Right, so there's obviously no definitive way to decide if a player is underrated or not. But we've tried to play the game anyway, done our best to identify players who don't pop into most cricket fans' heads when they think of match-winners in the present-day game. The processes of selection involved looking at Google search trends for players compared to their peers, social media buzz, the number and types of stories about them on ESPNcricinfo, and ambushing our editor and asking him to guess batting and bowling averages of the candidates, then comparing these to their actual numbers. And these are only players who genuinely don't get a lot of attention; if you think Virat Kohli is underrated because he's actually so great he makes Don Bradman look like Courtney Walsh, you might be disappointed.
Dean Elgar has 23,000 Twitter followers. Yes, sure, your Twitter following doesn't define how popular you are, but 23,000? The Chennai Super Kings team manager, @russcsk, has six times as many.
Elgar's record since the beginning of 2017 is remarkable. He averages 43.53, more than Joe Root, David Warner, and even his captain Faf du Plessis - compare Google search results for Elgar with any of those three and his average score returns as either 1 or 0. Despite being South Africa's highest run-getter in the period, with 2046 runs, seven hundreds and nine fifties in 50 innings. Not to forget that 1281 of the runs have come opening in South Africa, arguably the hardest batting assignment in cricket today.
There were rumblings Elgar might take a Kolpak deal at the beginning of 2017. He ended the year in the ICC and ESPNcricinfo Test teams of the year. But, despite the feel-good story, Elgar's rise hasn't got the attention it might have - heck, we haven't even updated his player profile since 2012. Part of this is because he entered the South Africa team at a time when greats such as Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers were still around partly because he doesn't excel in the white-ball formats, partly because his batting style is kind-of-but-not-quite Shiv Chanderpaul, and then just sheer bad luck. It's almost funny how many of Elgar's hundreds have ended up being overshadowed by other events. He got a century against Sri Lanka in January 2017 only for Kagiso Rabada to announce himself with a ten-wicket haul. Then he got a 140 in Dunedin, but it was a few days after Steven Smith had his DRS brain fade in Bengaluru, and that's what Elgar's captain ended up being asked about in the press conference. He carried his bat against Australia in Cape Town, and two days later Sandpapergate exploded. You get the picture.
Search 'BJ Watling + Cricinfo' on Google and the first two stories that pop up are about how under-rated he is. As Andrew Fidel Fernando writes in one: "If New Zealand are the team that do great things that barely get noticed in the wider cricket world, BJ Watling is the New Zealand of New Zealand."
Watling has made a career out of getting tough, important, unflashy runs for his team in Test cricket, either supporting one of the bigger-name top-order stars - he's been a part of two triple-century stands for the sixth wicket, one with Brendon McCullum, the other with Kane Williamson - or digging his team out of trouble. He's played more matches, 55, scored more runs, 2887 at an average of 40.66, and effected more dismissals, 214, than any wicketkeeper since his debut in December 2009. Not enough to be in your team of the decade, is he?
It was always going to be hard for Watling. Firstly, he's from New Zealand. Secondly, he took the gloves from McCullum, the most blockbuster cricketer the country has ever produced. And he's the type of guy who, when asked a question earlier this year, said, "I don't even think I'm one of the best, to be honest. I think there's some quality keepers going around who are also fantastic batsmen. So I don't look at that too deeply… Winning a Test match and having a beer at the end of it and knowing you've put in five days of hard work to try and achieve that - that's why you play the game. I'm happy with that."
Jason Holder is the No. 1 Test allrounder in the world according to the ICC rankings. That's right, not Ben Stokes, not Shakib Al Hasan, but Holder, medium pacer and No. 8 batsman. Before you dismiss the rankings, have a look at the extraordinary improvement in his bowling stats in the past three years. At the end of West Indies' first Test in the UAE in October 2016, his bowling average had risen to 49.69. Since then, he has averaged 20.65, bringing his overall average down to 27.26. And consider this: he has two five-fors against India, one five-for against Pakistan, and two four-fors against England in the past three years. Just as a bowler, he is now No. 4 in the rankings. Add in his batting average of 33.10, his match-winning double-century in the series win over England last year, and you have a player who at least belongs in the conversation about the best allrounder in the game.
The problem for Holder is that he has never quite fully shaken off the reputation he gained early in his career of a bits-and-pieces player whose main role is to maintain order in a team in disarray. He was considered not quick enough to be picked as a bowler and came in too low to be considered a batsman. But Holder has swung the ball more consistently, making him a threat despite the lack of pace, and many people now feel he should bat higher.
Trent Boult is sexy. His hair gets prettier the more he sweats, he fires the ball along the pitch, getting it right up so it swings miles, he goes for big money at the IPL auction and takes photos with Ed Sheeran that he posts on Instagram for his 270K followers. Neil Wagner has a slightly receding hairline. Sweat sits heavily on him, settling in and accentuating the crinkles on his face over a day's work. He thuds the ball into the pitch. He doesn't get to play in the IPL; he has, in fact, never played an ODI or T20I for New Zealand. The only time he gets more than ten comments on an Instagram post is when it's a photo of him with Boult. Yet, since the start of 2016, Wagner has a better average, strike rate and economy rate than Boult.
