Had to bide his time before earning his first Test cap aged 27, at the MCG last summer, the hard-hitting opener from Bangalore had a year to remember. Having modelled his game on Virender Sehwag, his maiden Test ton, against South Africa at Visakhapatnam, morphed into a double century, while there was another century in the next Test, in Pune. If that wasn’t enough, then came another double century, against Bangladesh at Indore. Has proven he is an all-formats operator, having debuted in the Indian Premier League in 2011. Test great Sunil Gavaskar has praised his balance and willingness to play straight.
Rohit Sharma (India)
5 Tests: 556 runs at 92.66. 3 centuries.
David Warner, a perennial pick, was certainly in the mix despite a terrible Ashes campaign for he resurrected his career against Pakistan. But Sharma’s form upon returning to the Test XI was hard to resist. Dropped after struggling through two Tests in Australia last summer, the slick Sharma was recalled for the home series against the Proteas – and made an emphatic statement. There were centuries in each innings in Visakhapatnam and a double century at Ranchi.
Marnus Labuschagne (Australia)
11 Tests: 1104 runs at 64.94. 3 centuries.
One of cricket’s feel-good stories of the year and the only man to crack 1000 Test runs. While his work ethic and commitment could not be faulted, it wasn’t until he became the sport’s first concussion substitute – replacing Steve Smith after he had been felled by a bouncer from Jofra Archer at Lord’s – that the Queenslander became a household name. He grabbed the No.3 spot with an enthusiasm few have shown, and the runs flowed. Made runs in England when the team really needed them. Having tinkered with his technique to give himself a better chance of driving down the ground, Labuschagne became only the ninth Australian to enjoy three straight Test centuries, and his partnership with David Warner in Adelaide was a sight to behold.
Virat Kohli (captain, India)
8 Tests: 612 runs at 68. 2 centuries.
This hasn’t been the most spectacular of years from the Indian master but he still finishes as the No.1 ranked batsman in the world despite being 13th on the Test run-scoring list. Joe Root and Babar Azam had claims but how can you go past Kohli? There was an unbeaten double century against South Africa in Pune and a dashing 136 against Bangladesh in India’s maiden day-night Test at Kolkata. Kane Williamson was, as always, also under strong consideration but his poor form in Australia counted against the New Zealand captain.
Steve Smith (Australia)
8 Tests: 965 runs at 74.23. 3 centuries.
This was never going to be an easy year for the former skipper, returning from a 12-month ban, and having to do this before hostile English crowds. After a modest World Cup, Smith again had the ‘best-since-Bradman’ tag bestowed upon him, such was his imperious Ashes series. For the second-straight series against England, he averaged more than 100 (110) in a series aggregate of 774. England had no idea how to get him out and he was by far the best of the touring batsmen. The Test he did miss, at Headingley, the home side won. His greatness was reinforced in becoming the quickest man to 7000 Test runs. He was also the second leading Test run scorer this year. “He is just a genius and I never had any doubt he would come back and be the player he was,” Australian skipper Tim Paine said. While his form at home this summer has slipped against a barrage of short balls, it did not matter come World XI selection, for the Ashes was the heavy-duty battle of the year.
Ben Stokes (England)
11 Tests: 821 runs at 45.61. 2 centuries.
22 wickets at 35.45.
Provides an on-field flair the sport desperately needs. Is the world’s premier all-rounder who has the knack of turning a game, whether with bat or ball. England’s World Cup hero delivered one of the greatest Ashes innings with his unbeaten 135 dragging the home side to a stunning one-wicket victory at Headingley, having had to chase down 359 to win. Only nine teams in 142 years had chased more. He was also man-of-the-match for his century in the drawn Lord’s Test. Finished the Ashes with 441 runs at 55.12 and eight wickets at 45.
