest Test score was 247 not out at the Kiwis’ expense in 1974, which he backed up with 133 in the second innings. Gritty, tough and calm at the crease in an era where the likes of the Windies bowling attack made batting a life-threatening pursuit, Chappell’s brilliance was evident until the end, smashing five centuries in his last 19 innings – including 182 against Pakistan in his final Test dig in 1984.
13. Len Hutton (England)
Most famous for scoring 364 against Australia at the The Oval in 1938 – breaking Wally Hammond’s world record – Hutton was a wonderful performer in a 79-Test career for England that spanned almost 18 years. He scored 6,971 runs at 56.67 including 19 centuries, the first of which came against New Zealand at Old Trafford in his second Test appearance. Less than a year later he notched triple figures in his maiden Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, before crafting his iconic 364 at the tender age of 21.
While World War II took a six-year chunk out of his burgeoning Test career, Hutton went on to carve out a reputation as the game’s most technically correct batsman after the war. The steadfast opener scored double centuries at The Oval against New Zealand and West Indies in 1949 and ’50 respectively, and another at Kingston against the Windies in 1954 less than a year before he bowed out of the international arena. Hutton scored unbeaten Ashes centuries Down Under in 1946/47 and Adelaide in 1950/51, as well as 145 as captain against Australia. Hutton was knighted in 1956, just a year after his Test career finished.
12. Sunil Gavaskar (India)
Diminutive Indian opener Gavaskar will always hold a hallowed place in the annals of Test cricket history after becoming the first played to score 10,000 runs and 30 centuries. During an international career that spanned 125 matches from 1971-87, Gavaskar amassed 10,122 runs at 51.12 and plundered 34 tons – despite playing much of his Test cricket against the ferocious West Indies attack and Australia’s deadly Lillee-Thompson combination.
Gavaskar’s class was clear from the outset, racking up a ridiculous 774 runs at 154.8 against the West Indies in his debut series. The tally included four centuries and three fifties, while he scored 124 and 220 in the Port of Spain draw that secured India’s series win. His highest score, 236 not out, came against a Windies side at the height of their powers in Chennai in 1983/84, while arguably his finest knock was a match-saving 221 against England in the fourth innings at The Oval in 1979. One of the great defensive players and possessing exquisite balance, Gavaskar prized reliability over flair but still boasted every stroke in the book in his armoury.
11. Allan Border (Australia)
Though far from the most gifted, brilliant, well-rounded or entertaining batsman, ‘AB’ became Test cricket’s greatest run-scorer courtesy of peerless willpower and mental resolve, leading Australia from its lowest ebb in the mid-1980s to the top of the cricketing world – a mantle rarely relinquished by the baggy green since Border’s retirement in 1994.
Border scored 11,174 runs at 50.56 across a then-record 156 Test appearances, notching 27 centuries and 63 fifties. Debuting for his country in 1978 during the troubled World Series Cricket period, Border sealed his place as a key member of the Australian line-up when he scored 150* and 153 against Pakistan at Lahore in 1980. Unbeaten scores of 98 and 100 against the ferocious West Indies attack in Port of Spain in ’84 enhanced his status as the gutsiest batsman in world cricket, and made him a popular choice to succeed Kim Hughes as captain.
It may have seemed a poisoned chalice, but Border thrived even when the team didn’t, scoring 597 runs at 66.33 in a 3-1 Ashes series defeat in England in 1985. He remained a pillar of Australia’s batting line-up as they gradually climbed to Test cricket’s apex. Border’s 200 not out at Lord’s as Australia retained the Ashes in 1993 was the most memorable performance of his twilight years, but the dogged leader held his own in subsequent series against New Zealand and South Africa before hanging it up in March 1994.
10. Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka)
Sri Lanka’s greatest player, Sangakkara retired from the Test arena in 2015 fifth on the all-time list of run-scorers from all nations, scoring 12,400 runs at 57.40 – including 38 centuries (third-most in history) and 52 fifties. The fact he was Sri Lanka’s wicketkeeper for a large portion of his career – including three 150-plus scores – makes his achievements all the more stunning.
Most comfortable cutting and pulling the ball, Sangakkara developed into a menacing front-foot batsman as his career wore on. His 11 double-centuries (including a career-best 319 against Bangladesh in 2014) are second only to Don Bradman.
