SYDNEY, (Reuters) – When Michael Clarke took over as Australia captain from Ricky Ponting in the wake of a 3-1 Ashes humbling in March 2011, his stated goal of taking his country back to the top of the test rankings looked optimistic to say the least.
Two years later and it looked frankly risible after the divided, dispirited and ill-disciplined team bombed to a 4-0 defeat in India and was dubbed the worst Australia side to tour that part of the sub-continent.
Little more than another year on, yesterday’s annual update of the rankings, which removed the results of the 2010-11 season from calculations, restored Australia to the summit of test cricket for the first time in nearly five years.
Regardless of the arbitrary nature of a rankings overhaul undertaken without a ball being bowled, a 5-0 Ashes sweep followed by a 2-1 away win over South Africa over six months presents a pretty convincing case for Australia being the best side in the world.
“I don’t think I have had a more satisfying day or feeling in my career,” Clarke told reporters at Sydney airport.
Clarke’s solution to Australia’s woes has always been simple – more time in the nets improving skills – and it was a theme to which he returned in hailing the fulfilment of his goal.
“I think it’s just reward for the hard work we’ve put in over the past two years,” Clarke told Cricket Australia’s website.
“This team has certainly been through some tough times. There’s memories stuck in my head from the criticism we copped after the Indian tour when we lost 4-0 and we were named the worst team to ever tour India.
“When things like that are said about the team as a player you take it personally but I can guarantee you as captain it breaks your heart, so that’s always tough to hear.
“But through tours like that and the tough times, it’s allowed the players to become so strong a group and to work exceptionally hard to get this result.
“For me, as captain, number one was my goal from day one.”
Australia’s remarkable revival has not just been about hard work, though.
Clarke’s leadership, both by example through his prolific batting and in the field through his aggressive tactics, has played a role, as has the more relaxed leadership of coach Darren “Boof” Lehmann.
Lehmann took over last year after the dramatic sacking of South African Mickey Arthur, who had overseen the “homework-gate” saga in India when four players were suspended for a test for failing to perform a simple administrative task.
An improvement in team spirit – players enjoying their cricket again – was evident in the performances in the first Ashes series in England but it was not enough to prevent the tourists going down 3-0.
The major turning point came, though, when the mercurial Mitchell Johnson confirmed a return to form with devastating spells of pace bowling that turned the first test of the second Ashes series against England at the Gabba last November.
Johnson, one of the four players suspended in India, was not included in the squad for the tour of England and there is little doubt that his rebirth as a world class paceman has been key to Australia’s revival.
Buoyed by the sweep over England, Australia headed to South Africa and, with the moustachioed Johnson and his fellow paceman Ryan Harris again to the fore, edged a thrilling series against the Proteas.
Australia ruled the rankings from their inception in 2003 until after the 2-1 Ashes defeat in England in Aug. 2009 and Clarke’s job is now to maintain or increase what is a slender lead over South Africa and England.
Pakistan, fourth in the rankings, loom as Australia’s next test opposition in the United Arab Emitrates in October.
“It’s hard to get to number one but it’s even harder to stay there. I think that’s our greatest challenge now,” Clarke said.
“That’s why I have so much respect for that Australian team I walked into as a young player – they were number one team in the world for a long period of time.