Many opinions have been voiced and several articles written about the greatest innings, shots and players in recent memory in Test cricket, but what about the greatest individual series by a player this century? It is fascinating to look at those who have managed to maintain consistent excellence throughout a series, of which there have been many examples.
This piece will look at the top ten, based on number of runs, average, opposition faced, difficulty of conditions and situations, and what it meant for the outcome of the series.
10. Michael Vaughan vs Australia (2002/03) – 633 runs from ten innings at 63.30 (three hundreds)
Despite Vaughan showing plenty of examples of his undoubted talent previously, this was the series that made people aware of a potentially great player in the making. Against a rampant Australia side which possessed one of the great Test attacks of all time, the Yorkshire man produced a series to remember down under, even if the outcome resulted in another hammering in favour of the Aussies.
After missing out in a miserable first Test for England, Vaughan fought back with a stylish 177 in Adelaide, featuring some classical drives and ominous pull shots, in a losing cause. Another hammering ensued in Perth but Vaughan produced another sparkling innings of 145 at the MCG to delay Australia's victory charge. It was at Sydney, however, where Vaughan produced his best knock of the tour as his 183 in the second innings to set up a rare England win by 225 runs. The fact that only one other England player (Mark Butcher) made a hundred in the series and that no other visiting batsman crossed 400 runs emphasised the brilliance of Vaughan in difficult circumstances.
9. Jacques Kallis vs West Indies (2003/04) – 712 runs from six innings at 178 (four hundreds)
Being the great player that he was, Kallis had many strong series in his career, but this encounter with the West Indies was arguably his most prolific. He flayed a struggling visiting attack to the tune of 712 runs in just six innings, compiling four hundreds in the process.
Kallis started the series with 158 and 44 in Johannesburg, before his 177 at Durban helped South Africa go into a 2-0 series lead without breaking a sweat. The run-scoring didn't end there, with the great all-rounder making 73 and 130 not out in a drawn third Test, as well as another unbeaten 130 in the final match at Centurion. The records tumbled for Kallis, who became the first South African to make four centuries in successive Tests, compiled the most runs in a four-Test series, and became the first player to post hundreds in each Test of a series in of more than three matches. This was Kallis at his most ruthless.
8. Virat Kohli vs England (2018) – 593 runs from ten innings at 59.30 (two hundreds)
Kohli arrived for the hotly anticipated five-match series in England in 2018 as arguably the best all-round batsman in the world but still haunted by his previous failings there in 2014. After making some technical adjustments, he then banished his demons with one of the great individual series by a visiting batsman in England.
The first Test at Edgbaston featured arguably his best knock, 149 in difficult conditions and against the relentless accuracy of James Anderson, along with 51 in the second innings but it was not enough to prevent a narrow defeat. After then suffering a hammering at Lord's, India bounced back with a big victory in the third Test, with Kohli making 97 and 103 in more bowler-friendly conditions. Scores of 46, 58, 49 then followed before a duck in his final innings ended his series on a damp note. Still, Kohli had finally made his mark in England, and how.
7. Steve Smith vs India (2014/15) – 769 runs from eight innings at 128.16 (four hundreds)
In a battle that is always hotly contested, Australia and India produced another entertaining Test series in (2014/15), yet it was the performances of two batsmen which made this series particularly memorable. The first of whom was Smith. Despite all the promise he showed beforehand, this was the series which started the relentless, machine-like run which Smith continued for years thereafter. On flat home wickets and against an inconsistent Indian attack, the man from New South Wales produced quite something.
Smith started with unbeaten scores of 162 and 52 in Adelaide to help his side to a dramatic win. He then made another key first innings contribution with 133 as Australia overtook India's total of 408 and then secured a four-wicket win. Smith then followed it up with 192 in Melbourne to rescue his side from 216-5 before finishing the series off with a fourth century, 117, and then 71 in the second innings. Even by Smith's standards, this was a quite remarkable series.
6. Virat Kohli vs Australia (2014/15) – 692 runs from eight innings at 86.50 (four hundreds)
The other man to produce some outrageous run accumulation in this series was Kohli, through typical grit and determination mixed with his outrageous talent and hunger for big runs, produced one of the finest performances by a touring batsman in Australia, albeit in a losing cause. Like Smith, this was perhaps the series that set Kohli on the way to greatness.
He started on fire, making a pair of brilliant centuries (115 and 141) in the first Test in Adelaide, the second of which nearly dragged his side towards famous run-chase. After missing out in Brisbane, Kohli then came back with a bang in Melbourne, making 169 and putting on 262 with Ajinkya Rahane in a drawn match. The final Test in Sydney saw another Kohli classic as the right-hander stroked 147 with ease - his fourth ton of the series. India may have been outclassed but it was Kohli who left with his reputation well and truly enhanced.
