ESPNcricinfo's editor has invited me to compare the "most dominant Test teams through the ages and the captains who fashioned them - Bradman, Chappell, Lloyd, Taylor, Waugh". It's the stuff of a thousand pub talks - good ones, too. But it's to be approached with some caution, out of respect for Test cricket's complex, protean and dynamic nature.
In examining great sides, you pretty soon realise you are not simply comparing apples and oranges but apples, pomegranates and brussels sprouts. How do you line up Bradman's 1948 Australians, a team, alongside the West Indians of the 1980s and the 1990s, properly a dynasty? Bradman's ensemble played together for one golden summer; the XIs generalled by Clive Lloyd and his successor, Viv Richards, combined and permutated for a generation. Bradman's pace attack of Lindwall, Miller and Johnston had the huge advantage of a new ball every 55 overs, a disastrous and short-lived experiment that meant the shine was never off the ball; just imagine the mayhem Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Marshall, Ambrose and Walsh could have caused under such a dispensation.
"Most dominant", too, is an expression unconsciously skewed towards the present, with memories of the West Indians and Australians of our lifetimes rubbing their opponents' noses in it day after day. In presupposing a regime of full-time professionalism and constant global competition, it leaves a great deal out of account. Until after World War Two, Test cricket was Anglo-Australian. One country "dominated" Test cricket by beating the other. Players turned over more frequently; not every player could afford to go on every tour. Bradman thought that there had been three great Australian teams: his own, Joe Darling's of 1902, and Warwick Armstrong's of 1921. But they never really played together again, and there were not the financial incentives to keep players such as Ted McDonald and Sid Barnes in the game.
"Domination" is also an unappealing concept. The best of Test cricket is seen not when a side is dominant but when two teams are powerfully well-matched. Test cricket, with the possibilities of four innings, is such a thorough examination of relative ability that an outstanding team will necessarily carry all before them. But the results can be ghastly. Who would willingly sit through Australia devouring West Indies 5-0 in 2000-01 again? The West Indians who won the hearts of the world 40 years earlier were not "the most dominant" of sides; they did not even win; but they continue to epitomise all that is stirring and noble about cricket.
If we leave the dominating to Charlemagne and Attila the Hun momentarily, however, there is some gold in that there pub talk. While it's hard to be definitive, a lot can be gleaned from looking at the teams who over the last 65 years have preserved prolonged and decided edges over their competition.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Australia were megaparsecs ahead of opponents, winning 24 and losing only two of their first 31 Tests. That was not simply Bradman's work but also Lindsay Hassett's, in his role first as the buffer between the great man and his team, then as his successor. Having played in 26 Test wins and only five defeats, in fact, Hassett is a candidate for the title of Test cricket's most underestimated player, one of those small men like Gavaskar, Viswanath and Tendulkar with a disproportionately long shadow. The Australians were weak, perhaps, in spin alone, losing Cec Pepper, George Tribe and Bruce Dooland to English professional ranks - it caught up with them at last at The Oval in 1953.
The team that nudged Australia off their pedestal was England, who after succumbing to Hassett's men in 1950-51 did not lose another Test series for eight years, winning nine and drawing four rubbers in that time. It's odd that nobody now perceives England as having "dominated" cricket in the 1950s; it's unlikely that they conceived of it themselves; more likely they simply expected, and were expected, to win, having the advantages of the only full-time, professional first-class circuit. Yet they demonstrated a characteristic we associate now with great teams, of strength in depth, and a knack for replacing key personnel in a secure and timely fashion: Hutton gave way to May, Compton to Cowdrey, Bedser to Trueman, Statham and Tyson. In Bailey they had a flint-hearted and bloody-minded allrounder, in Laker and Lock one of the best of all slow-bowling partnerships, in Godfrey Evans an inspirational wicketkeeper.
