As the 2021-22 Ashes series draws to a close, we sat Ian Bell and Ryan Harris down for a Q and A about players to watch in 2022, the best players in the world right now, and the best players they ever played against.
Zak Crawley had a really tough year in 2021, but there were glimpses at the SCG where he showed Australia in particular, but people the level of batsmanship he can produce.
The way he played Cummins in particular and the Australian attack on that last day, I think he showed everyone that he has the ability to become a very fine Test match player and I’m hoping this year is his year. I’m hoping we start to see a more consistent Zak Crawley in the West Indies tour.
From slightly outside the England bubble there’s a young lad called Henry Brooks at Warwickshire who unfortunately had the year out injured. I think he’ll be back this year. He’s done well in T20 cricket, he bowls fast and if I was a young, English player now, what an opportunity you have.
A tough question. I think we’ve probably seen one of them that came to my mind that was probably Scotty Boland getting an unexpected chance in the Ashes.
Another one that came to mind was Cameron Green, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet.
But the one that stands out for me - Australia have got quite a bit of cricket on the sub-continent coming up - a guy called Mitchell Swepson who’s a leg spinner from Queensland.
He’s been in the wings now for a number of years, he’s been on a lot of tours, obviously Nathon Lyon’s the main spinner and they’re not going to move him aside for a while, but with Australia touring Pakistan next I think we’re going to see what can he do.
There’s four or five guys, and Marnus Labuschagne has joined that group. My favourite to watch across all formats is Virat Kohli. Over all three formats, he’s the best, but when you see Steve Smith and the record he has and Labuschagne, it’s quite astonishing what they’ve done in Test match cricket, so I’m looking forward to seeing how they go over the next 12 months.
Then you’ve got Babar Azam who’ll have a point to prove with the first big tour back in Pakistan and he’ll want to throw his hat in the ring.
But Joe Root has been absolutely incredible in terms of what he’s achieved in 2021, he’s single-handedly dragged the England batting line-up through a whole year. His figures are astonishing all around the world.
It’s really hard to pick one. When you’re going overseas you know the players are so strong in their own conditions, and Babar Azam is one of those guys, so I really look forward to seeing how he plays against Australia.
What I look at is the best player in the world plays well in all conditions. Australia have been starved of Test cricket, but Root has done that, and for me at the moment, Root would be the best.
Pat Cummins I think is number one seamer in the world. He rarely has a bad day. I was watching a documentary about him and how he goes about his business so it’s quite an astonishing journey he’s been on, especially with the injuries he had early in his career.
Watching Jimmy [Anderson], even at the age of 39, there were question marks even the winter before, about going to India, and his numbers when he left after that tour were incredible, it’s the same this tour. Whatever people say he can’t do, even at his age, he seems to keep ticking off the places people have question marks over.
I think Ravi Ashwin as a spinner is number one. It’s tough on Lyon, but Ashwin just wins so many games at the moment for India.
Pat Cummins has got to be up there. He’s been unbelievable through this series. He’s been good for a while now. He’s got the knack of coming on and taking a big wicket.
Kagiso Rabada’s still around the mark. I’ve watched him a couple of times over the last couple of weeks and he seems to lose his rhythm then all of a sudden he finds it and picks up three or four wickets or a five-fer.
Jimmy is still up there. He’s got better this series.
Ricky Ponting was the one I admired most, everything he did as a leader. I saw him play two of the most amazing innings live. One in 2005 at Old Trafford and Australia ended up getting a draw, he got 150 and it was one of the best innings I’ve seen under pressure.
And then the first innings at Brisbane he got 196 in the 2006-07 tour. Obviously there was a lot made of the 2005 Ashes and losing that series, but he led from the front. Freddie Flintoff was bowling sharp at that point. We faced Freddie in the nets, and watch how Ponting played him on a bouncy Gabba pitch was incredible.
Murali was a real challenge in Sri Lanka. You were playing the heat and the conditions and the humidity, but he was really hard work. I had some success against him but he was a real challenge. He was one you felt the quality of bowling he had and how consistent he was you had to take the odd calculated risk against him to put pressure back on him, but he was an icredible bowler.
Hopefully my final answer isn’t a cop-out but early in my career I was lucky to play against Warne and McGrath together. And as a young player of 22/23, they were genuine greats of the game, from one end or the other, that was as tough as Test cricket ever got, and they were at the back end of their career, but them two as a partnership was one of the best we’ve ever seen in the game.
I played a lot of my Test cricket against you guys and South Africa. Cooky was one I played a lot against and had great battles against. I was lucky enough to get him in 2013 but he got me definitely in 2010. He was a man we spoke a lot about, we knew he was a big player who we had to try get early, and if we didn’t he’d bat for hours and hours which he was so good at. He was hard to bowl to, especially in England.
Another was KP. I know he had quite a big ego with how he played his game, but he was such an amazing player. I’ve spoken over the years about who is the hardest batsman to bowl to and he’d be the one. His height, he reach, the lengths you had to bowl to him were different to other guys or he’d whack them back over your head for six. Bowling to him was a huge learning curve.
The last one would be AB [de Villiers]. You’d think you’d bowled a good ball to him and he’d just whack it. The finesse he had and the hands that he could get through the ball. He was a hard man to get out. I played a couple where he was saving a Test match and he was so good at playing the ball late and defending.
Graeme Swann: Character. I think every dressing room needs them. Swanny would also play the joker and sometimes you need that, even under that pressure of international cricket, he could keep the mood quite easy. He did stress sometimes and get anxious before he bowled, but his character in our dressing room at the time was perfect. He took a lot of pressure off us by having a laugh and a joke.
Andrew Flintoff: Not necessarily a word, but 2005. When I think of Fred, that was him at his absolute best. At the early stage of his career before he had the injuries and niggles. That series was all about him. I know we saw KP come on the scene, but I remember being at short leg and some of the spells with the reverse swinging ball to some great players was incredible. He drove the atmosphere not just in the team but the whole country.
Shane Warne: Genius. Absolute genius. Growing up watching most of his career, you can only admire him. He had all the options, the wrong’uns, all the skill set. He could also control the environment to make batters think things were happening, and the whole game was controlled around his tempo.
Ricky Ponting: Legend. Why? He’s just a legend. He was such a good captain, my first captain. I walked in, idolising the bloke having watched him for so many years. He presented me with my baggy green cap, but it was like I’d known him for 20 years. He spent time getting to know you outside cricket. I had a big thing in common with him in golf which was nice, but he was just such a good bloke.
Kevin Pietersen: I’m not going to say arrogant, that’s the wrong word, but he played on a huge ego. It came across when he batted but he was so good at it. He was a guy we’d always say ‘don’t talk to him’, because we knew it switched him on, and a couple of us made that mistake and we got in trouble for it. An amazing player.
Mitchell Johnson: Fast! Another really good mate of mine, he went through a lot emotions when he played the game. When he crossed that line, he wanted success and would do everything within the rules to get it. He loved intimidating batters and that’s what made him successful. I remember facing him in the nets a couple of times and that was scary enough!