Greatest Teams November 3, 2011

As great as the sum of their parts

George Dobell
George Dobell picks his top five teams in the history of Test cricket

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West Indies 1976-1995
Has any team in any sport every dominated as completely as this West Indies side? At one stage, between 1980 and 1994, they went 15 years without suffering a Test series defeat and, between March and November 1984, they won a then-record 11 Tests in a row. As Michael Holding put it: "We hammered everyone."

Much of their success was built upon a battery of wonderfully skilful fast bowlers. The likes of Marshall, Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft tested not only the techniques of batsmen, but their courage, too, as they were peppered with ferocious short-pitched deliveries. It says much for the strength in depth of West Indies at the time that bowlers as fearsome and talented as Sylvester Clarke played only 11 Tests.

But this wasn't a success based simply on great fast bowling. Captained by Clive Lloyd, who managed to unite individuals from the disparate nations of the Caribbean into a harmonious team, they were trained to their optimum by physio Dennis Waite - a trailblazer in an age of semi-professionalism - and possessed several indisputably great batsmen including Sir Viv Richards - who many opponents insist was the finest they have seen - Brian Lara and the superb Bajan opening partnership of Greenidge and Haynes.

There were some hiccups: most of the first choice team was briefly banned for its involvement in Packer's World Series Cricket, while rebel tours accounted for other players. Some might also bemoan the lack of a quality spinner. But the strength in depth of Caribbean cricket was formidable. At one stage in 1984, three of the top five batsmen (Richards, Greenidge and Lloyd) and three of the top six bowlers (Garner, Marshall and Holding) in the Test rankings were West Indian. Between 1980 and 1994-95 West Indies went a record 29 successive series without defeat (the next longest sequence is 16 series by the Australian team of 2001 to 2004/05), a record 27 Tests without defeat (between Jan 1982 and Dec 1984) and eventually beat all regular opponents home and away.

Australia 1999-2008
According to the official ICC rankings, the Australian team of 2007-08 is the highest rated in Test history. It's not hard to see why. Twice (once between Oct 1999 and Feb 2001 and once between Dec 2005 and Jan 2008) Australia won 16 successive Tests (no other team has managed more than 11 successive wins) with a superbly balanced team playing a brand of aggressive, fast-scoring cricket that swept opponents aside.

Blessed with at least two great bowlers - legspinner Shane Warne and seamer Glenn McGrath - this Australia side also boasted awesome batting strength: at one stage in 2002, six of their top seven batsmen were ranked in the top ten. The likes of Ponting, Hayden and Langer could all justifiably claim to be great players.

Even in such rarefied company, however, a few individuals stood out. As captain, Steve Waugh instilled a selfless, ruthless culture that endured long after his own retirement, while Adam Gilchrist, as wicketkeeping allrounder, scored his runs with such speed that it broke the spirit of many opponents. Warne, armed with superb control and an ability to turn the ball prodigious distances on even the most docile pitch, tormented batsmen for 15 years, while McGrath's control ruined many a career.

There were setbacks along the road: a very strong India side defeated them in 2001, while England claimed back the Ashes in 2005. On each occasion, however, Australia regrouped and avenged their defeat. England were slaughtered 5-0 in 2006/07 and India were beaten in India in the 2004/05 series.

Australia 1948
The first Test team to remain undefeated throughout an entire tour of England, this Australian team earned the nickname "The Invincibles". They played 34 matches (31 of them first-class), winning 25 (17 by an innings, two by 10 wickets and another by over 400 runs) and drawing the rest. They defeated England 4-0 in the five-Test series.

It is true that England, wearied and weakened by war, were not at their strongest. They had, after all, just returned winless from a tour of the Caribbean. But Australia, sans Bradman, went on to thrash South Africa in a similarly comprehensive manner and boasted a team of considerable individual talent that would surely have excelled in any era.

Remarkably, all five Wisden Cricketers of the Year were selected from the Australian tour party: the prolific Lindsay Hassett, the tireless left-arm seamer Bill Johnston, the brilliant fast bowler Ray Lindwall, the elegant left-hander Arthur Morris and the superb wicketkeeper Don Tallon. Add to them the likes of batsmen Sid Barnes, allrounder Keith Miller and a young Neil Harvey and a clear picture emerges of the strength of the Australian squad.

And then there was Bradman. While he celebrated his 40th birthday during the tour and was, by his own remarkable standards, on the decline, "The Don" still managed 11 centuries during the summer. He remarked in the 1980s that, in his opinion, the Invincibles remained the finest Australian team he had seen.

South Africa, 1969-70
When South Africa thrashed Bill Lawry's Australians 4-0, it should have marked the beginning of a new era in Test cricket. Instead it marked an end. The South African side, victims of their government's apartheid policy, were instead ostracised from Test cricket for more than 20 years. As a result, some of the most talented cricketers the world has seen were denied the international careers their ability merited.

Among the batsmen in that '69-70 team were Barry Richards - dubbed "a batsman of staggering talent" by John Arlott and playing the only four Tests of his career - and Graeme Pollock, who was credited by Bradman as being the best left-hander he saw. The bowling attack, meanwhile, included the ferocious pairing of Mike Procter (who finished with a Test bowling average of just 17 from his seven Tests) and Peter Pollock (who claimed 116 wickets from just 28 Tests) and was bolstered by the considerable all-round talent of Eddie Barlow, who averaged almost 46 with the bat and 34 with the ball in his 30 Test career.

Trevor Goddard didn't enjoy the best of series, but must be considered one of South Africa's leading allrounders, while Denis Lindsay was a fine wicketkeeper who was good enough to win selection as a specialist batsman. It says much about the strength of the South African side that Ian Chappell, who many regarded as the finest batsman in the world at the time, could average only 11 in the series.

England, 2009-2011
A controversial choice, perhaps (and only just edging the England side of 1911-12), but the statistics of England's recent success are compelling. England have won eight (and drawn one) of their last nine series and 20 of their last 31 Tests.

Perhaps even more impressively, 10 of those victories have been by innings margins. Four of England's batsmen are rated in the top ten and five of their bowlers are in the top 11 of the Test rankings. They have a well-balanced bowling attack that offers pace, bounce, swing and spin and a strong batting line-up including several men - Pietersen, Cook, Strauss and Bell - who all look set to surpass the current English record of 22 Test centuries.

Not only that, but they have inflicted crushing defeats upon India, Australia and Sri Lanka who have, in recent times, all been vying for top positions in the ICC Test rankings. No team has ever gone to Australia and inflicted three innings defeats in a series, while the Indian team defeated 4-0 in the summer of 2011 contained several players of the highest class - Tendulkar, Dravid, Dhoni and Laxman among them.

Uniquely among all the teams in this list, they key man in the England set-up is not actually a player. It is the coach, Andy Flower. Inheriting an under-performing, divided squad, he has instilled a work ethic and sense of purpose that has taken the side to the top of the world rankings.

ESPN's series on the greatest teams in sport is in partnership with Samsung Mobile Project Team Work.