Steve Waugh and his all-conquering Australian team have their eyes firmly fixed on the upcoming tour of India after completing a 5-0 series whitewash over West Indies with a six wicket win in the Fifth Test here at the Sydney Cricket Ground today.
"India is something that we've been thinking about for a long time," said Waugh in the aftermath of Australia's first clean sweep of a five Test series in sixty-nine years.
"I must admit I've been thinking about India for a couple of months, not just today. That was the long term goal at the start of the season. Obviously, the West Indies series was an important series and we had to play well. Looking down the track, we knew the Indian series was going to be the big one and the one that we'll be judged on. So we're really focusing on that now."
The six wicket victory itself was achieved when Ricky Ponting (14*) lifted a Marlon Samuels (1/26) delivery to the mid wicket boundary in imperious style at 2:01pm on the match's final day. It was probably not quite fitting that Michael Slater (86*) found himself at the wrong end when the winning runs were struck as he was the key figure in the triumph. But there were few other downsides to the home team's play on the final day.
If ever there is a cricketer who emphasises the fine line between success and failure at international level, then the player has to be Slater. Having benefited from a crucial early reprieve, it was his swashbuckling batting more than any other factor which stood between West Indies and any hopes of an upset victory. More generally, his play was a metaphor for the slick, clinical efficiency that governs everything this side does.
If paceman Nixon McLean (1/35) had held a sharp return catch to dismiss Slater when the man of the match's score was twenty-five, then things might have been different. At that stage, Australia was at 3/59 and still a shaky 114 runs away from a fifteenth straight Test win.
Thereafter, Slater joined with Steve Waugh (38) to add 102 runs for the fourth wicket in better than even time. Inspired strongly by some free, attacking, uninhibited strokeplay from the New South Wales opener, it was an association which all but sealed the fate of the match.
Earlier, the West Indians had raised the spectre of a tight finish by capturing the wicket of Mark Waugh (3) from just the eleventh delivery of the morning. Courtney Walsh (1/35) had tested Waugh with deliveries close in to the body in the day's first over and McLean then complemented his teammate's work perfectly by offering the elegant right hander a ball slightly wider of off stump and short of a driveable length. The result was a rather meek push in the direction of gully, where West Indian captain Jimmy Adams completed a regulation catch.
Steve Waugh was also dismissed during the opening session but that wicket, which came courtesy of a skidding Samuels arm ball which trapped him palpably lbw as he played across the line, fell far too late to have any major bearing on the overall outcome.
Instead, it was the sight of Slater swiping and smearing deliveries of a mixed length that dominated proceedings. With his aggressive brand of strokeplay, he also seemed to intimidate the bowlers into error, to such an extent that he found the boundary as many as ten times in a stay that spanned only three hours in total. Too many poor deliveries and too many mistakes meant that his play became too much for the tourists to overcome.
"I'm very pleased with the performance of all the guys. The contribution by everyone was significant; it wasn't just one or two players. That's the good thing about this side - everyone takes a turn at doing the hard yards," remarked Waugh about the crushing series win.
For all of the obvious desolation that has come the tourists' way at different times throughout the summer, there was nonetheless evidence of optimism and relief in the opposing rooms too. This match represented their best, most consistent performance of the series, and must have provided at least some hope of regeneration in the near future.
"This last game did show up a few good signs. The batting in both innings, especially the second innings (basically when we were looking down the barrel), had the fellers really putting their heads down and batting well collectively right the way down. That has been a feature of the Australian team this summer and it was good to see our lads doing it," said a refreshed Adams.
"To have done it under the circumstances where a lot of people figured that we'd probably just roll over and die, I think it was a credit to the team that they really stuck it out and brought the game this far into the fifth day."
In that, there is indeed hope. Veteran fast bowler Walsh intimated after the match that he was still keen to play out at least one more Test series but the West Indians at least appear far closer now than they did at the start of the summer to instilling into their ranks a nucleus of potentially promising young players who can lead them to a better future. Batsmen Samuels and Ramnaresh Sarwan provided bright displays in Melbourne and Sydney respectively, and Mahendra Nagamootoo was a willing contributor throughout this match as well. Now comes the task of moulding all of that into a more competitive framework for the five Test campaign against South Africa that commences in March.
For the Australians, of course, no such problems exist. They continue to overawe their opposition. They continue to play well. They continue to look unbeatable. And will do, at the very least, until they disembark in India anyway.