One criticism of Sangakkara is that he rarely produced his best against the dominant Australians, though he did score 192 at Hobart in 2007. Other nations didn’t get off so lightly, however, with Sangakkara scoring 1,493 in 2014 (the ninth-highest calendar year tally ever), passing 50 in 13 of his 22 innings. Shortly before stepping away from Test cricket in 2015, Sangakkara was named as the third-best Test player of the 21st century in a cricket.com.au poll, behind only Adam Gilchrist and Jacques Kallis.
9. Walter Hammond (England)
England’s answer to Don Bradman during the 1930s, Wally Hammond scored over 50,000 runs in first-class cricket and was regarded as one of the four greatest batsmen ever – with WG Grace, Jack Hobbs and Bradman – by the time he retired. An exciting, naturally gifted player and something of an off-field rogue, Hammond played 85 Tests from 1927-47 (a huge amount for that era) and scored a long-standing Test record of 7,249 runs at 58.45. The Kent-born middle-order superstar racked up 22 Test centuries – a mark that stood for England until broken by Alastair Cook in 2012.
After a decent start to his Test tenure, Hammond exploded during the 1928-29 tour of Australia, scoring back-to-back double centuries in Sydney and Melbourne, before plundering 119* and 177 in Adelaide. His tally of 905 runs is second only to Bradman’s 974 in the 1930 Ashes for the most runs in a Test series. Hammond also scored 227 and a then-world record 336 not out in consecutive matches against New Zealand in 1933, and had more Ashes double-tons in store for Australia at the SCG (1936/37) and Lord’s (1938). A modest run of post-war performances brought down his average slightly, but Hammond’s place amongst the best of all time had already been sealed for perpetuity.
8. Jacques Kallis (South Africa)
Like Sir Garfield Sobers (see No.6), Kallis’ excellence as a bowler (292 Test wickets in 166 matches) contributes heavily to his standing among cricket’s all-time greats. But sheer weight of numbers underlines his status as one of the best batsmen ever: the hulking South African boasts 13,289 Test runs (third all-time) at 55.37, including 45 centuries (second all-time) and 58 half-centuries from 1995-2013.
An aggressive powerhouse that could strike fear into any attack – as his 97 sixes in Tests, second only to Adam Gilchrist at the time, attests – Kallis had outstanding technique and mental strength that allowed him to occupy the crease for hours upon hours. His first century was a match-saving 101 on a deteriorating MCG pitch in 1997, his seventh Test, and he got better and better as his mind-blowing career wore on.
Kallis topped 1,200 Test runs in 2004 and ’07, while he smashed six centuries in 2010 – culminating in his first double-ton, 201* against India at Centurion. A hundred in each innings followed later in that series in Cape Town, the venue where he hit a career-best 224 against Sri Lanka in early-2012. India bore the brunt of Kallis’ batting brutality again in 2013 when his 115 in his final Test innings inspired South Africa to a 10-wicket win in Durban.
7. Jack Hobbs (England)
The most prolific batsman in first-class cricket history, Hobbs’ status as a Test legend, the best pre-Bradman batsman and England’s best ever is well-entrenched. ‘The Master’ scored 5,410 runs at 56.94 in 61 Tests between 1908-30, including 15 hundreds and 28 fifties.
Hobbs twice notched centuries in three consecutive Tests against Australia in Australia (1911/12 and 1924/25), while his 142 in Melbourne in 1929 holds a unique place in the game’s history – he remains the oldest player to score a Test ton (46 years and 82 days).
The Cambridge-born icon became cricket’s first knight in 1953, while he named as one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Century in 2000 – behind only Don Bradman and Gary Sobers, and ahead of Shane Warne and Viv Richards.
6. Garfield Sobers (West Indies)
Sir Garfield Sobers’ naming as the second-greatest player of the 20th century – behind only Bradman – in a Wisden poll was in large part due to his prowess with the ball, claiming 235 wickets in 93 Tests. His legacy is as the finest all-rounder ever, but Sobers deserves his place in the top echelon of batsmen of all time: the Barbados legend scored 8,032 runs at 57.78 (the best average of any player in Test history with more than 7,000 runs to their name), including 26 centuries and 30 fifties.
A 17-year-old Test debutant for the West Indies in 1954, incredibly Sobers’ high score in his first 28 Test innings was just 80, before scoring a world record 365 not out against Pakistan in Kingston in 1958. He followed that up with a century in each innings in Georgetown, and reached triple figures in three straight Tests in India later that year to establish himself as the world’s preeminent batsman.
Sobers rarely went a series without scoring a century thereafter, topping the run charts (709 at 101.28) in a home series loss to England in 1959/60, and scoring hundreds in Brisbane and Sydney on his first tour of Australia the following summer. A tally of 722 runs at 103.14 in the Windies’ 3-1 series win in England in 1966 was one of his crowning achievements, but he remained a dominant force on the international scene until his retirement in 1974.
5. Brian Lara (West Indies)
Elegant, powerful, technically brilliant and an extraordinary record-setter, Brian Lara was the batsman of the 1990s – despite the decline of the West Indies from undisputed world champion to ailing power during that decade. By the time he retired in 2006, Lara had scored an all-time record 11,953 Test runs (he has since been overtaken by six players) in 131 Tests at 52.88, including 34 centuries and 48 fifties.
Lara’s maiden century came in his fifth Test, a scintillating 277 at the SCG in 1993. His legend was sealed a little over a year later when he broke countryman Garfield Sobers’ world record by scoring 375 against England at St John’s. When Australian opener Matthew Hayden broke his record with 380 in 2003, the ageing Lara responded by scoring 400 not out (against England at St John’s once again) just six months later. In the interceding years there were many great knocks: 213 against Australia in Kingston in 1998/99; 153* in the following match at Bridgetown, rated the second-greates innings of all time by Wisden; 182 at the Adelaide Oval in the 2000/01 summer; and double-centuries against Sri Lanka at home and away, and against South Africa in Johannesburg.
Unlike many of the best batsmen, Lara was magnificent until the end – notching nine centuries in his last 25 Tests following the unprecedented 400*. He smashed a masterful 226 in a losing effort in Adelaide in 2005 – his last Test against Australia – while in his final series, in Pakistan in ’06, he scored 61 and 122 in the opening encounter and 216 in his penultimate Test appearance.
4. Ricky Ponting (Australia)
Launceston-born Ponting took the determination and ruthlessness of predecessors Steve Waugh and Allan Border, and combined it with rare batting genius that saw him become Australia’s greatest-ever run-scorer – and second only to Tendulkar in Test history. A prodigiously gifted teenager always destined for the game’s heights, Ponting scored 96 on Test debut against Sri Lanka as a 20-year-old in 1995. His maiden century came in his Ashes introduction at Leeds in ’97 – the first of 41 Test tons, a tally behind only Kallis and Tenulkar. Brilliant but somewhat inconsistent early on, ‘Punter’s’ path to icon status began in the 1999/2000 summer when, after scoring three straight ducks against Pakistan, he plundered three big centuries in his next four Tests against Pakistan and India.
After dominating the 2002/03 Ashes series, Ponting, whose cover drive and pull shots were the trademarks of his wide-ranging armoury, became the second player after Bradman to score three double-centuries in a calendar year in ’03, then succeeded Waugh as Test skipper the following year. He oversaw the famous Ashes loss in England in 2005, but bounced back with centuries in both innings of Tests against South Africa in Sydney and Durban, the latter his 100th appearance, in the first half of ’06. Ponting top-scored with 576 runs at 82.28 as Australia reclaimed the Ashes 5-0 in 2006/07 and continued to be rated as one of the world’s best batsman (if not the undisputed No.1) for several more years.
The 2010/11 Ashes defeat led to Ponting resigning as skipper, but 544 runs at 108.80 against India in the 2011/12 summer – including his sixth double-century – was one last reminder of his extraordinary ability. Ponting’s illustrious Test career petered out in unbefitting fashion the following summer, announcing his retirement amidst a dismal series against South Africa, but his record of 13,378 runs at 51.85 from 168 Tests perfectly illustrate how great he was for a long period of time, while becoming the first player to feature in 100 Test wins highlights his mammoth influence during an era where Australia dominated Test cricket.
3. Viv Richards (West Indies)
Arguably the most exhilarating batsmen to grace Test cricket, Viv Richards psyched opposition teams out with his devastating power, supreme confidence and an unwavering attacking mindset. Possessing swagger that make the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Shane Warne look like nerdlingers in comparison, the West Indian master blaster was the epitome of cricketing cool, and terrified opposing bowlers in the same manner the Windies’ fast-bowling contingent did other nations’ batsmen. Unstoppable on the front foot, the fact he never wore a helmet – yet hooked with crushing effectiveness like few before or since – only added to Richards’ mystique.
Richards scored 8,540 runs at 50.23 in 121 Tests, notching 24 centuries and 45 fifties. His 84 sixes were a long-standing Test record. After scoring 192* in his second Test against India in Delhi in 1974, he dominated the same country on home soil with centuries in three straight Tests in 1976, then set about cementing his legend in England later that year. Richards scored 829 runs in just seven innings at 118.42 – bookended by scores of 232 and 291 – as the West Indies powered to a 3-0 win. His calendar year tally of 1,710 runs stood as a Test record for 30 years.
