New Zealand v Australia, 2nd Test, Christchurch, 5th day February 24, 2016

'Dangerous' Australia climb to top of the world

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'No. 1 a big motivation for us' - Smith

A small crowd, a quiet Christchurch day in the last week of February, an Australian rise to No.1. It could have been Allan Border overtaking Sunil Gavaskar 23 years ago to become the leading run scorer in Tests. Instead it was Steven Smith's men nudging ahead of India to become the top-ranked Test side in the world. For Border, it was the culmination of 14 years as a Test batsman; for Smith's team it feels like the result of four good months.

In fact, it is the culmination of four years of cricket, under not only Smith but his predecessor Michael Clarke. The current rankings stretch back to 2012, so they include Australia's home Ashes whitewash in 2013-14 and their series win in South Africa that followed. After those triumphs Australia briefly jumped to No.1 under Clarke but that lasted a matter of months, and their task now is to not only hold their lead but extend it.

And they must do so without Clarke, Brad Haddin, Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson, Chris Rogers and Ryan Harris, all of whom retired over the course of 2015. Those departures have left Australia with a significantly different looking side under Smith, and while they have started well by winning at home to New Zealand and West Indies and now away in New Zealand, other challenges await.

They include a series in Sri Lanka later this year and then home Tests against South Africa and Pakistan, followed by arguably world cricket's toughest challenge: an away Test series in India. How long Australia can hold the No.1 position remains to be seen, but under Smith and vice-captain David Warner, the initial signs have been good.

"A lot of credit has got to be given to the guys who have recently retired as well," Smith said after winning the second Test at Hagley Oval. "The ranking system goes for quite a while and those guys were quite a big part of our success as an Australian team. Having said that, the guys that have stepped up to the plate since those six big retirements have been outstanding and I'm really proud of the way the boys have been performing."

Such has been the success of Australia this summer that all members of their top five are averaging 50-plus since Smith officially succeeded Clarke as captain. The stars have arguably been Adam Voges and Usman Khawaja, but in the second Test against New Zealand it was Joe Burns who stepped up, earning his first Man-of-the-Match award for his 170 and 65.

The value of his patient first-innings century should not be underestimated, given that New Zealand had made such a remarkable start to the Test through Brendon McCullum's record 54-ball century on the first day. New Zealand reached 370 in their first innings, and it was the first time under Smith that the Australians had needed to fight back from being behind in the match in the early stages.

"We did have to fight," Smith said. "I thought that probably on the first day somewhere around 250-300 would probably be par on that wicket and they really took it away from us in that second session. That's a credit to the way that both Brendon and Corey Anderson played.

"They came out and really took the game on and we didn't know what to do for a period of time there. But, credit to the guys the way we were able to fight back scoring 500 in our first innings again, I think that really sets the game up for you and I thought the guys responded really well."

Smith was also key to the turnaround, accompanying Burns for much of the second innings and registering his third century of the Test summer. Although Smith was charged with a Code of Conduct breach for his remonstration with umpire Ranmore Martinesz on the fourth day at Hagley Oval, the retiring McCullum said he believed that under Smith the Australians focused on "positive play" rather than verbals.

"I think the team plays slightly differently to what they have done previously," McCullum said. "Most Australian teams play the way their leader is. If you look at Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, they always take on a slight twist. Under Steve Smith, we've seen a very similar thing.

"This series has been played in great spirits, I think, and the one back in Australia. I think Steve Smith has been a catalyst for that. He plays the game for the right reasons as well. He plays with his heart on his sleeve but he's a very respectful guy and a wonderful cricketer. They're No.1 in the world now and a lot of that is to do with his leadership and Darren Lehmann's as well.

"They probably skin the cat slightly differently. The majority of their focus is on positive play rather than necessarily some of the semantics of past eras. They go about their work in a nice manner and they play hard cricket but in the series that we've had, I don't think they've ever looked to step over the line."

As a result of the victory in Christchurch, Smith remains undefeated as Test captain, with seven wins and four draws from his 11 games in charge - including when he was standing in for the injured Clarke in 2014-15. Under Smith, Australia have beaten New Zealand in four of five Tests this summer, and McCullum said Australia had the potential to remain at No.1 for some time.

"I think so because they've got depth as we've seen in these two series," McCullum said. "The bowling line-up in this series is quite different and they've all stepped up and that's the beauty of Australian cricket. They've got so much depth that if they can get everyone heading in the same direction and their game-plans are simple, then they're going to be dangerous no matter what.

"That's why they've been able to rise to No. 1 in the world. They've also got some outstanding batters, not necessarily the flashiest batters that Australia has produced but they're churning out runs and when you do that your bowling attack becomes a lot more potent."

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • JJJake on February 27, 2016, 14:36 GMT

    As far as away Test Series goes. Australia has a 33% winning record in India. India has a 0% winning Test Series record in Australia.

  • Drew12 on February 25, 2016, 11:56 GMT

    @DUNGER.BOB the amount of tests one plays theoretically has no impact on the rankings. There are basically three columns: matches played, points accrued and rating points. The final column is just points accrued with respect to matches played ie points/matches. Obviously, this makes each match more important, but it also helps to reduce stress and injury. One of the significant reasons SA was able to be on top for so long was simply because they played so few tests that they were generally able to field their 1st eleven in every match for a number of years.

