This is one of the favourite topics for debate among any group of cricket diehards: which is the best team to have played Test cricket? It's a topic which, quite justifiably, elicits strong opinions: does Bradman's team of the 1930s and '40s remain the best side ever? Or is it the West Indian team of the 1980s? Anyone who has seen the records of the Australian team of the 2000s can't ignore their claims to greatness either. And then there are other sides that have briefly flirted with greatness: South Africa won eight out of 12 Tests during the late 1960s, just before they were banned, while England in the 1950s won 36 Tests and lost 13 out of 72 matches.

However, when comparing the numbers, three teams stand out for their sheer domination of the rest of the field. The Australian side, during an extended period from 1930 to November 1952 - interrupted for almost eight years by the War - won 46 out of 70 Tests, and lost only 12. During that period, they won 13 out of 15 series, losing one (the Bodyline series in 1932-33), and drawing one (in England in 1938). The Australian side of the 2000s was, if anything, even more dominant. Between October 1999 and November 2007, they played 93 Tests, and won a mind-boggling 72 of them. One of the remarkable features of their domination was the fact that they played out only 11 draws in 93 games. In 28 series during this period (excluding the one-off Super Test and a series in Zimbabwe), they won 24, and lost and drew two each. And then, of course, was the West Indies team of the 1980s and the early '90s, which went 15 years without losing a Test series. Towards the end of that period they began to lose a few Tests along the way, but their best period was between February 1981 and December 1989: in 69 Tests in that span, they had a 40-7 win-loss record. (Between January 1990 and March 1995, it dropped to 20-9.) During their eight greatest years, they played 16 series, won 11 and drew five.

All of these teams were remarkable because they set high standards and maintained them over long periods of time. In terms of sheer numbers, the Australian side of the 2000s looks better than the other two: they won a higher percentage of games, had a higher win-loss ratio, and had a greater difference between their batting and bowling averages than the other two sides.

Do these stats make that Australian team the greatest of all time? The jury will be out on that one, for often numbers alone don't tell the entire story. (Does 16 Grand Slam titles make Roger Federer the best male tennis player of all time? There are some who believe not.) What the numbers do show, though, is that the Australian team of the 2000s is arguably the most dominant team to have played the game. The difference of 17.14 between their batting and bowling averages shows that they were way better than most of their competition during this period. The two series losses during this period - to India and England - spoils the record a bit, but the sheer number of matches they won is awe-inspiring.

The golden periods for Australia and West Indies
Team Period Tests W/L Ratio Bat ave Bowl ave Diff
Australia Jan 1930-Nov 1952 70 46/ 12 3.83 38.22 26.40 11.82
West Indies Feb 1981-Dec 1989 69 40/ 7 5.71 36.27 26.13 10.14
Australia Oct 1999-Nov 2007 93 72/ 10 7.20 44.39 27.25 17.14

One of the arguments put forward against some of the domination is the quality of the opposition. In the 1930s and '40s, did Australia have any other significant challenge than England? Similarly, in the 2000s how many teams were up for the fight against Australia? One way to separate the tougher competition from the rest is to look at the win-loss record of the other sides during each of these periods against opposition other than the dominant side. Doing that, and comparing the stats of the other teams, it emerges that:

  • Between 1930 and 1952, Australia's major competition came from England and West Indies. Both these teams had win-loss ratios of more than 1.5 against teams other than Australia, but the others all had ratios of less than 0.6 against teams other than Australia.

  • During West Indies' dominant period, all teams except Sri Lanka had win-loss ratios of 0.9 or more against teams other than West Indies. That means Australia, England, Pakistan, New Zealand, and India were all credible opposition for them.
  • During the era of the recent Australian domination, all teams other than West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe had ratios of more than 0.75 against teams other than Australia. (It's a shame that the most dominant team of the 1980s is left out of discussion in the early 2000s because they aren't good enough to compete, but that's a telling commentary of how far West Indies have fallen.)
  • Looking at performances only against the relatively stronger teams, what emerges is that both the Australian sides played about 20 Tests against the weaker outfits, but the West Indies team of the 1980s played against relatively good opposition throughout - they didn't play a single Test against Sri Lanka during that period.

    In terms of numbers, the win-loss ratio for the Australian team of the 1930s and '40s dipped to 2.33, a drop of almost 40% from their ratio against all teams. Against England, the Australians won 20 and lost 10 Tests, while the record was 8-2 against West Indies; against the other sides - South Africa, India and New Zealand - Australia won 18 out of 21, and drew the other three.

    The performances of the Australian team of the 2000s dipped a bit too against the better teams, but only by about 18% - their win-loss ratio came down from 7.2 to 5.88. The teams that gave the Australians the most trouble were India (7-4 record in 14 games), and England (14-4 in 20 Tests), but against the three weak teams - West Indies, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - Australia have a combined win-loss record of 18-1, with no draws. Even after excluding those matches, though, Australia have a superb record, with a marginally better win-loss ratio that the 1980s West Indies.

