Top 100 of the 21st century: 10-1

The countdown of the world's best Test cricketers since 2000 concludes with the epic top 10

Sam Ferris & Adam Burnett

21 June 2015, 08:34 PM AEST

The story so far: 100-91; 90-81; 80-71; 70-61; 60-51; 50-41: 40-31; 30-21; 20-11

10. AB de Villiers (SA)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 98 matches, 7,606 runs at 52.09

A champion at tennis, swimming, golf and rugby, AB de Villiers has extended his diverse skill set to include a standing as one of the 21st century’s elite batsmen. Owning a unique technique that combines his multi-sports background, de Villiers has blazed all and sundry since an inauspicious debut in December 2004. Five Tests into what’s shaping as a Hall of Fame career, the 31-year-old had his first hundred – 109 against England in Centurion – and also the first of eight scores in the ‘nervous nineties’. After two tons against the West Indies in 2005, de Villiers endured his only lean patch through 2006-07 before coming out the other side in 2008 with another century against the Windies and South Africa’s maiden double-century against India. From there, it was no looking back. Centuries in England and Australia delivered thrilling series wins, a high score of 278no against Pakistan in 2010 was posted, and the world No.1 batting ranking was awarded in 2013. When he’s not moving around his crease to upset a bowler’s line and length or creating a new angle to pierce the field, the Pretoria product is scoring bulk runs from his favourite No.5 (13 tons at 63.82) and against his favourite opponent West Indies (six tons at 84.18) in his 50 wins as a Protea (15 tons at 65.93). But it’s his record against the best team of the millennium – Australia – that vaults AB into the top 10. In 20 Tests, de Villiers has notched five centuries and nine fifties at 48.26 against Warne, McGrath, Lee, Johnson and Harris. And to prove there’s nothing he can’t do, he’s also an accomplished wicketkeeper with 188 dismissals to his name.

Best Performance: While some knocks have been more dazzling with audacious stroke play, de Villiers’ unbeaten 106 in Perth in 2008 guided South Africa to the second-highest run chase in Test history. 

9. Glenn McGrath (Aus)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 66 matches, 297 wickets at 20.53

Raised on the red soil of Narromine in New South Wales’s central west, the boy from the bush blossomed into the most prolific fast bowler in Test history. McGrath entered the new millennium with 10 wickets against India and finished 2000 with the remarkable figures of 10-27 against the West Indies in Brisbane, along with his 300th scalp and a Test hat-trick at the WACA. His dominance over England continued into the 21st century, taking 91 wickets in 17 matches across four series, while his 32 Pakistan victims – including a career-best 8-24 in Perth in 2004 – came at only 12.87 runs apiece. Surgical accuracy and relentless probing outside off-stump were the keys to McGrath surpassing West Indies legend Courtney Walsh as Test cricket’s most successful fast bowler in the Super Test of 2005. With partner in crime Shane Warne, McGrath and the King of Spin formed the greatest bowling duo in Test history, taking 1,001 wickets together in the five-day format. His series predictions (always clean sweeps to Australia) and his batting targets (always the opposition captain and best batsman) became stuff of legend. And if he hadn’t done it all, the man nicknamed ‘Pigeon’ took flight one afternoon at the Gabba in 2004, scoring his first and only Test half-century against a dejected New Zealand to the utter amazement of fans, teammates but never the super-confident McGrath.

Best Performance: In a spell of fire and brimstone that would have made Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth proud, McGrath reduced England to 5-21 at Lord’s in 2005 to feature on the honours board at the Home of Cricket for the third time.

