No clear leader in the five-day game
I can just hear a race caller describing the contest for Test supremacy in 2009: Here they are, bunched in a tight group as they round the bend headed into the straight. At the head of the field is India, a nose in front of South Africa. Trailing them is a group of Sri Lanka, England and Australia, three flawed teams whose positions could change with a simple head bob at the appropriate moment. Following close behind are New Zealand and Pakistan, who recently proved, with a tightly fought series, that little separates them.
Then there is West Indies. A couple of weeks ago it was simply a matter of writing them off; they were trailing by a wide margin. However, something happened on the journey between Brisbane and Adelaide. The Windies suddenly discovered a purpose and a resilience that had been missing in their Test-match endeavours. They are still far from being a force again, but there are signs of a decent attack developing, and the addition of one or two resourceful young batsmen could see them charge through the field.
Joel Garner, the current team manager and former champion fast bowler, could be right; West Indies' greatest need is financial assistance to develop the young talent that exists in the Caribbean. If this doesn't come through, the cricket world is guilty of committing a serious crime. Anyone who witnessed the suitably stirred WACA crowd rise and salute the display of raw power and daring strokeplay by Chris Gayle will understand that the magnetic power of the once-strong Caribbean region is only slumbering; it hasn't passed on.
The gap between India, at the head of the field, and West Indies, has narrowed greatly in the last 12 months. Neither India nor South Africa display signs of being the dominant force that West Indies and then Australia were over the last 30 years. India are at least a genuine allrounder and a fearsome fast bowler away from that lofty aspiration, and by the time those requirements are filled, their current batting riches may have waned. South Africa are also unlikely to experience a concerted period of supremacy. England have shown as much in Centurion. Their generally conservative attitude in the field ensures South African cricket is always on a tight rein.
If England could unearth a genuine quick bowler and solidify the batting, they could quickly move through the field. They have some good swing bowlers, an emerging allrounder in Graeme Swann, and there is the mercurial presence of Kevin Pietersen. It also seems that under the solid leadership of Andrew Strauss they have begun believing that they can be a top-class side.
Australia are slipping back through the field, thanks to retirements and a horrendous injury toll. Their solid batting line-up, and Ricky Ponting's class and knowledge of how to win when the opportunity arises, is keeping them competitive. Australia have a strong development system and won't fall far back in the field. Nevertheless, there is a desperate need to unearth a fast bowler, a wrist-spinner, and to sight a top-class batsman on the horizon to ensure Australia stay in touching distance of the leaders.
Sri Lanka have the ability to keep producing good cricketers, and thanks to the skill and thoughtfulness of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, they have parlayed that into a competitive side. However, Muttiah Muralitharan appears to be finally fading after a glittering career, so they need to quickly unearth a successor as well as a genuine quickie.
Pakistan are a bit of an unknown quantity, but like West Indies their cricket needs to be nurtured with compassion during what is a harrowing time for them. As a proven producer of maverick players of rare skill, this region should not be allowed to wither.
After 30 years of one team dominating Test cricket, the game appears to be entering a phase of unparalleled competitive balance.
'Tis the season to be jolly, especially if you're a supporter of exciting and competitive Test cricket. I hope everyone has a safe and happy festive season and is buoyed by the thought that just around the bend is the announcement "They're off and racing in 2010."
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist