With their 2-0 trans-Tasman series win and faultless party-pooping effort in Black Caps skipper Brendon McCullum’s farewell Test, Australia now find themselves on top of the ICC rankings, claiming back a title they’ve held for just three months out of the previous five years.
As milestones go it certainly grabs the headlines and provides a neat full stop on a 12-month period that also saw Australia establish supremacy in the one-day international arena, but perhaps of greater significance in the long term was simply that a new-generation side has won an away Test series under the fledgling captaincy of Steve Smith.
Smith pointedly noted as much in accepting the various trinkets and tchotchkes in the presentation area after the Christchurch win. To prove themselves truly worthy of further platitudes, Australia simply have to keep winning tough Tests like these and in doing so continue to master unfamiliar environmental factors.
Prior to this series vice-captain David Warner had predicted an Ashes-like intensity to the New Zealand assignment and at least in the sense of the overcast skies and green wickets encountered, at times it was. Doubts will have lingered from last winter’s campaign in England, when the Darren Lehmann-era swagger was comprehensively shown up amid the familiar sight of swing-induced batting collapses.
Yet in the past two weeks, all of the top order batsmen bar Warner himself allayed fears of a repeat and showed a newfound capacity to adapt to their brief, often punishing the bowlers in lengthy stays at the crease. At Wellington, Adam Voges hung around long enough to be asked for rent money, as did Joe Burns in Christchurch.
The other thing Australia did was make one of the world’s most potent and confident opening bowling combinations look pedestrian. Trent Boult’s series analysis of five wickets at 53.80 and Tim Southee’s three at 67.33 were result-shaping. Feisty Neil Wagner was a bundle of energy in the second Test but he was the Black Caps’ only specialist bowler of the series whose average didn’t top the half-century mark.
For those who stared disapprovingly at the mid-30s averages of those assembled around Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey in the last half-decade, what cannot be understated when appraising this Australian side is the present dominance of those batsmen.
Granting Usman Khawaja’s 49.54 and Joe Burns’ 49.29, all of the top five currently possess Test averages around or above 50, the traditional marker of batting greatness and at least in the short term, an emphatic argument for the team’s current lofty status. So too, in a less quantifiable sense, is the sheer variety of batting on display; Warner’s indomitable boundary-sprees, Smith’s fidgety mastery, Khawaja’s balletic flourishes, cool-headed Voges sending Statsguru into meltdown.
Still, the odd pointer to Australia’s shortcomings lingers. A batting titan at home, Warner again endured a lean run away. The rapid upward curve of Mitchell Marsh’s bowling output has made him undroppable but he’s still only making tentative steps towards establishing himself as a worthy Test six, and there lies potential stumbling blocks during Test tours of Sri Lanka and India in the next 14 months.
Australia’s solid all-round bowling performance also didn’t shake the feeling that this attack doesn’t possess quite the same edge without Mitchell Starc and his defence-splitting yorkers, though Jackson Bird was certainly no slouch as a fill-in. The fielding, as dismal in the last twelve months as at any point since Bob Simpson packed in his weathered baseball glove, is now showing signs of improvement. The slip catching in particular sharpened up noticeably in this series.
What will resonate far less comfortably was the combustible atmosphere fostered by captain Smith in the wake of Josh Halzewood’s DRS brainfade. It jarred badly enough with Hagley Oval’s bucolic surrounds but in a high-stakes, hot-tempered series against the likes of India or England and in front of a less accommodating umpire than affable Ranmore Martinez, a calmer approach might not hurt.
As far as the rankings achievement itself, the final throes of the game in Christchurch gave a decent glimpse of why Test cricket remains an impenetrable concept to outsiders. On day five, with Australia needing only 16 runs of the game’s eventual 1,411 runs to take out the series, the 40-minute lunch break was called. When play resumed Australia quickly claimed the ICC Test Championship mace, named for a tournament that does actually exist. No grand finale, no winner-takes-all face off between the two best sides, just a giant novelty cheque and an extra heavy item for the oversize baggage check-in.
The irony of cricket rankings systems, of course, is that in conferring upon both teams and individuals the tag of “best in the world” they tend to beg subjective qualifiers or just outright scoffing; “X team from now wouldn’t even beat Y team of five years ago”; “X hasn’t even played against Y in the current rankings period”; “how can a team containing Dean Elgar/Varun Aaron/Chris Tremlett be the best at anything, really?”
For a game in thrall to statistics, it is at least fitting that a side can be pipped to top spot by a matter of decimal points. When India leapfrogged South Africa to take the mantle a month back, the Proteas actually slipped right down to third spot and only 11 rankings points separated first from sixth, opening up the possibility of not only Australia’s current surge but those of others over the coming year. The presence of strong and even competition is a conclusion you might draw from this, but a more honest explanation is the outsized impact of home-ground advantage.
And that is the real puzzle for Australia now: can they drive home this achievement on foreign soil, particularly on the subcontinent? The shambolic 4-0 whitewash suffered at the hands of India in 2013 might be an Arthur-era relic, but with bits and pieces line-ups consigned to the past and wins rolling, the other opponent they contend with now is expectation.
This article was written by Russell Jackson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 24th February 2016 04.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010