Smith's team headed in 'right direction' with No. 1 on cards
Michael Clarke took on the Australian captaincy after the nadir of their 2010-11 Ashes defeat at home; it took him three years to lift his team back to No. 1 on the Test rankings. Even then, they only sat at the pinnacle for three months. Steven Smith assumed the leadership from Clarke after another failed Ashes campaign, but less than one year on, the No. 1 position is within touching distance. The challenge, should they get there, is to stay there.
Australia's innings victory over New Zealand at the Basin Reserve not only ensured they would retain the Trans-Tasman Trophy, it placed them tantalisingly close to the top Test ranking. All they must do is avoid defeat in the second Test in Christchurch; victory or a draw will push them above India and into No. 1, while a loss would send them down to No. 3. It is a remarkable effort for a group that has lost six experienced men to retirement in the past year.
"We've got a pretty new side and guys are gelling well together," Smith said after taking a 1-0 series lead in Wellington. "I think we've played very good Test cricket over the last couple of months, obviously we had those series at home and to start this series the way we have it has been really satisfying. There's still a lot of improvement left in us but I think we are going in the right direction."
Australia's success during their home summer was emphatic, but was tempered by the flatness of the pitches and the quality of the opposition, with New Zealand taking until the third Test to find their best and West Indies a class below for their whole campaign. The challenge for Smith was to find similar results away from home and their comprehensive win in Wellington was a good start; a tour of Sri Lanka later this year is their next job after New Zealand.
"When you are No. 1 in the world, every team you play against is out for you, they are hunting for you," Smith said. "So it takes a lot of hard work to stay at No. 1. So if it does happen, if we get to No. 1 in this series, there is still a lot of hard work; we've got a pretty tough series in a couple of months' time in Sri Lanka. So, lots of hard work still in us after this series."
Not that getting over New Zealand in Christchurch will be anything other than hard work, either. The New Zealanders will have the added emotion of farewelling their retiring captain Brendon McCullum, and not every part of Australia's game functioned perfectly in Wellington. Jackson Bird struggled in his first Test for two and a half years, and Peter Siddle is no certainty to play the second Test after battling a back problem.
"He's had a bit of spasm through his back," Smith said. "Today I was able to keep him on ice. He wasn't needed in the end. We'll wait and see how he pulls up over the next couple of days to see whether he'll be fit for that second Test match."
Siddle's work in the first innings in Wellington was of critical importance for Australia - he built the pressure that Bird was unable to - which helped Josh Hazlewood gain results at the other end. The uncapped Chadd Sayers is one option should Siddle be unavailable in Christchurch but the Australians would likely prefer to call on James Pattinson; the selectors ruled Pattinson out of Wellington as they were unsure his fitness would stand up to five days.
"He has done quite a lot of bowling this week," Smith said of Pattinson. "He has had a few sessions. I saw him bowling this morning actually and it looked like they were coming out really nicely and quite fast. I think he's tracking pretty well to be fit for the second Test match."
What is certain is that in Christchurch, New Zealand will need to show a little more patience with their batting, after falling over for 183 in the first innings having been sent in at the Basin Reserve. Although the conditions were helpful to Australia's fast men on the first day, New Zealand's batsmen went hard at the ball on too many occasions and did not give themselves the best chance of remaining there until the pitch flattened out.
"Being 50 for 5 on the first morning, when you're presented with conditions like that, you need a little bit of luck," McCullum said. "I thought in the end 180 wasn't too bad but the wicket dried out a little bit quicker than we were hoping for. In hindsight, if we could have batted just a bit longer, if we could have got 250... then we would have been in the game.
"Conditions were difficult on that first morning. Ideally it would have done as much as what it did for a bit longer, but that wasn't the case. We toiled pretty hard with the ball in hand. A couple of things could have gone our way but they didn't and from that point we struggled to get any control of the game with ball in hand.
"Credit to Voges and Khawaja. I thought their innings, they were outstanding. Adam, the strength of character to overcome that non-dismissal that night then to go on to post a sizable total shows not only how good a player he is but how strong a player he is as well. There are certainly things for us to work on."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale