2016’s Top 25 Players: Part Four

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As Australia end 2016 on a high with a crushing victory over Pakistan, two of their players feature in part four of our countdown of the year’s top 25 players.

10. Steve Smith
By Anirudh Srinivaas Eswaran

Steve Smith, Australia‘s captain, has been in great touch with the bat all this year, bar a couple of series away against Sri Lanka and at home against South Africa. Not surprisingly, Australia got a proper hammering in both those series losing them 3-0 and 2-1, respectively.

It’s hard to understate the importance of Smith to this Australian side. He’s certainly their best batsman along with David Warner. Although he didn’t have the greatest time as skipper, he did continue to impress with the bat during this calendar year. The Australian team is in transition and there are wholesale changes being made, especially in Test cricket. At the forefront of this sea of change is Smith, who he has a lot to do as both captain and batsman, but if he can continue his form from a year in which he made 1079 runs at 71.93 in Tests, they will doubtless be successful.

His limited overs sides have continued to do pretty well and bar the 5-0 hammering at the hands of South Africa, they’ve been doing well under his captaincy. Smith’s batting credentials cannot be questioned – only Warner made more than his 1154 ODI runs in 2016 – and they are always on the rise.

Australia have a four-Test series in India after the ongoing series against Pakistan and that’s going to be one very difficult task, which will pose a real challenge to Smith in his role as skipper.

9. Chris Woakes
By Sean Wilson

The year 2016 has been a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for Chris Woakes. After being heavily criticised for his performances on the away tour to South Africa – a series where he discovered very little potency – Woakes sought about nailing down his spot in the England Test side during the summer.

The all-rounder did not play in the first Test of the summer against Sri Lanka but earned a recall as a replacement for the injured Ben Stokes. Woakes celebrated his call-up by taking 9-36 in a Division One match for Warwickshire and continued his form in the Test arena by taking 3-9 off seven overs as England ran through Sri Lanka for 101, eventually securing the Test by nine wickets.

Woakes carried on his potency with the ball in the ODI series but his standout performance came in the first Test against Pakistan at Lord’s, where he took match figures of 11-102, bowling with increased pace and far better accuracy. Woakes was the standout bowler in the series with 26 wickets at a stunning average of 16.73. The Warwickshire man finished top of the wicket-takers list in the ODI series also, with nine scalps to his name.

His transformation was a pleasure for every England fan to watch.

Going into the subcontinent tour of Bangladesh and India, Woakes found life much more difficult as the wickets lacked any pace and bounce. His line and length still showed consistency, however, as he took an impressive 3-30 on a dry pitch in Dhaka. During the India series, Woakes found little assistance from the pitches, as he took only three wickets from the same number of Tests.

With the bat, Woakes has, at times, been equally impressive. In his comeback Test against Sri Lanka, he stroked 66 and in the first ODI against the same opposition he hit 95 not out, helping his side recover from 82-6 to tie with Sri Lanka’s score at 286. Further contributions include 58 in the Old Trafford Test against Pakistan, 46 in tough conditions in Dhaka and even hitting the winning runs to secure a memorable ODI series win in Bangladesh.

Woakes finished the year with 41 wickets and 493 runs (average of just over 30) in Tests. In ODI cricket, he took 17 wickets and 212 runs (average 42.40). The 27-year-old’s amazing resurgence has been one of the stories of 2016.

8. Mitchell Starc
By Matt Roller

After a breakthrough year in 2015, Mitchell Starc‘s performances have gone from strength to strength in 2016.

Whilst his status as one of the world’s premier ODI bowlers were never in any doubt this calendar year, one question mark that loomed over Starc was his ability to bowl in Asia. Before this year, he had taken just four wickets at 85.5 in his appearances in Abu Dhabi, Mohali and Chennai, and August’s tour to Sri Lanka provided the left-armer with an opportunity to make amends for this.

And make amends he did. With 24 wickets in just three Tests, including hauls of 4/84, 5/44, 6/50 and 5/63, Starc demonstrated to the world that he is capable of performing at the highest level regardless of conditions; for comparison, the second-highest wicket-taker among seamers in that series was team-mate Josh Hazlewood with seven.

26 wickets across his next five Tests – all at home, but against the tougher opponents of South Africa and Pakistan – proved that Starc’s ability to swing the ball at pace in his home conditions has not abated.

In ODIs, Starc went from strength to strength. He missed Australia’s disastrous tour of South Africa, but was still sixth on the leading wicket takers of the year with 26, and his strike rate (26.2), economy rate (4.49) and average (19.69) were better than the five men above him on the list.

