It’s official: Australia are once again the No. 1 ranked Test team in the world. The International Cricket Council’s latest rankings, announced on May 1 put Australia on top of the heap in the format of cricket that counted the most. And, an added bonus was that Australia were also ranked No. 1 in Twenty20 internationals, for the first time since the rankings for cricket’s most popular format were introduced in 2011.
In the Test rankings, New Zealand were in second place and India right behind at No. 3. In Twenty20 Internationals — and this is vital considering the Twenty20 World Cup is scheduled to begin in Australia in October this year — Australia are followed by England and India. In the 50-over format, Australia are in fifth place, but that will not bother them too much in a year where the focus is on Twenty20 cricket.
Australia’s rise to the top of the Test charts is particularly critical given the turbulent times the country has had to endure since the Sandpapergate incident of 2018. When Australia’s players were found guilty of ball tampering in the Cape Town Test against South Africa, cricket had reached a low point. Steve Smith, the captain, and David Warner, the best batsman in the team, were banned for one year, while Darren Lehman, the coach, stepped down from his position.
Australia, suddenly without their best players and leadership group, were forced to rebuild, and this meant finding the right personnel to show the way.
Enter Tim Paine and Justin Langer
Tim Paine, the wicketkeeper, was barely a contender to be captain of the team. But, when the circumstances forced him to step up, the understated cricketer’s man-management skills and leadership came to the fore. He teamed up with Justin Langer, the former opening batsman, who took over as coach, and formed the backbone of the revival.
“When you think back to where Australia were after sandpaper-gate to where there are now – top of Test cricket and T20 – the two leaders, Langer and Paine, have done a terrific job,” said Shane Warne the legendary former Australian legspinner. “The players themselves have to take a lot of credit for playing some good attacking cricket. There are not too many spots up for grabs – you know what the side is bar for maybe a few debatable spots. In the main we know what our best side is and that had been the issue. Some guys have grabbed their opportunities with both hands.
When you put two class players in Steve Smith and David Warner back in the mix and have the bowling side Australia have at the moment – the awesome quickies and Lyno [Nathan Lyon], who has been brilliant – you are looking at a pretty good team.”
In the time that Australia were forced to do without their best players, they lost a home series to India for the first time ever and were blanked out in a limited-overs series by England. Now, their fortunes are back on the rise again.
The best bowling attack in the world?
In cricket, especially Test cricket, it is the batsmen who usually hog all the headlines and the limelight, but it is the bowlers who win you matches. You can put all the runs on the board, but unless you pick up 20 opposition wickets consistently, you are not going to win too many matches, leave alone dominating a series.
One of the hallmarks of Australia’s revival has been the standard of its bowling attack. Tall, fast incisive quick bowlers who have the ability to swing and seam the ball and a top-class spinner in Nathan Lyon, who has performed in all conditions, make Australia irresistible.
It’s no wonder that Jason Gillespie, the former Australia quick bowler and now a respected coach is purring in satisfaction. ”I have been saying for a couple of years that Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are potentially going to be our greatest opening combination. They complement each other so well,” says Gillespie. “You have the left-arm attacking option of Starc, who can go for a few runs but is a wicket-taker and creates indecision with his pace. Hazlewood is a wonderful bowler – I could watch him bowl all day.”
But, that’s not all, for two bowlers do not make up an attack, even if they may influence one strongly. “Pat Cummins can fulfil any number of roles – with the old ball, with the new ball – and those three are backed up by Nathan Lyon, who has been brilliant. I think the depth is there as well. James Pattinson, who has just turned 30, still has a role to play in the next couple of years at least. Michael Neser has been in the wings for 18 months and there is the young lad in Jhye Richardson. We have the makings of a fine bowling attack. In time, when we look back and talk about the best bowlers Australia have ever produced, a number of these names will be in those conversations.”
The return of Smith
When India beat Australia in Australia in a Test series for the first time, in 2017, the home team’s bowling attack was just as solid as it is now. But, without the batting of Steve Smith, the Australians did not have that intimidation factor, and were unable to impose themselves on matches as they would have liked to.
Smith, who returned to the game after serving his one-year ban, was as hungry as ever, and remarkably looked as though he had never been out of the game. So much so that even arch rivals England cannot help but sing his praises.
“Even though he plays for Australia … you’ve just got to hold your hands up sometimes to players like that and go ‘yeah you’re on a different level when it comes to batting. He’s still strange to play against and he’s still strange to play with, and the best thing about it is that he admits it,” explains Ben Stokes, who plays alongside Smith for the Rajansthan Royals in the Indian Premier League. “But I feel to be a genius you have to be a bit strange and you know he’s certainly both.
It’s interesting that Stokes highlights how unorthodox Smith is. Back in 2010, when Justin Langer had just retired from professional cricket and was yet to transition into being a coach, he was asked by the Australia team to have a look at Smith. After one net session, Langer was convinced that Smith, who was then playing at No. 8, would not make it as a batsman. Langer just did not see what it was about Smith that made him pick up balls from outside off and hit them through leg. Since then, however, Smith has come a long way, and today Langer is one of his biggest admirers.
The emergence of Labuschagne
When he first got a go at the international level, Marnus Labuschagne was a novelty merely for the challenge of pronouncing his second name, which made his South African origins quite obvious. But, once he had a chance to bat in the top of the order, Labuschagne has emerged as a run machine, filling his boots whenever he has had the chance to walk out to bat.
Since May 1, 2019, Labuschagne has scored more prolifically in Test cricket than anyone else in the world.
In nine Tests Labuschagne score 1249 runs at an average of 83.26 with four centuries. And he admits that the progression was a stunning one. “It has been a really special year for me, there’s no doubt about that, the way things have unfolded has been awesome. It’s been about taking it all in, being happy and proud about that, then looking at how I can get better, looking at different parts of your game on field and off field that you can work on in this period to continually get better,” said Labuschagne. “For me, it’s just about making sure that that I’m prepared and understand what the game requires and then to make decisions upon that. And then if that means that I get runs then that’s great. And if that means I miss out then for me it’s just about going back to the chalkboard and understanding my game and making sure I continue to learn from that.”
Of course, every player enjoys the occasional great run, especially in their first season, but opponents usually come hard at them soon after, and Labuschagne is aware of the challenges ahead. “Once you’ve played that initial season, any format whether its grade cricket or Shield cricket or Test cricket, people start knowing you and knowing how you play. So they come back more researched and they obviously understand your game a lot better. For me, it’s about understanding what they are going to do and I also understand where my weaknesses are and my strengths are, and then continuing to improve… Obviously try and go another level up.”
Getting on top and staying there
Langer, the Australian coach, was more than happy to receive the news of his team’s elevation to the No. 1 position, but this did not mean he was going to sit back and relax. “We recognise how fluid these rankings are, but at this time it was certainly nice to put a smile on our faces. We’ve got lots of work to do to get to be the team that we want to be, but hopefully over the last couple of years not only have we performed well on the field, but also off the field,” said Langer. “Ultimately, we have to beat India in India and we’ve got to beat them when they come back to Australia). You can only judge yourself as being the best if you beat the best and we’ve got some really tough opposition to come.”