5. Hashim Amla vs India (2010) – 490 runs from three innings at 490 (three hundreds)
South Africa, fresh from beating England and Australia in their own back yards and building a side that would eventually become the No. 1 Test team in the world, toured India for two Tests with one of their best chances of securing a rare series victory in the subcontinent. The series was drawn but it was the outstanding displays of Hashim Amla that stole the show.
In the first Test in Nagpur, Amla batted for over 11 hours in making an unbeaten 253, sharing a partnership of 340 with Jacques Kallis (173), in a superb display of mental fortitude and application which helped the visitors thrash India by an innings and 6 runs. The second Test in Kolkata was a far more difficult affair but Amla still stood out, making a century in each innings (114 and 123) before his side succumbed to defeat by an innings and 53 runs. In just three knocks, Amla batted for 1402 minutes, faced 1032 deliveries and finished with a staggering average of 490.
4. Alastair Cook vs India (2012) – 562 runs from eight innings at 80.28 (three hundreds)
After a strenuous summer which saw England lose their number one Test ranking, tensions rise with star batsman Kevin Pietersen over the infamous 'textgate' saga, and captain Andrew Strauss retiring, England headed to India without momentum on their side. Yet new captain Alastair Cook led from the front with a stunning series at the top of the order.
Despite being hammered in the first Test in Ahmedabad, Cook showed England that they could bat on such turning pitches against Ashwin, Ojha and co. with 41 and 176. He then hit 122 in a stand of 206 with Pietersen (186) to help England level the series before making a superb 190 in Kolkata as his side dominated to go 2-1 up. Cook missed out in the final Test in Nagpur but England managed to draw the match and win their first series in India for 28 years. No visiting team has managed to produce the same feat since.
3. Alastair Cook vs Australia (2010/11) – 766 runs from seven innings at 127.66 (three hundreds)
It seems amazing to think now that, before this series, Cook had nearly lost his place in the England Test side after a horrid run in the summer of 2010, saved only by a century against Pakistan at The Oval. It proved to be a defining moment as the opener went to Australia that winter and produced an astonishing series of run accumulation, driven by discipline, concentration, and immense hunger.
After making 67 in the first innings of the first Test, Cook made 235 not out in the second to help rescue England from a perilous position as they made a remarkable 517-1. The left-hander then hit 148 to help the visitors to an innings win in Adelaide before his 82 in Melbourne set the platform for another big victory that would retain the Ashes for the visitors. Cook then signed off the series in style in Sydney, compiling 189 in a total of 644, a record for England in Australia, as England sealed a famous 3-1 victory - their first series win down under for 24 years.
2. Brian Lara vs Sri Lanka (2001) – 688 runs from six innings at 114.66 (three hundreds)
If ever there was an example of Lara's brilliance in a declining West Indies team, this was it. On some raging turners in Sri Lanka, the away side were hammered in all three Tests, with their batsmen, in particular, being outclassed by Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas as they passed 400 only once. It was the staggering performance of Lara in a losing cause, however, which stole the show.
Despite starring with 178 and 40 in the first Test in Colombo, Lara's side were still thrashed by 10 wickets. He then made 74 and 45 in a poor Windies batting display in the second Test at Kandy which resulted in another heavy defeat. It was during the final Test back in Colombo, however, that the left-hander went to new heights, making 221 and 130 in an astonishingly skillful display against spin and seam while his team mates, Ramnaresh Sarwan aside, struggled to stay with him. In all, Lara scored over 42 percent of his team's runs in the series and firmly established his reputation as one of, if not the finest player of spin bowling there has ever been.
1. Steve Smith vs England (2019) – 774 runs from seven innings at 110.57 (three hundreds)
Of Smith's many extraordinary performances so far in his career, the 2019 Ashes undoubtedly tops the lot. He may have dominated attacks previously but this, against a strong England attack, in bowler-friendly conditions and with the pressure intensified, was quite something. In just four matches, Smith piled on 774 runs in just four Test matches, almost single-handedly dragging his side out of desperate situations to retain the Ashes in England for the first time since 2001.
There was no finer example of this than during the first Test victory at Edgbaston, where Smith produced one of the great innings as his 144 saved Australia from 122-8 as they eventually made 284. He then backed it up with his second ton of the match, 142, to help his side overturn a first innings deficit of 90. In the face of some hostile bowling from Jofra Archer at Lord's, Smith managed to make 92 despite being hit on the head which would rule him out of the third Test. He returned at Old Trafford to make a brilliant 211, followed by 74 in the second innings, to set-up another Australia victory by 185 runs - a win which would ensure the Ashes stayed with the visitors. Smith finished off the series with 80 and 23 in a defeat at The Oval but his job was done. This was a series for the ages as the legend of Smith rose even higher.