At the end of the 1950s, the momentum shifted back to the Australians, who did not lose a series in the six years from the Ashes of 1958-59. If they were towards the end of that period rather better at not losing than winning, Richie Benaud was perhaps the most resourceful and ambassadorial of all Test captains: "the number one opportunist of all national cricket leaders", in Ray Robinson's words, and "in public relations… so far ahead of predecessors that race-glasses would have been needed to see who was at the head of the others".
The Australians overlapped, however, with a West Indian side as gifted and versatile as any, led first by Frank Worrell then Garry Sobers, who won 15 and lost three Tests over five years. In that time Sobers came as close as any cricketer has to being a team on his own. His leadership of West Indies to victory in England involved probably the most complete all-round performance of all time: 722 runs at 103, 20 wickets at 27 and 10 catches, all of it without a hint of strain. "Nobody has seen Sobers obviously in labour," observed Neville Cardus afterwards. "He makes every stroke with moments to spare. His fastest ball - and it can be very fast - is bowled as though he could, with physical pressure, have bowled it a shade faster."
For almost a decade, in fact, Test cricket was remarkably even - perhaps the most even it has been. Thanks to South Africa's rancid politics, a team who might have dominated were spinning towards oblivion. The Springboks' duffing up of the Australians in 1970, just before the boom fell, with the Pollocks, Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Eddie Barlow at their peak, is one of the most one-sided in history; with Clive Rice and Vince van der Bijl about to break through, they could very well have been the team to beat for the next decade. Even the Australian zenith, under the Chappells, was relatively short-lived: it just seems longer for all its characters and folklore, recapitulations and revisitations.
I should put in a personal word for those Australians, as they were the team I grew up watching, and therefore feel a certain unreasoned loyalty to - they are, in a way, my own reference point where other Test teams are concerned. Man for man, they actually don't match off all that well in comparison with other great teams. They were a core of stars (the Chappells, Lillee, Thomson, Marsh) fortified by hardworking sweats (Keith Stackpole, Ross Edwards, Rick McCosker, Max Walker, Ashley Mallett), plus a few who played above themselves for one crowded hour (Gary Gilmour, Bob Massie, Jeff Hammond, Alan Turner, Gary Cosier). Nonetheless they had "something" that expressed a common purpose - Mike Brearley called it a "lounging hostility". I suspect it emanated from their captain, Ian Chappell, who put you in mind of John Ford's famous comment about John Wayne: "The sonofabitch walked like a man."
What's interesting in hindsight is the comparative brevity of that Australian dominance. We tend to pass over Ian Chappell's standing down as captain after the Oval Test of 1975, forgetful that he was only 31, and, it turned out, had another five years of good cricket in him, in and around a temporary retirement. In memory, one Chappell seems to segue naturally into the other: on reflection, the slippage from Ian the leader into Greg the virtuoso might have been a greater shift than we grasped at the time.
Cricket was also making itself over, and two related exogenous factors underlay the rise of Clive Lloyd's West Indians, who became a kind of universal marker for cricket excellence. The first was professionalism. The 1968 deregulation of qualification for overseas players in county cricket offered unparalleled opportunities for ambitious cricketers to finish themselves, and Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Joel Garner, Gordon Greenidge, Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall all made themselves English institutions on their way to becoming Caribbean crusaders (something rather overlooked in Stevan Riley's thrilling new film Fire in Babylon). They could thank, too, a couple of Australians: entrepreneur Kerry Packer, who made them suddenly wealthy through World Series Cricket, and physiotherapist Dennis Waight, who made them steadily fit - the acme of athleticism, in fact, long before other teams caught up.
The other key externality was the rise of a second form of international cricket - the one-day international. West Indies' dominance of Test cricket was consolidated and ratified, as it were, by their limited-overs success: it became part of their aura, their presence. They belied the concept of format specialists, playing basically their best XI cricketers regardless of the circumstances. They made a mockery of the worldwide allocation of resources, too, insofar as they dominated the world from a tiny, fragmented and neglected corner of it. Great players retired; some excellent ones peeled off to undertake two ignominious tours of South Africa. But somehow West Indies would always come together again, reforming like a droplet of mercury.