8. Shane Warne (Aus)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 65 matches, 357 wickets at 25.17

Already one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the 20th century, Shane Warne had reached an intriguing point in his career at the dawn of the new millennium. In the Caribbean in 1999, Stuart MacGill had been preferred ahead of him in a Test for the first time, and while he found form again on his home tracks the following summer, finger and shoulder problems had largely eliminated his chief variation of the 1990s – the flipper. He went wicket-less in the first Test of 2000, played three Tests in the next 11 months, and there were whispers that maybe, just maybe, as injuries and off-field dramas afflicted him, we’d seen the best of the King of Spin. How wrong we were. Still wildly competitive and in possession of the fiercest, most accurate leg break that’s ever been spun, Warne perfectly adjusted his game to suit the limitations that injury had placed upon him and continued bamboozling batsmen the world over for another five years. A 12-month suspension in 2003 seemed only to sharpen his focus, and the spinner who returned in Sri Lanka 2004 (26 wickets in three Tests) was arguably the best version yet. The flipper had long been replaced by the slider, while the leg-break remained and the mental hold he had over batsmen was stronger than ever. A master of bluff and bravado, Warne had the greatest on-field presence of anyone in his era, and a peerless skill-set to match.  

Best Performance: Warne took a world record 96 wickets in 2005, in the middle of which he bewitched England to the tune of 40 wickets in five Ashes Tests. In perhaps the greatest series of them all, arguably the greatest bowler of all time had taken centre stage.

7. Dale Steyn (SA)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 78 matches, 396 wickets at 22.55

Dale Steyn is the complete fast bowler. He has the searing pace, he has the finite accuracy. He can swing the new ball and reverse the old. He has a surprising bouncer and clever slower ball. And above all, he has a pure hatred for batsmen. Steyn announced himself with an unplayable gem to uproot Michael Vaughan’s off-stump on debut before taking his first of 25 five-wicket hauls three matches later against New Zealand in April 2006. The right-armer feasted on the Kiwis in November the following year, taking 10-93 and 10-91 in consecutive Tests as his charge up the Test bowler rankings gained momentum. Two years later, off the back of seven wickets against Australia in March, Steyn was officially crowned the world’s best Test bowler – a position he is yet to relinquish. In all conditions, Steyn has dominated. The pace ace averages less than 23 on Asia’s spinning surfaces, even collecting 10-108 in Nagpur in 2010. Across the Antipodes, Steyn has taken 39 wickets at less than 28, and at home he’s been near unstoppable. What separates Steyn though is his strike rate. Taking a wicket every 41.6 balls, no other bowler in history (with more than 200 wickets) comes close. Not Murali. Not Warne. Not McGrath. Not Marshall. And if Steyn takes the four wickets he needs to reach 400 in his next Test, he’ll be the fastest fast bowler to the milestone. No matter which way you look at it, Steyn is all about speed. 

Best Performance:  Not only did he take 10 wickets for the match, Steyn scored a vital 76 in Melbourne in 2008 ended Australia’s 16-year unbeaten run in home Test series. 

6. Ricky Ponting (Aus)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 135 matches, 11,286 runs at 53.48

Australia’s answer to Sachin Tendulkar through the opening decade of the 21st century, Ricky Ponting began the 2000s with an unbeaten hundred and barely paused for breath thereafter. The Tasmanian’s natural aggression shone through in his batting, where he relished taking on the world’s fastest bowlers, invariably sending them through midwicket with the finest pull shot the game has ever seen. From 2003 until the end of 2006, no-one came close to Ponting as cricket’s most dominant batsman, as the right-hander settled in at No.3 and averaged 72 across 47 Tests with 19 hundreds. Owner of the highest batting average (59.99) after 100-plus Tests, Ponting was irresistible and almost infallible through much of his career, though Harbhajan Singh gave him a miserable time in 2001 in India – the one blotch on an otherwise spotless copybook. An instrumental figure in Australia’s golden era, Ponting has won 20 more Tests (88) than his nearest rival since 2000, was arguably the finest all-round fieldsman of his era, and despite losing three Ashes series as skipper, emerged as a fine leader and at times quasi-coach for his country’s next generation in his final years in Baggy Green.

Best Performance: One of only two players to score hundreds in both innings of a Test three times, Ponting piled on 35 tons from 2000, so picking just one is a difficult task. We’ll go for his final-day 156 at Old Trafford in the 2005 Ashes, which saved the match for Australia and was against one of the best attacks of the modern era.

5. Sachin Tendulkar (Ind)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 127 matches, 10,080 runs at 52.22

At Sachin Tendulkar’s final Test match, one supporter displayed a banner in the crowd that read simply: ‘India – divided by religion, united by Sachin’. It was a statement that went some way to explaining the impact of Tendulkar, an almost God-like figure, on one billion Indian people. Of course, the parameters of this list means only roughly 60 per cent of his career can be judged, though even then, his impact post-2000 was phenomenal. When compared with the elite handful of this century’s batsmen, Tendulkar is the only one with a superior average away (56) to home (51), a fitting nod to a faultless batting CV. Impregnable in defence, unstoppable in attack and blessed with the patience of Job, ‘The Little Master’ adapted his style of innings to the demands of the situation. The end result was generally the same; when Tendulkar had his mind set on making a big score, nothing could stop him. His epic at the SCG in 2004 was testament to that fact when, out of form and battling the ravages of tennis elbow, he ground Australia into the dust with an unbeaten 241 over 10 hours, overshadowing Steve Waugh’s farewell in the process. Such was his longevity, Tendulkar’s records generally factor in 20th century performances, but he was only 26 when the new millennium began and spent the next 14 years establishing a list of marks that may never be surpassed. 

Best Performance: Tendulkar scored 29 of his 51 hundreds post 2000 and it’s hard to go past his 126 against Australia in Chennai’s deciding Test of the epic 2001 series. His 15 boundaries included three from one Shane Warne over and he reached three figures with a straight-driven six. Moreover, it was an innings that set up series success for India against the all-conquering Australians.

4. Muthiah Muralidaran (SL)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 85 matches, 573 wickets at 21.01

When you break down Muthiah Muralidaran’s numbers, there’s been no greater Test bowler. Ever. Of course, cricket is not solely based on statistics, but when you investigate the facts and figures of Test cricket’s most successful bowler, it’s hard to make an argument against the kid from Kandy. In the 85 Tests post-2000, Muralidaran claimed more wickets per Test (6.7), more five-fors (50), and more 10-wicket hauls (20) than any other bowler. By far. It’s no surprise the loose-limbed off-spinner enjoyed his home conditions (372 wickets at 18.12) more than foreign soil (202 at 26.36). In 2006, Muralidaran claimed 90 wickets from only 11 matches. In his 40 Tests wins, Murali captured 341 wickets (8.53 per match) at 15.39. He’s the only bowler to take 10 wickets in a match against all nine Test playing nations. And no bowler has had more influence on a match more consistently. The only exception is Australia, against whom he averages 32.59, with nine wickets at 62 runs apiece Down Under. But of course, cricket is not solely based on statistics. Doubts about his unique and unorthodox action travelled with him wherever he journeyed. In 2004, ICC match referee Chris Broad reported Muralidaran for a suspect action, and a month later in Perth he was tested and instructed to stop bowling his lethal doosra. While the loss of his major strike weapon barely dented his wicket-taking output (6.38 per Test), the shroud of controversy will remain attached to Mural and those unbelievable numbers.

Best Performance: Needing a win to draw the series in England in 2006, Murali spun out 11 wickets, including 8-70 in the second innings, to secure the victory at Trent Bridge. 

3. Kumar Sangakkara (SL)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 131 matches, 12,271 runs at 58.43

Amazingly, it’s only been in recent times that Sangakkara has been recognised on the same level as batting deities Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting and Kallis. Beginning a Test career as an accomplished wicketkeeper-batsman, the stylish left-hander ditched the gloves to focus on his willow work with dramatic results. As the designated keeper, Sangakkara averaged 40.48. As a specialist batsman, only Don Bradman (99.94) has a higher average than Kumar’s 68.82. Adding to that, Sangakkara has scored a Test ton every 2.8 games since losing the gloves – unheard of in the modern era. Against every nation Sangakkara averages more than 43 and has posted triple-figures against every adversary. Make that at least 152 against every opponent. And it’s that desire for big scores that has made Sangakkara a captain’s eternal headache. Starting in 2002 with 230 against Pakistan in Lahore, the calm accumulator has amassed 10 double-centuries, of which two exceed the 300 mark, and was also left stranded on 199 at Galle in June 2012. Home (62.62) or abroad (53.13), Sangakkara’s wrath has been evenly distributed, and in no foreign destination has the ex-captain averaged less than 44. Like his airtight, upright and simple technique, finding a flaw in his CV is next to impossible. When he was tasked with leading his country on 15 occasions, Sangakkara scored seven centuries at 69.60. While he might not receive the accolades of his flashier peers, Kumar Sangakkara’s legend will never be forgotten. 