    The best teams against their top opponents
    Team Opponents Tests W/ L Ratio Bat ave Bowl ave Difference
    Australia (1930-52) Eng, WI 49 28/ 12 2.33 36.00 29.75 6.25
    West Indies (1981-89) Aus, Eng, Pak, NZ, Ind 69 40/ 7 5.71 36.27 26.13 10.14
    Australia (1999-2007) SA, Eng, Pak, SL, Ind, NZ 73 53/ 9 5.88 42.96 28.06 14.90

    And here's a look at the batting numbers for each of the three teams against the better teams, broken up by batting positions. The first number that's highlighted in the No. 3 average of over 66 in the Australian team between 1930 and 1952 (denoted by Aus1 in the table below). That's obviously largely due to Don Bradman: his overall No. 3 average was 103.63, but against England and West Indies it "dropped" to 90.38. Lindsay Hassett and Stan McCabe contributed their bit too, but some of the others weren't as successful, which is why the overall No. 3 average drops to 66. The Australian team of the 2000s wasn't far behind at that position, with Ricky Ponting scoring 5447 runs at 66.42. West Indies' No. 3s weren't in the same league, despite some pretty handy contributors.

    West Indies' batting line-up consisted of several stars, but during the period in question, only one batsman, Clive Lloyd, had a 50-plus average. Viv Richards averaged 46, Gordon Greenidge 47, Richie Richardson 48, and Desmond Haynes 41. (Click here for the full list of West Indies batsmen during this period.)

    The Australian team of the 2000s, though, had one trump card that neither of the other two sides could match: a batting powerhouse at No. 7 called Adam Gilchrist. He alone scored 3480 runs at that position at an average of 48.33 (and we haven't even brought in his strike rate of 84.50). He came in when Australia had lost half their side, and his ability to score in a jiffy changed the complexion of matches at an astonishing rate. Australia's overall average partnership for the sixth wicket against the top sides was 59, which suggests opposition bowling attacks had plenty of work to do even after taking the top five wickets.

    West Indies too had a key man at No. 7: Jeff Dujon averaged 39.51 for his 1699 runs, and was largely responsible for West Indies' average stand of 50.61 for the sixth wicket during this period. The other Australian team in this analysis averaged only 32.50 for the sixth.

    Position-wise batting averages for the three teams against the top sides
    Bat position Aus1 ave 100s/ 50s WI ave 100s/ 50s Aus2 ave 100s/ 50s
    Openers 41.61 19/ 27 43.10 21/ 46 48.52 37/ 42
    No.3 66.12 17/ 15 44.85 15/ 14 62.77 24/ 25
    No.4 38.82 6/ 17 37.50 8/ 17 45.12 13/ 23
    No.5 46.30 7/ 15 41.90 10/ 18 46.37 14/ 23
    No.6 32.40 4/ 10 39.26 5/ 21 39.75 13/ 18
    No.7 27.46 2/ 6 32.87 5/ 18 51.52 13/ 21

    The other big difference among the sides was the influence of spin. The two Australian teams had major contributions from spinners, and the average runs conceded per wicket by fast bowlers and spinners were almost the same. West Indies, on the other hand, didn't have much regard for slow bowlers, and the quality of their pace attack meant they didn't need to rely on spinners either, no matter what the conditions. Spin accounted for only 62 of their wickets, and each one cost them almost 40 runs. Given that their fast bowlers averaged about 23 runs per wicket, it's easy to see why their bowling attack comprised pace and more pace. During this period, West Indies had four bowlers with more than 100 wickets, and they averaged under 25 for their wickets, with two of them averaging below 23.

    For the two Australian teams, though, spin played a big part. In fact, their two highest wicket-takers during this period were both legspinners, and they took their wickets at superb rates - Bill O'Reilly took 102 in just 19 Tests at 25.36, while Clarrie Grimmett nailed 92 in 18 at 27.30 (all these numbers are against England and West Indies only). And then there were Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Bill Johnston, who combined to ensure that the Australian team of the 1930s and '40s had a well-rounded attack.

    For the Australian side of the 2000s, of course, there were Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Together, they took 618 wickets at 23.53 during this period against the top sides. Those two, with good support from Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee, ensured that Australia had a powerful bowling line-up in most conditions they faced in the eight years between October 1999 and November 2007.

    Pace and spin bowling stats versus the top sides
    Type Aus1 wkts Average WI wickets Average Aus2 wkts Average
    Pace 310 29.24 1068 23.24 837 27.83
    Spin 344 31.39 62 39.09 428 27.97

    The West Indies attack may have been totally skewed towards pace, but that didn't stop them from destroying oppositions all over the world, no matter what the conditions. During their period of utter dominance, they had a 5-2 win-loss record in the subcontinent, where pitches were thought to have little in them for fast bowling. In Australia they won seven and lost three, while in England and New Zealand it was a combined 10-1. At home, of course, they were unstoppable, winning 18 Tests and losing just one.

    The Australians under Steve Waugh and Ponting were also pretty formidable wherever they went. At home their dominance was obviously scary, but they also did very well in South Africa (5-1) and Sri Lanka (4-0, including one win in Colombo versus Pakistan), countries that have usually been very tough for touring teams to conquer. India was their biggest challenge (3-3), while the 2005 Ashes defeat in England brought down their record in that country to 5-3. The Australian side of the 1930s and '40s did superbly in England (9-3), but that was an era when top-quality cricket was still limited to very few sides.

    That, plus the overall numbers, suggests that the West Indies team of the 1980s and the Australian team of the 2000s were the two most dominant sides ever in Test cricket. None, though, can argue with the quality that was around in all three teams.

    How the three teams fared in different conditions*
    Team Home - Tests W/ L Away - Tests W/ L Subcont - Tests W/ L
    Australia (1930-1952) 30 19/ 9 19 9/ 3 - -
    West Indies 30 18/ 1 39 22/ 6 13 5/ 2
    Australia (1999-2007) 38 29/ 2 35 24/ 7 13 9/ 3
    * Versus the top teams only

    S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter