Cricket

The Spin | The men’s Test cricket team of the year: from Williamson to Sharma

The Guardian’s men’s Test team of the year is back, for its eighth edition. This year’s selectors were Ali Martin, Jonathan Liew, Rob Smyth, Emma John, Adam Collins, Tim de Lisle and myself. Eagle-eyed readers may spot that there’s not a single Australian in it. That has everything to do with the fact that when we picked our XI (before the Boxing Day Tests) the team had played only three Tests this year, all at home, and nothing to do with the Australian selector being outnumbered six to one. Promise.

1) Rohit Sharma, India

906 runs at 48

A unanimous pick. Made important contributions during India’s series win in Australia, then stepped up a gear when he made a match-defining 161 in India’s 317-run victory against England on a spinning pitch in the second Test in Chennai. He followed that with 15 consecutive double-figures innings, a run that finished with his first overseas century, another match-winning innings against England, in very different conditions, during their 157-run victory in the fourth Test at the Oval. Finishes the year as India’s white ball captain, so one of the most influential men in world cricket.

2) Dimuth Karunaratne, Sri Lanka

902 runs at 69

The captaincy has been the making of Karunaratne, who had the best year of his long career. Away from home, his 103 was the one bright spot in an embarrassing defeat to South Africa at the Wanderers, and he also batted four hours to secure a draw in the second Test on tour in West Indies. England’s 2-0 victory in Sri Lanka might have worked out differently if he’d been fit, because his home form has been imperious. He made 244, and 118 against Bangladesh, and 147 against West Indies. Is averaging 50 as skipper.

Sri Lanka’s captain, Dimuth Karunaratne, in action against the West Indies.
Sri Lanka’s captain, Dimuth Karunaratne, in action against West Indies. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

3) Kane Williamson, New Zealand (captain)

395 runs at 66

Williamson has been struggling with an elbow injury, which he nursed through tours of England and India. It meant that more than half his runs came in one innings, when he made 238 against Pakistan in Christchurch. But he was back, and right in the thick of it, for the biggest match his team played, the World Test Championship final against India in Southampton. He made an over-my-dead body 49 in the first innings, and was there unbeaten on 52 at the finish. It was a fitting reward for the most impressive captain in the sport.

4) Joe Root, England

1,708 runs at 61, 14 wickets at 30

No Englishman has had a year quite like Root did in 2021, when he finally became the truly dominant batsman he always promised to be. He started with 228 and 186 in two Tests against Sri Lanka in Galle, and followed that with his monumental 218 against India in Chennai. Back home, he peeled off 109, 180* and 121 in successive matches against India. Which meant his 89 in the first Ashes Test almost felt like a failure. Right now, he is the world’s best batsman. The shame is that, at the end of it all, his team have so few Test victories to show for it.

5) Fawad Alam, Pakistan

571 runs at 57

Ungainly, unorthodox, but irresistibly effective, Alam lapped up a first full year of Test cricket. He had spent a decade waiting for a second chance after he made his debut in 2009, 88 Tests on the sidelines, and this was his chance to show the Pakistan selectors what they had been missing. Made the top score of 109 in Pakistan’s victory over South Africa in Karachi, after the team had been 27 for four, followed it up with 140* against Zimbabwe in Harare and 124* against the West Indies at Sabina Park. He was the only century-maker on either side in all three matches.

Fawad Alam of Pakistan takes an acrobatic catch to dismiss Jermaine Blackwood of West Indies in August.
Fawad Alam of Pakistan takes an acrobatic catch to dismiss Jermaine Blackwood of West Indies in August. Photograph: Randy Brooks/AFP/Getty Images

6) Rishabh Pant, India (wicketkeeper)

706 runs at 42, 26 catches, six stumpings (not including current Test v South Africa)

If the only thing Pant did in 2021 was hit that one reverse-lap sweep for four off Jimmy Anderson, you would still remember his year. As it was, his devil-may-care batting made him one of the key players in India’s series victory in Australia, where he made a crucial 97 in the draw at Sydney and an extraordinary 89* in the win at Brisbane. He worked over England, too, with 91, 58*, and 101 in the series at home. His form fell away on the return tour later in the summer but he still finished with a fine 50 at the Oval.

7) Ravichandran Ashwin, India

337 runs at 28, 52 wickets at 16 (not including current Test v South Africa)

Ashwin played only eight of India’s 13 Tests this year, and somehow he still ended up as the leading wicket-taker in Test cricket (at the time of writing). After years of ceaseless tinkering and thinking, he has turned himself into the greatest spin bowler of his era. At home, he’s unplayable. He picked up 32 wickets in four Tests against England, and another 14 in two home Tests against New Zealand. In among all that, he made a handsome century against England in Chennai, and was unbeaten on 39 at stumps when India drew in Sydney.

India’s Ravichandran Ashwin has become a supreme spin bowler after years of tinkering.
India’s Ravichandran Ashwin has become a supreme spin bowler after years of tinkering. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/AFP/Getty Images

8) Jason Holder, West Indies

253 runs at 23, 22 wickets at 23

Holder may have lost the captaincy after five and a half years in charge when the selectors replaced him with his friend Kraigg Brathwaite, but he has plenty to be getting on with, batting at No 6 or 7, often opening the bowling, and catching bullets in the field. His batting has suffered, although he played two crucial innings when he made 71* in a draw against Sri Lanka and 58 in a victory over Pakistan, and his parsimonious medium pace means he’s currently the world’s top-ranked all-rounder.

9) Kyle Jamieson, New Zealand

27 wickets at 18

Took to Test cricket like he had been built for it in a laboratory hidden somewhere in the reaches of New Zealand’s south island. He destroyed Pakistan when he took 11 for 117 in Christchurch at the start of the year and at the moment it mattered most turned in a man-of-the-match performance in the World Test championship final. He took seven wickets in the match, including five for 31 in the first innings when he dismissed Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli when they were threatening to run away with the game.

The Spin: sign up and get our weekly cricket email.

10) Jasprit Bumrah, India

25 wickets at 29 (not including current Test v South Africa)

Bumrah is way off the sort of electric form he showed in his first year of Test cricket but with his clockwork toy action and wicked yorker, he’s one of the reliably entertaining bowlers in the game. He dominated England in the first Test of India’s summer tour at Trent Bridge, where he took four cheap wickets in one innings and five more in the other, and was even better in India’s victory at the Oval, where he turned the game on its head with a wildfire six-over spell on a tarmac-flat track late on the fifth day.

11) Shaheen Shah Afridi, Pakistan

47 wickets at 17

Still only 21, Afridi has grown into the most electric player on the international circuit. His devilish left-arm pace, all waspish full balls and ripping bouncers, cut through every team he’s played this year. He has taken wickets in New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, and against South Africa in Pakistan, but was at his best in the second Test against West Indies at Sabina Park, where he took career-best figures of 10 for 94.

What's your reaction?