Australia: the greatest team on earth – but where’s the star quality?

Australia are No 1 for the first time in seven years but Stephen Brenkley questions their qualities

Comparisons may be odious but, unfortunately for Australia, they are also inevitable. If this may also be construed as trying to find any way to spoil their party, has that not always been the default position and possibly the duty of everyone outside Australia?

For the first time in seven years Australia were officially anointed yesterday as the world’s No 1 Test side when they won the second Test against New Zealand by seven wickets and with it the series, 2-0. It was the outcome they needed to finish top of the ICC rankings at year’s end in April, for which they will receive the vaunted Silver Mace and US$1m (£718,000).

Since they are also top of the ICC one-day rankings as well as being World Cup holders, it is hard to avoid the verdict that they are the best team on earth. They are not so hot at Twenty20 (eighth in the latest chart released yesterday) but it would be foolish to crow too soon on that score, with the World Twenty20 imminent.

New Zealand’s captain, Brendon McCullum, as is his wont, paid generous tribute to his team’s opponents. At the beginning and the end of his typically warm and engaging valedictory comments, marking not merely the end of the series but of his international career, he could hardly have been more complimentary about the way Australia had played and what they might achieve in the future.

But not everybody can be as kind, fair and rational as Baz McCullum, if only because most of the rest of us are incapable of hitting a Test century from 54 balls, as he did last Friday. Added to a natural disposition, it buys a lot of magnanimity.

Australia might have overtaken India on the way to the Mace on the final bend of the last lap but there lurks the suspicion, perhaps born of resentment, that they are not actually much cop – greater than the sum of their parts. Lucky country, Australia, lucky team, too, maybe.

The comparison that is to be made – unfair probably, unavoidable definitely and tough toffee – is with their forebears. Australia ruled the world from the mid-1990s to 2009. When the present ICC ratings were inaugurated in 2003, they finished top for the first seven years.

Of the 72 Test matches they played in the period, they won 49 and lost 11. The team contained, as the present lot are no doubt still painfully aware, some of the greatest to have played the game. Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist anyone? Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Matthew Hayden, anyone else?

And now we are being invited to venerate Joe Burns, Adam Voges and Mitch Marsh. Usman Khawaja, Jackson Bird and Nathan Lyon. Some of their records in the year during which they have climbed to the top of the charts defy belief.

Take Voges. He was 35 when he made his Test debut last June and after 15 matches and 21 innings has an average of 95. Only Don Bradman had a higher average and Voges is ahead of such luminaries as Hussey, Herbert Sutcliffe, Neil Harvey, Everton Weekes and Wally Hammond, all of whom had electrifying starts to their Test career and more or less sustained it. But when Voges was in England last summer he looked as susceptible to the moving ball as most of his mates.

Khawaja has been prodigious throughout the Australian summer, as has Burns with four and three hundreds respectively. Burns looks certain to be the long-term partner for David Warner at the top of the order, a busy accumulator who has served his apprenticeship.

The bowling department is well stocked. Mitchell Johnson might have retired in mid-season but James Pattinson and Josh Hazlewood look to be a daunting new-ball pair to evoke memories of McGrath and Jason Gillespie. In the second Test against New Zealand it was Bird, swinging the ball both conventionally and with reverse, who finished with five wickets in the second innings. 

In Lyon they have a spinner who has ended all argument about who is the successor to Warne as the side’s slow bowler. He may not have Warne’s theatrical star quality (who does?) but in this year in which Australia have resumed their ascendancy he has taken 57 wickets at 26.18 runs each, which allows him to hold his head high in any company, even in a year when R Ashwin and Yasir Shah were taking wickets for fun on spinning pitches for India and Pakistan.

The all-rounder and the wicketkeeper, Mitch Marsh and Peter Nevill, are weaker areas, both of them short of runs, but so prodigious has the top order been that it has hardly yet mattered. Marsh allows them to have a five-man attack, which they never did in their greatest days of yore.

And then there is the captain, Steve Smith. Of those to have led Australia more than 10 times, only Warwick Armstrong and Steve Waugh have superior winning ratios. Armstrong, like Smith so far, never lost a match. Only Don Bradman has a higher batting average than Smith’s 87.47 as captain. Since he was given the role officially at the start of the winter, he has led them to six victories in eight Tests. 

Yet Smith continues to divide opinion. He is an indisputably superlative slip fielder, as he again demonstrated in the second Test against New Zealand, but his batting seems to be constantly on the verge of falling apart and going out of control – while he is keeping it together blissfully unbothered about the external fuss. 

His captaincy is usually understated but prone, it seems, to naivety and perplexing outbursts of ill temper (again witness the recent Test when he was fined for dissent towards the umpire). Like the batting it works, but in spite of, not because of.

Australia’s intention now is to stay at No 1. Their next assignments much later this year are against South Africa home and away, and Pakistan at home. The only thing for it, of course, is to remind them who holds the Ashes.

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