Boult's role is to create havoc with the new ball, Wagner's is to be the enforcer and keep batsmen honest with long spells of tight lines and tough lengths. Boult is always going to be the one in the limelight, but Wagner is now finding his unsexy hard work pay dividends. He has six five-fors in the past four years, including two six-fors and a seven-for, and is fast closing in on 200 Test wickets.
Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq
To have to succeed a hero is about the most unrewarding task, especially when the demand comes from the kind of passionate mob that believes in heroes and, consequently, villains. Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq were heroes of such stature that Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq had lost this one even before they had started. How were they supposed to match men who took Pakistan out of the darkness of spot fixing and no home cricket and tuk-tuked them right up to the No. 1 spot?
Azhar and Shafiq have not quite stepped into the shoes of MisYou either. You could even argue that their form, in particular Shafiq's, have been on the wane. But the two are now among Pakistan's top ten run-getters ever in Test cricket. Both of them have more runs than Saeed Anwar and Hanif Mohammad. Between them, they have 27 centuries and 54 half-centuries. It's likely that they will always be seen as pale imitations of MisYou. It's equally likely that once they're done, people will look at Azhar and Shafiq and say they're going to be a hard act to follow for the next set of Pakistan middle-order batsmen. They may even bag themselves a hashtag.
Sri Lankan cricket is in a bit of a crisis. Yet, somehow, they have still sort of kept it together as a Test side, losing just two of six home series since the start of 2017, and winning series away in the UAE and, to the cricket world's amazement, in South Africa. A big part of that is Dimuth Karunaratne, the current captain.
When Kumar Sangakkara retired, in 2015, all eyes were on Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal to steer the ship forward. Karunaratne, who was also in the team, was a bit of a side note, a sturdy opener from the Alastair Cook school. It wasn't till 2017 that Karunaratne began to hit his stride, and he has more runs than any other opener since, 2180, at an average of 41.13. His 196 in Dubai, in 2017, sealed an improbable away series win for Sri Lanka against Pakistan, and he was a fortress among glasshouses on the turners prepared for South Africa's tour of Sri Lanka next year, scoring more than double the number of runs as the series' next highest run-getter.
And as captain, Karunaratne is doing his job well by all accounts and, though he did not get many runs there, got a lot of credit for the miracle in South Africa earlier this year. Despite all this, Karunaratne still doesn't get talked about much in conversations about the best batsmen or leaders going around.
Since the retirements of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, the narrative around West Indian fast bowling has been that of an edifice disintegrating. Somewhere in the rubble has been lost Kemar Roach's 193 wickets and nine five-wicket hauls. Like several of the players on this list, Roach's career has been up and down, with poor form and injury keeping him out of the Test team at times. But since August 2017, Roach has been on a tear, with a remodelled action and a more disciplined approach helping him take 71 wickets at an average of 21.28, better than that of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Boult, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood in the same period.
A quick check of Google Trends and social media will let you know Roach doesn't get nearly as many plaudits as those players, and he's not as much of a celebrity as other West Indies players such as Chris Gayle, Andre Russell and Kieron Pollard are, perhaps for obvious reasons. Still, a career spanning ten years and a more than decent bowling average of 26.94 - the same as Anderson and better than Mitchell Johnson, Broad, Starc, Boult and Morne Morkel - deserves more attention than it gets.
"As a cricketer, over the past five years, it is difficult to think of anyone, anywhere who has been more incognito." Andrew Fidel Fernando wrote that in a 2018 piece about Dilruwan Perera, during a Sri Lanka-England Test series in which he was the top wicket-taker. The plea was for people to take notice of this quiet grinder, who was making a decent fist of taking over from Rangana Herath as Sri Lanka's friendly neighbourhood fingerspinner. It's been a year since, and not much has changed.
Dilruwan's numbers don't make for pretty reading - he is a Sri Lanka spinner with a bowling average of 34.03 after Muttiah Muralitharan (22.72) and Herath (28.07). It doesn't help that the man is an orthodox spinner who relies on accuracy and control and not the doosra or the carrom ball.
Yet, take a look at any of the major victories Sri Lanka have had since Dilruwan's debut and you'll find that in most cases, he has contributed in some form. Sometimes, it's just three important top-order wickets, like he got in Abu Dhabi in 2017, or a lower-order contribution with the bat, such as his fifty in Dubai, 2017. You know a guy is underrated when he's topping series charts and is not even in the top two of most popular Pereras going around.
When you're a tidy but unspectacular left-arm spinner who relies on drift and changes of pace playing in a team with Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Lungi Ngidi, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, you are probably just worried about keeping your place in the XI. Despite having to sit out at times when South Africa field all-pace attacks at home, Keshav Maharaj is South Africa's second-highest wicket-taker since his debut, in November 2016, with 97 wickets at 29.51. Only Rabada is ahead of him. He's also the fourth-highest wicket-taker among spinners in the same period, behind Nathan Lyon, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and ahead of Yasir Shah, Shakib and Moeen Ali. What makes Maharaj's efforts more impressive is that he has played just four Tests in Asia and has managed to take five-wicket hauls in South Africa and New Zealand. Yet the only time Maharaj has gone anything close to viral was when he got hit in the backside by a throw from his own keeper in the Vitality Blast.