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World Test Championship 2021/23

This Australia are one of the most underperforming sides in Test history – now is their chance to change that

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

Australia have won just one away Test series in seven years, but a World Test Championship final and Ashes series offers a last chance to leave a mark, writes Ben Gardner.

What makes a great cricket team? Is it simply a collection of great individuals, or is something deeper at play? The Australia side that will likely line up for the World Test Championship final serves as a useful case study.

Steve Smith is an undisputed all-time great, arguably the best since Bradman. Pat Cummins is a little way behind in terms of overall numbers, only just creeping into the 200-wicket club, but in that group, his average is the fifth-best of all. He is on track to be considered Smith’s equal.


Those two are first among equals. Nathan Lyon is one of the game’s finest finger-spinners, and David Warner one of its most brutal openers. Mitchell Starc will end his career inside Australia’s top five Test wicket-takers. Josh Hazlewood is another who qualifies for ‘Australia great’ status, while Marnus Labuschagne, the current No.1 ranked Test batter, will surely join those ranks, and may rival Smith by the time he is done.

Added to those you have Cam Green, seemingly destined to end up among the game’s premier all-rounders, while Usman Khawaja, Travis Head and Alex Carey make up a fine supporting cast. All in all, each of that top five averages at least 45 with the bat in Test cricket, while those frontline bowlers have more than 1,200 wickets between them.

It’s a fearsome line-up, and they are the No.1 ranked team in the world. But search for a defining triumph, a statement win to establish their legacy, and there is very little to cling to.

If you’re feeling charitable, you may point to their Ashes defence in 2019, though any England fan will remind you that they didn’t actually win the series. There’s also a 1-0 series win in Pakistan, hailed for its magnitude at the time, though losing its sheen soon after as England surged to a 3-0 whitewash. That, as it happens, is Australia’s only series win away from home in the last seven years (England have four) while Australia have lost three series at home in that time (England have lost just once) – once to South Africa, in 2016/17, and twice to India, in 2018/19 and 2020/21. Given the calibre of their cohort, as it stands, this Australia ranks with the most underperforming sides in cricket history.

Those gargantuan statistical records are little more than monuments to home maulings against weaker sides. Inevitably, when a game gets close, the Aussies come out second. Since the start of 2017, Australia haven’t won a single Test by fewer than 100 runs, or with fewer than six wickets remaining. They have lost five times by those margins in that time, while England have won 10 such games.

This may seem a minor quibble, but really, it’s on such games that the biggest series are won and lost, especially overseas. It’s rare to breeze through a series away from home against good opposition, blowing them away each time. Even the great Australia side at the turn of the century had to overturn three first-innings deficits in a 2004 whitewash in Sri Lanka, while West Indies’ famous unbeaten run through the 1980s included several series draws. Tracing back through the recent near-misses, it’s Australia’s struggles with the pressure on that stand out.

Steve Smith’s captaincy ended, literally, in tears as the weight of back-to-back series against England and South Africa took their toll. With the latter slipping away, he and vice-captain David Warner turned to sandpaper, with everything that followed thereafter. Justin Langer and Tim Paine were matched as twin hotheads, bin-kicking and back-biting even as they carved reputations as team ethos cleansers.

Think of Headingley 2019, with the head-loss reviews and the lack of any sort of plan, or Sydney 2021, Paine laying into R Ashwin in excruciating fashion before putting down a chance that, with a clearer mind, he might have left to first slip.

Perhaps under Pat Cummins and Andrew McDonald, a corner has been turned. That Pakistan win, even if it was overshadowed by England, required plenty of resolve, the hosts’ resistance finally broken in the decider, Australia’s bowlers brushing off two Tests of toil to deliver the decisive collapse.

A 2-1 defeat in India was a creditable result, and there was a notable sense of calm in that one win, with Head deflating the occasion on the final morning with a flurry of boundaries. Though Cummins was absent for that consolation, and there was some fraught thinking early in the series, there are shoots to work with.

Now they arrive in England for six Tests of the utmost significance, a World Test Championship final and an Ashes series. Simply put, even if winning in India is the final frontier, from the point of view of the Australian public, it doesn’t get any bigger. And even then, this is of even greater magnitude.

Smith is now 34. Warner is 36, and may not last the summer. Khawaja, in the form of his life, is also 36. Each of that four-pronged bowling attack is in their thirties. Across a three-year period between the end of this summer and September 2026, Australia play just six away Tests, with their next three-match series on the road against South Africa to end that barren stretch in their schedule. Half their current first-choice XI may well be out of the frame by then.

But if this is this Australia’s last chance to leave their mark, it’s also their best. India, with their batting line-up degrading even more significantly than Australia’s and deprived of Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah, are underdogs for the World Test Championship final. England are as strong as they have been in years, but so are Australia. The Ashes is too close to call, and could yet be a series for the ages, a clash of titanic cricketers and contrasting philosophies packed into a no-room-for-breath six-week stretch. Given the hype, the winner’s place in history will be secure.

Should Cummins and Co. come out on top in both, they can feel content as having done justice to their talent, even if their record falls short of all-conquering. Lose, and their collective cabinet will look strikingly bare.

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