Starc faces the challenge of a tour to India in 2017 and an Ashes series at the end of the year, with the Champions Trophy sandwiched between the two. If he continues his 2016 form into those three high-profile challenges, it may not be long before the Sydney-born Starc is considered a fast-bowling great.

7. Kagiso Rabada
By Matt Roller

Out of those bowlers with nine or more Test wickets in 2016, Kagiso Rabada has the worst economy rate (3.81). However, he also has the sixth-most wickets, the third-most five-wicket hauls, and arguably the brightest future in the game.

The 21-year-old South African quick first appeared on the international scene at the end of 2015 against England, but only managed two wickets in his first three innings as the tourists romped into a commanding position in the series. However, his performance in the final game of that tour, in which he took 13 wickets in the match with figures of 7/112 and 6/32, propelled him to stardom, and since then he has hardly looked back.

Despite an underwhelming World T20, in which the Johannesburg-born seamer failed to control his inconsistent radar, Rabada bounced back in style with seven wickets in the tri-series in the West Indies. His spell of 3/13 in seven overs against Australia was particularly notable: for a young man whose weakness in international cricket to date has been his tendency to leak runs, his economical analysis will have been greatly pleasing.

But it was in Test matches that Rabada really shone this year. He took nine wickets in the two Tests he bowled in during the second half of the year – against New Zealand and Sri Lanka – but it was in Australia that he really shone.

With Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, for so long the backbone of the South African attack, playing only one Test between them, Rabada found himself in the role of a senior bowler at just 21, and led the attack with immense success. His fifteen wickets in the series were the most by a South African, and included match-winning spells like his 4/34 at Hobart to secure a series victory.

Rabada’s international breakthrough has been something to behold; he is the sort of player that makes things happen in a game. After a fantastic 2016, the future is bright for the 21-year-old.

6. Rangana Herath
By Luke Flannigan

He delivered his side from farce to fantasy. Rangana Herath helped Sri Lanka swiftly forget their English touring woes as he spun his web of trickery round a totally bewildered Australia. And he did it when hope seemed lost. 

After Sri Lanka had capitulated on day one of the first Test to 117 all out, it seemed to be that they were about to endure their most embarrassing thrashing of 2016 (they had already received two in England, but this was in their own backyard). But enter stage right, slow left-arm stalwart. This was his moment. He had to stand up to the plate if they were to have any chance.  

Sure enough, Herath orchestrated a spirited counter with figures of 4/49 as Sri Lanka restricted Australia to a first innings 86-run advantage. This then paved the way for a breath-taking 176 by 21-year-old Kusal Mendis to give Sri Lanka a strong chance of an unprecedented victory. Herath would lead from the front again with 5/54, decimating Australia with his pinpoint accuracy and wily arm balls. He killed Australia’s spirit in two innings. 

He would later claim the leading wicket-taker accolade in the three-match series with a monstrous 28 wickets at 12.75. It was at this moment for perhaps the first time in the eyes of the world that Herath filled the boots of his great predecessor, mentor and spinning deity – Muttiah Muralitharan. He had achieved something that Sri Lankan greats such as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara had never done: he had beaten Australia. And this wasn’t just one Test; this was an entire series. He tripled the great Murali’s win count against them. 17 years after he debuted against the same side, it seemed that his rich career was meant to crescendo at this very moment in this very series. 

Due to injuries to Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal, Herath was later chosen to lead Sri Lanka for the first time in his career in a two-Test series in Zimbabwe. He owned it. With 19 wickets at 15.1, Herath once again topped the wicket chart. He can retire in a few years with a one-hundred percent win record as an international captain. It might only have been Zimbabwe, but you got to beat what’s in front of you. 

While Test cricket is his main arena, he also had a decent year in T20. If Sri Lanka’s batsmen had given him a decent platform, he could’ve been the difference in games, going at under 7 RPO in three of his four World T20 group stage matches. But when defending totals of 150 or less, you’re fighting a losing battle, with only four overs to make an impact.

Rangana Herath is not your typical sporting hero precisely because there is nothing remotely heroic about him. He is almost square in shape and is as much as an athlete as Rebecca Black is a singer or as Kevin James is an actor. He has the stature of a village green pie chucker: the slightly overweight, past-his-prime, cricket dad who bundles in awkwardly and launches a hand grenade above the batsman’s eye line. And when he’s not playing cricket he works in a bank. We can all agree that 38-year-old bankers are not heroes. Yet Herath, as overlooked and under-appreciated as he is, is a hero: a modern great of cricket.