Best Performance: Of all the records Sangakkara has broken, the one that will likely remain forever untouched is his colossal partnership of 624 with good friend Mahela Jayawardene. The pair batted for 157 overs before the left-hander was dismissed for 287 in a crushing innings victory over South Africa in 2006.

2. Jacques Kallis (SA)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 134 matches, 11,440 runs at 58.66; 239 wickets at 33.58

More runs than Ponting and Tendulkar, at a better average than even Sangakkara, Jacques Kallis was an unassuming batting giant in the 21st century and the heartbeat of every South African success. Quietly spoken and somehow capable of avoiding the headlines despite his staggering output, for a long time Kallis flew under the radar when discussions about the ‘world’s best batsman’ popped up through the 2000s. Yet no-one matches his 40 hundreds this century, which came against all comers in virtually all conditions. Critics (are there really still any?) may suggest he wore opponents down as opposed to taking the attack to them, but Kallis simply specialised in the art of scoring runs – in that, there was no-one more effective  – as the likes of Gibbs, Smith, Amla and de Villiers took up an attacking approach at the other end. A superb slipper, Kallis also gets the nod ahead of his batting contemporaries Ponting, Tendulkar and Sangakkara for one quite glaring reason: 239 wickets. As a fast-medium right-armer capable of hitting speeds of 140kph, he was invariably a handful as a first or second change bowler, often finding swing or movement off the pitch that others couldn’t. More than a useful string to his bow, Kallis was a legitimate bowling option and as such, only Sobers rivals him as the game’s greatest allrounder.

Best Performance: Kallis twice scored hundreds in both innings of a Test, and we can’t split them. In Karachi in 2007, he made 155 and 100no to set up victory against Pakistan. And in Cape Town in 2011, he scored 161 and followed it up with 109no to almost singlehandedly save the Proteas against India. It wasn’t the first time, and it wasn’t the last. 

1. Adam Gilchrist (Aus)

Key numbers (from Jan 1, 2000): 91 matches, 397 dismissals (362 c, 35 st); 5,130 runs at 46.63

Cricket is very much a numbers-based game but in the case of Adam Craig Gilchrist, records and statistics don’t go close to telling the breadth and depth of the legend. Seldom can a sport have had a genuine pioneer arrive on the scene more than a century after its creation. Such was the case with Gilchrist and Test cricket; in a little under a decade, he changed the entire nature of a position, as well as the parameters of what was possible – or even the norm – in terms of scoring rates. He’s had imitators since, and even capable contemporaries, but no sight has been more frightening for opposition captains than that of Gilchrist striding to the crease at five wickets down, whether there were 50 or 450 runs on the board. A free-swinging left-hander who Richie Benaud labelled the cleanest hitter of a cricket ball he’d ever seen, Gilchrist’s best form of defence was always attack, and he had a whole kitbag of shots at his disposal to take down bowlers of both pace and spin. His ability to change a match in such a short space of time was unparalleled among batsmen – let alone keeper-batsmen – while his influence for Australia transformed a great Test match team into perhaps the finest of all time. An athletic and reliable wicketkeeper whose world-record breaking deeds with the gloves will forever be overshadowed by his breathtaking batting, Gilchrist was, more than anything, a winner. 

Best Performance: There’s a catalogue of classic to choose from. From the 57-ball Ashes ton to what was briefly the fastest-ever double century, Gilchrist hundreds were always a sight to behold. He specialised in turning crisis situations into match-winning ones, rescuing Australia repeatedly throughout the 2000s. But the best of Gilchrist may just have been when he took the captaincy from an injured Ricky Ponting in India 2004, scored a century that set up victory in the first Test, and then made a second-innings 49 from No.3 in the next match that helped Australia escape with a draw. The man himself rates the latter his most important innings – and who are we to argue?

Counting down the Top 100