While his career did not reach those dizzying statistical heights again, Richards was the dominant batsman of the 1980s, and did not lose a series as West Indies captain from 1984-91. Test batting highlights of his reign as skipper include a blistering 208 at the MCG in 1984, the then-fastest century of all time (56 balls) against England at St John’s in ’86, and 146 from 150 balls in a win over Australia at the WACA in 1988. Proving his class until the very end, Richards produced an innings of 60 or more in each of the five Tests of his farewell series, against England in 1991. His naming in 2000 as one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Century, and almost universal adulation from his contemporaries, are indicative measures of Sir Viv’s greatness.
2. Sachin Tendulkar (India)
On pure aggregates, Tendulkar stands head and shoulders above the rest, while most would argue ability-wise the little master is the best since Bradman. Tendulkar’s 15,921 runs (at an average of 53.78) is more than 2,500 ahead of the second-placed Ponting, while he scored 51 centuries and 68 fifties in 200 Tests from 1989-2013 as the jewel in the crown of India’s rise from middling nation to world cricketing powerhouse.
A textbook employer of all the classic batting strokes, Tendulkar was also one of the great improvisors who could score all around the ground, all around the world. Making his Test debut for India at just 16 in 1989, the wunderkind had a century at Old Trafford aged 17, and wowed Australian audiences with hundreds in Sydney and Perth during the 1991/92 summer. He notched the first of six double-centuries in late-1999 against New Zealand – a fitting precursor to becoming the dominant batsman of the ensuing decade.
Coupling courage and a tenacious will to win with his unmatched batting genius, Tendulkar racked up 1,392 Test runs in 2002, while he carved a then-career-best 241* (plus 60* in the second innings) against all-conquering Australia at the SCG to finish off a personally disappointing 2003/04 series in blockbusting style, and smashed two scores of 150-plus on India’s tour Down Under in 2007/08.
Legend status already attained long ago, Tendulkar hit seven centuries (including two doubles) amongst a 1,562-run calendar year in 2010. His 214 and 53* at Bengalaru helped India to a 2-0 series win over Australia that year. Remarkably, his 146 at Cape Town in January 2011 was the last of his 51 tons despite playing in a further 23 Tests, but his place in cricket’s pantheon of untouchable greats was already assured.
1. Don Bradman (Australia)
Regardless of any attempt to bring him back to the pack via era comparisons, ‘The Don’ is undeniably the greatest batsman in cricket’s long history. An iconic average of 99.94 in 52 Tests for Australia, encompassing 6,996 runs, ranks alongside any individual achievement in sports. In 80 innings, Bradman converted scores of 50-plus into centuries on 29 (a record for almost 40 years after his retirement) out of 42 occasions, scored 12 double-centuries (still a record) and posted more than 300 runs twice.
Those figures go part of the way to explaining Bradman’s utter dominance during a Test career that spanned from 1928 to ’48. ‘The Boy From Bowral’ scored a disappointing 18 and 1 on debut against England in Brisbane in 1928 and was dropped, but after being reinstated later in the series and scoring 79 and 112 at the MCG, there was no stopping the diminutive prodigy.
Bradman scored a colossal 974 runs in just seven innings (including a then-record 334 at Headingley), averaging 139.14, as Australia reclaimed the Ashes in 1930. His flawless technique, peerless array of shots and rapid scoring rate captured the imagination of a nation – and the cricketing world. England’s controversial leg theory was devised purely to combat Bradman’s brilliance, yet he still managed to average 56.57 in the ‘Bodyline’ series loss of 1933/34.
Despite battling health problems, Bradman steered Australia to a memorable Ashes triumph abroad in 1934, scoring 304 at Headingley and 244 and 77 at The Oval in the final two Tests. World War II put international cricket on hiatus, but the 38-year-old picked up where he left off with scores of 187 and 234 in the first two Tests of the 1946/47 Ashes campaign. A polarising and often unpopular figure within his own camp – particularly after assuming the captaincy – Bradman was nevertheless devastating with the bat until the end of his incomparable career. He bludgeoned 715 runs in six innings at 178.75 in his farewell home series against India in 1947/48, while fittingly he scored 173* at Leeds in his penultimate Test innings in the 1948 Ashes series.
A duck in his last innings prevented him from retiring with a magical average of 100, but Bradman’s 99.94 is a staggering 36 better than the second-placed batsman in Test history, current skipper Steve Smith.