BJ Watling (New Zealand)
8 Tests: 559 runs at 55.9. 2 centuries.
It was hard to nudge South African gloveman Quinton de Kock, for he sat ninth in Test runs scored, but Watling had a standout year behind the stumps and with the bat. He is the highest ranked batsman of all wicketkeepers, having enjoyed an unbeaten 105 against Sri Lanka in Galle and a double-century against England at Mount Maunganui. He is only the ninth wicketkeeper to have notched a Test double-century. Avoids getting into on-field spats with opponents. Test great Adam Gilchrist rates the South-African born Watling as the best in 2019. “People are stunned by that. Who’s heard of BJ Watling, a lot of people say. But, statistically, and the way he is playing, the current form – having just completed his first double-century in Test cricket, and now the record dismissals for New Zealand in Test cricket, he is the complete package.”
Pat Cummins (vice-captain, Australia)
12 Tests: 59 wickets at 20.13. 2 5-wicket hauls, 1 10-wicket haul.
The reigning Allan Border medallist has been the leading wicket-taker in Test cricket this year by a good stretch. Like Smith, was at his best in England, claiming 29 wickets at 19.62, although he missed out on a five-for. Cummins speed, accuracy and ability to extract something from the new or old ball, often in a subtle way, no matter what the conditions make him special. His three wickets on day one of the first Test against Pakistan at the Gabba were crucial to the home side taking charge. Now a vice-captain, Cummins says there is no reason why a fast bowler cannot also captain his country.
Nathan Lyon (Australia)
12 Tests: 45 wickets at 33.26. 2 five-wicket hauls.
Had little competition this year. Retains his reputation as the world’s premier spinner in a year when he vaulted into third spot on Australia’s all-time Test wicket-taking list, passing Dennis Lillee and now behind only Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Claimed 20 wickets at 33.4 through the Ashes, although he was quiet after bowling the visitors to victory at Edgbaston. Will be remembered for the the missed run out in the Headingley classic but it did not cost his team the Ashes. Bowled Australia to victory against Pakistan in Adelaide.
Stuart Broad (England)
11 Tests: 43 wickets at 25.11. 1 five-wicket haul.
The veteran quick had an Ashes series to remember, claiming 23 wickets at 26.65. Tormented Australia’s left-handers, particularly David Warner, whom he dismissed seven times. An ability to go around the wicket and then have a ball straighten or nip away to Warner proved to be a masterstroke. Accepted the challenge to lead the attack when long-term opening partner James Anderson succumbed to injury. Claimed only four wickets in two Tests in New Zealand but gets bonus points for the Ashes. His pace and guile are an important component of any attack.
Neil Wagner (New Zealand)
6 Tests: 43 wickets at 17.81. 4 five-wicket hauls.
This was a very tough call, for Mohammed Shami and Mitchell Starc (42 wickets at 20.71 in eight Tests) were also firmly in calculations. Starc has been superb since the Ashes, with only Brett Lee (32.89) having a better strike rate of any Australian bowler in a calendar year of the past 30 years, but it was hard to go past Wagner. That his 43 wickets came in only six Tests – that’s right, only six – was startling. This included 13 wickets at 19.84 in two Tests against England and 14 at 20.28 in two Tests against Australia. He gets bonus points for being the only man in recent years to frustrate Steve Smith, who has struggled to handle the left-armer’s short-pitched attack. Having variety in an attack is a must, and Wagner – while far from being an express quick – provides that.
12th man: Mohammed Shami (India)
8 Tests: 33 wickets at 16.66. 1 five-wicket haul.
South African Kagiso Rabada is arguably the best fast bowler in world cricket but he appeared over-worked in 2019. India has their best fast-bowling brigade in history and Shami has been the main man, particularly with Jasprit Bumrah nursing a back stress fracture. Claimed nine wickets in two Tests in the Caribbean, 13 in three at home against South Africa and nine at home against Bangladesh. His four second-innings wickets to knock over Bangladesh in Indore prompted Dale Steyn to declare he was the best quick in the world based on current form. Is masterful with the new and old ball, where his wrist and seam position and ability to swing the ball in with a flick of his index finger has made him an all-purpose threat.
Jon Pierik is cricket writer for The Age. He also covers AFL and has won awards for his cricket and basketball writing.