During the final four years of Ricky Ponting's captaincy, a time characterised by bumbling, defeat and the commissioning of the Argus review, Australia played 19 Tests overseas and won seven. In the four years since under Michael Clarke, a time of unprecedented investment in the national team and its assignments, Australia's 21 overseas Tests have returned just six wins.
Those saying "hold on a minute, they won in South Africa in 2014" are correct, but it must be said that Ponting's team also did that in 2009 by the same margin of 2-1, and went on to go within a single Test match of retaining the Ashes in England that same year. Clarke, accompanied by a new coach in Darren Lehmann, did not get anywhere near that close in 2013, though later returned to win the urn back down under.
This stark reality demonstrates that success is often perceived as much as achieved. The glow of the Ashes and World Cup trophies won at home have obscured still glaring issues keeping the team from being regarded as genuinely great. For evidence of this, note that in 19 Tests each as coach of the Australian team, Mickey Arthur presided over ten wins, and Lehmann has overseen nine.
It also shows that over four years of substantially increased investment in the team, results away from home have declined rather than improved, most notably against subcontinental opposition.
Put bluntly, Australia's cricketers have less excuses for performing poorly overseas now than at just about any time in their history. They are handsomely paid, lavishly resourced and, thanks to the oversight of the team performance manager Pat Howard, seldom asked to perform backflips according to their schedule - England are one team who must at times envy Cricket Australia's programming.
When the coach Lehmann wants an outside consultant or the support staffer of his choice, the man is invariably on hand. When the players want pitches prepared to certain specifications at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, they only need to make a phone call. Indeed, the NCC has recently played host to specially prepared hybrid "spin pitches" designed to replicate the turn and variable pace and bounce likely to be found in India, Sri Lanka, the UAE or Dominica this week. There are plans to install these pitches for training at every major Australian ground.
Nevertheless, recent history suggests that they are no closer to cracking the code of overseas success than at any time in the past eight years. Australia's tour of the UAE last October was a chastening experience for players, coaches and selectors who had all thought that a Pakistan minus Saeed Ajmal would not be too much trouble. If this was a (slightly) happier tour off-field than India in 2013, it was measurably worse on it.
Reminded of this experience ahead of the West Indies series, Clarke pointed out numerous lessons that were taken from it. If he didn't mention the Glenn Maxwell at No. 3 brainstorm it may have been through forgetfulness, but otherwise Clarke provided a sound outline of the areas the team must improve in to ensure they provide solid evidence of the rankings disparity between his team and Denesh Ramdin's.
"We have to learn from that in regards to intent as a team with both bat and ball in conditions like that," Clarke said. "Cashing in if you get in, go on and make a big score. Same if you're bowling well, you've got to be the one to put your hand up. And just working out what our best XI is and playing to our strengths are probably another couple of areas we can do much better here than we did in Dubai."
Intent to win is critical to all athletes, but its manifestation on slow, turning pitches is often different in practice to the more obviously chest-thumping play so loved by Australia on home surfaces. Ponting pointed this out himself in an ESPNcricinfo column following the UAE series, talking about an Asian cricket tempo that revolved around ensuring you don't lose the game too early so you can seize it at the finish. Clarke agreed.
"You always need positive intent," he said. "My mindset has been sometimes the better the bowling the more aggressive you've got to be. We've got to use our aggression at the right times in the game. And there's going to be other times when you've got to find a way to survive. Subcontinental conditions, and I see the West Indies a little bit like that, starting your innings is the hardest part so you've got to use that to your advantage, have discipline with your defence early but then still show intent to score with the bat.
"Then with the ball you've got to attack early to a new batter and when you get one try to get two, get three, get that roll on. A lot of it comes down to execution, and I think as a group we've got more confidence in our ability in these conditions now than what we had the past few years, and that's from playing in them a lot more. It's going to be tough but I think the boys are excited by that."
The notion of cashing in, and finding the sort of comfortable zone in which to bat for long periods, is one that the Australia batsmen have struggled with enormously in such conditions. Similarly, the bowlers have battled to find the sort of rhythm with which they are familiar at home, invariably leaking runs through impatience.
In India in 2013 and the UAE last year, only Clarke in Chennai and David Warner in Dubai have made hundreds, as opposed to 15 (including two doubles) by their opponents in those matches. Steven Smith's promotion to No. 3 promises more command of this discipline, as he has seemingly found the keys to sustained occupation over two years of exponential improvement.
Finally the issue of team composition has been a recurring problem. Arguments over selection seem often to rear their heads overseas, and the desire to barge through an opponent with the best 11 players rather than choosing a team better-suited to the conditions is never far from the surface. Even in Dominica, the fading of Fawad Ahmed's hopes provided another example, even if the inclusion of Mitchell Starc would be hard to query. At least in Adam Voges the selectors have chosen a batsman with vast experience in a wide range of conditions.
Australia should win in the Caribbean of course. They have not lost a series to the West Indies under any circumstances since 1993, so long ago that Shivnarine Chanderpaul was yet to debut. But it is vital that they demonstrate evidence of improvement overseas these next two weeks. To stumble through these Tests would be to give hope to England, who have not lost a home Ashes series since 2001, and strengthen the global notion that Australia can still be easy prey on the road. Clarke, at least, is not taking this assignment lightly.
"I haven't thought about England once," he said. "I don't care too much about England right now, as a team our goal is to have success away from home as well as at home and I think we've performed really well in our own backyard over the last couple of years. Where we need to become more consistent is away from home. So we need to be really focused on this trip right now, and play our best cricket."
Do that, and Clarke's Australian may actually be on the way to becoming a properly successful team, rather than simply being perceived as such.