On their quest to be the best
A former colleague once said to me that politics isn't a good line of work for people who like finish lines. The same could be said of Test cricket.
While the white-ball formats of the game have World Cups, the original and best doesn't have a single point of reference locked into the calendar where the question of primacy is resolved. Not yet anyway.
There’s no mistaking that the Australian cricket team craves the title of 'best in the world'. The captain Michael Clarke repeats this almost daily; his teammates follow suit. Cricket Australia deems it a principle measure of organisational success, too: to be at the top in all formats of the game.
While it may not have looked like it, Australia’s three-day demolition of the West Indies in Dominica during the week symbolised the firing of the starter's pistol in the next, and most important, stage of this quest.
At one level, the classification of Test champion is technically dealt with by the International Cricket Council’s World Test Championship rankings. The formula, based on rolling four-year performances, spits out a number, a league-ladder follows, and you have your ‘best in the world’.
While a useful enough device, the fact that it captures results from four years earlier ignores how quickly teams morph, the Australians themselves a perfect example of this over the last 18 months.
Indeed, they actually led the rankings for a few months last year after trumping South Africa and the annual adjustment removed Australia’s 2010/11 Ashes defeat from calculations. South Africa promptly leapfrogged Australia the next time they played a Test series.
In summary, outside of cricket’s beltway, the mace given to the current King doesn't always mean a tremendous amount. To put this another way, if you can successfully identify the current positions of all ten Test teams, unassisted, then you should possibly consider taking up a wider range of hobbies.
But while claiming to be ‘the best’ can be a bit of a definitional problem, it is still entirely meritorious. It just requires a bit more of a nuanced approach, considering factors that a spreadsheet can't.
You don't need to retrofit the ICC’s formulation to know that the West Indies were the best team in the world from the early 1980s until Australia defeated them in 1995. Similarly, it is a statement of fact that Australia were then top of the tree from then until they lost to India away and South Africa at home in the 2008/09 season.
Both teams had in common that they were unbeatable on their home patch, but they also won pretty much everywhere they went on tour as well. Australia has the first bit sorted, with some obvious markers up ahead that can deal with the latter, too.
Over the next two years, Australia tour England, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and then, crucially, India. If they're after a ‘1995 Frank Worrell Trophy moment’ to claim legitimate, unquestioned supremacy, they need look no further than success on these trips.
More specifically, in the Autumn of 2017 they must succeed on cricket’s hardest away trip – they're going to have to beat India in India.
Australia’s Dominican decimation was their first victory in ‘subcontinental’ (to share Clarke’s characterisation) conditions since the last time they won here in 2012. During it they reinforced that they're not going to front up often without taking 20 wickets; the depth of outstanding fast bowlers will take care of that as a rule.
However, Devendra Bishoo’s dismissal of every Australian batsman between position three and nine (with the exception of Adam Voges) will fill Australian decision makers with a fraction less confidence about that clear weakness.
It underpins why investment has been made in preparing Indian-style practice wickets at the national Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. Coupled with an Australia ‘A’ tour there this winter, logic suggests gains will be realised from these ventures in the medium term.
A challenge that’s a fraction more complicated is the aging of the Test XI. Australia’s squad for this pair of West Indies Tests and the Ashes tour that follows is designed expressly to retain the Ashes in England for the first time since 2001; a perfectly reasonable and logical approach.
However, a gear change will be necessitated after the Ashes to plan for the potential loss of up to six of Australia’s first-choice side between now and India, a list that may very well include the skipper. Chris Rogers will be the first, signaling that the England tour will be the end of his international career; Brad Haddin at 37 is expected to do likewise.
Clarke described the rout in Dominica as a 'good start'. It won't be lost upon him that he’s the only active Australian player to have won a Test in India, let alone a series.
That 2004 tour, Clarke’s first, constituted Australia’s conquering of that era’s self-styled ‘final frontier’. In that moment, they were never better. It’s a long run up to April 2017, but from now, it’s where all roads should lead for this team to earn the honour they covet.
Adam Collins is an Australian cricket writer. @collinsadam
Jonny Bairstow primed for Test return in Sri Lanka
Jofra Archer is being considered for a rest for the rearranged two-match series.
Jordan: Competition for places driving England performance
Chris Jordan admits places in the team are being hotly contested right now but the competition is driving their performance levels.
New ICC chair Greg Barclay questions future of Test championship
The ICC is considering the viability of the Test championship going forward.
Familiar faces help Dawid Malan make an impressive return home
Dawid Malan felt at home in Paarl despite the fact he was playing for England against South Africa.
Dawid Malan guides England to series-clinching T20 win against South Africa
Malan put England in control by plundering 16 off four Lungi Ngidi deliveries.
England fan still on Sri Lanka adventure eight months after tour was axed
The 37-year-old is hoping England will return in January so he can finally see the cricket he travelled out for.
Sam Curran relishing responsibility in England T20 side
The Surrey all-rounder opened the bowling before partnering Jonny Bairstow across the winning line.
On This Day 2012: Ashley Giles takes over as England limited-overs head coach
Team director and Test boss Andy Flower was keen to reduce his own workload and Giles seized the opportunity.
Jonny Bairstow happy to put experience to good use after move down England order
Bairstow hit a wonderful 86 not out as England won the first Twenty20 international in South Africa.