It took something similarly dynastic to overtake West Indies - again not so a much a team as an entire system, made in Australia, from, it must be said, that country's many natural advantages. The 1980s recession in Australian cricket was chiefly about two indicators: performances against the new benchmark, West Indies, and the old, England. But it animated a sense of crisis and resolve unprecedented in this country: a root-and-branch commitment to climbing back to No. 1, manifest in the institution of the AIS Cricket Academy. To digress momentarily, it is damning that no such collective will can be found today, when Australia languishes so far from its traditional standards yet the stock of players, coaches, administrators and selectors remains almost entirely unchanged.
The story of Australian dominance in this period, and its accumulation of the Ashes, the Worrell Trophy, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in addition to three World Cups, is perhaps too recent to require a detailed retelling. But it was qualitatively different from the regime it usurped: the shrewdness of the captains, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, and the greatness of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Mark Waugh, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden forming an identifiable and exportable culture. "Australianism", if you will, became a kind of cricket ideology. Australia's first-class competition was held up as a model for the world. Australia's administration was meant to be a model of streamlined efficiency. Australia's sledging was a secret of their success. Remember how it was vitally important to learn to sledge back? Sheesh.
The perceived success of Bob Simpson, Geoff Marsh and John Buchanan stimulated a stampede for Australian coaches: Rod Marsh, Dav Whatmore, Tom Moody, Geoff Lawson, Wayne Clark, Bennett King, John Dyson, Jamie Siddons, Bruce Yardley, Troy Cooley and most controversially Greg Chappell (that's another trend that has petered out lately, the coaches that aren't home-grown seeming to come from Africa: Kirsten, Fletcher, Flower). Nobody during the West Indies' belle époque went out and tried to retrace their path to greatness - rightly so. But everyone wanted to be like Australia: it was cricket's version of the managerialist herd mentality of the early 1980s, when every chief executive had their nose in a copy of In Search of Excellence.
Number one today is India, which is a happy event, because they also happen to be the most attractive team to watch. And for all the hypermodernity of Indian cricket, MS Dhoni's team is full of genuine five-day cricketers, not jumped-up one-day players and Twenty20 non-entities. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Dhoni himself, would succeed in any age; when you watch them excel at their craft, time seems almost to stand still. That is an illusion, as you realise when you range back over the generations and grasp the way that the leading teams of their time have been just that: creatures of their time. But it's an appealing and warming illusion, and a comforting one to nurture at the pub.
There's even a little more to it, for the very fact that we rejoice in these debates is one of Test cricket's special and enduring qualities. Test cricket impresses itself on us. Its records are ineradicable, its events are monumental, its characters are lasting. It is not a passing feast for the eye but a permanent fixture in memory. Administrators have grown indifferent, even contemptuous of this, because it is not something readily monetised. What's the use to them of people debating whether Arthur Morris was a better opening batsman than Gordon Greenidge, or whether the 2001 India-Australia series was better than the 1988 West Indies-Pakistan series, when they should be buying Mumbai Indians replica gear? The quality endures, though, precisely because T20 offers us so little to hold onto, so little to remember or care about.
Sir Robert Menzies once described cricket talk as "the best talk in all the world". I hesitate to make so bold, but there is hardly a meatier and juicier game for debate than Test match cricket, with so much past, so many skills, such huge alterations to its conditions, such unfathomable depths to its meanings. What sort of cricket talk does T20 inspire? Duh, that was a big sixer? Will anyone sit around in 20 years' time and grow rheumy-eyed about the mighty Chennai Super Kings team of 2010, or the sublime Southern Redbacks of 2011, or the super-dooper Sydney Sixers of 2012? Yet people will still be brooding on the Australians of 1948, West Indies of 1984, and the Australians of 2000 - and they will be no closer to agreement than they are today.