  • csowmi7 on February 25, 2016, 9:16 GMT

    @JohnnyThomas There is nothing to be bitter about concerning India's record in Australia. The fact is no team from the subcontinent has won a series in Australia. Sri Lanka haven't even won a single test and even pakistan have not won a series in Australia. I dont think you read my comments properly. I clearly congratulated Australia on being the deserved no 1 side. Expecting them to win in India 4-0 in 2017 is folly considering their record here.

  • ABDVfan on February 25, 2016, 6:17 GMT

    Real test awaits in asia , though m pretty sure they will be a top team , a very well balanced team not like india which is overdependent on a very few players

  • izzidole on February 25, 2016, 2:32 GMT

    Big Max Walker: I think O'Keefe is in the bad books of the selectors and that's why though he has out performed Lyon everytime he has competed with him playing for his state the NSW Blues and against Pakistan in the UAE he is immediately shunned without any reason whatsoever. Though he was selected in the squad to play against NZ in the day and night test recently he was not selected to play in the final eleven. He was not even selected in the squad for the series in India in 2013 where the aussies were white washed 4-0 despite being the leading wicket taker that season having captured more wickets than Doherty, Agar and Lyon put together. On the contrary Mitchell Marsh is very lucky that he doesn't have do anything rather than make up the numbers despite his many failures he is assured of a permanent place in the Australian cricket team in all formats by courtesy of his namesake Chairman of Selectors Rod Marsh.

  • izzidole on February 25, 2016, 1:14 GMT

    One advice Smith needs to take from McCallum is how to set the field. McCallum had his field well set throughout the match and must have saved over 100 runs out of the 505 runs scored by Australia in the first innings as well as another 50 runs or so in the second. Most of the run scoring strokes played by the aussie batsmen went straight to a fielder and the NZ fielders were in the right position to take the catches. That is how he snared Burns, Smith, Voges in the first innings. Smith contributed heavily to the NZ total of 370 and McCallum's record breaking innings by not having enough fielders in the outfield to stop the fours and sixers and take the catches . His contribution towards the NZ total was about 100 runs in the first innings. When he decided to have more fielders in the outfield it was too late though managing to wind up the NZ innings. Even in the limited over matches against India he didn't have enough fielders in the boundary and the Indian batsmen made merry.

  • Gotimyeeespizoffyoureout on February 25, 2016, 0:11 GMT

    Re our tour to India in 17 , Australia should look at playing Nevill at 6 , Agar as an allrounder at 7 , 2 pace bowlers ( hopefully Starc and Pattinson , Lyon , and lastly either O'keefe , Faulkner , or Sandhu ( who could be our next Colin 'funky' Miller ). Fawad takes a five-for or two every season but there is such a gap between his best and worst that it is just too risky . Anyone who watched him play the tour games in the Windies would have wondered how he got selected to play Shield, let alone go on a test tour . Also , as mentioned in other posts , leggies in India , generally , just don't cut the mustard . People rating Swepson as one for the future are spot on b.t.w ...he already looks better than Zampa , Muirhead , Boyce and co , and will be our leading leggie in a matter of 2-3 years .

  • Lmaotsetung on February 24, 2016, 22:41 GMT

    Congrats on #1...it will make it all the more sweeter when Aus hands the mace back to Eng on their turf after Ashes 2018 ;=)

  • Sunil_Batra on February 24, 2016, 22:21 GMT

    There are a few main reasons why we are back to number 1, first of all Smith has turned out to be a great leader and he is forging a dynasty with the players he has now that are the same age as him something Clarke wasn't able to do. Our top order was the main issue and khawaja has really been sublime. The man of the summer has made a serious contribution to this Australian team since returning at the Gabba - with four Test centuries to his name.The confidence with which he has batted has reinvigorated the entire dressing room. The fact he has pushed Steve Smith down to No.4 has given a new-look solidity to what was a vulnerable top order. Boof as coach makes a huge difference as he knows how to give guys confidence and let them enjoy. We can now play on moving pitches. If Australia had found themselves 2-5 during last year's Ashes, it meant disaster was unfolding. But under the same circumstances in New Zealand, the Steve Smith and Usman Khawaja led top order found a way to overcome

  • dunger.bob on February 24, 2016, 21:47 GMT

    As far as our prospects of hanging onto (or even stretching) the slim lead we have, I think we're in a fairly good position to be honest. As far as I can see we only play 9 tests in the coming year and 6 of them are at home. The 3 away games are against Sri Lanka and we have as good a record as anyone there. I have a feeling we've done better in SL than India has but I'm happy to be corrected on that if it's not right.They are struggling with a big transition as well. With all due respect to the Lankans, I think we're a good chance there. The 6 home tests might actually be harder. We have SA and then Pakistan. 2 tough teams but at least we'll be at home. .. One thing that just occurred to me is the possibility of losing the ranking because we're not playing enough this year. That would be a bummer but what can we do? The schedule is what it is.

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