The BBC has recently been showing a series entitled Empire of Cricket, chronicling the history of the grand old game in all the major test-playing nations. Obviously, I've become tenacious in supporting Australia in the current Ashes series so it was with some intense interest - not to mention a wistful nostalgia - that I watched the programme dedicated to the game back home. Obviously a lot of the show was in awe of Bradman et al, but it also offered a reappraisal of the decade and a half of Australian test dominance at the end of the 20th century. It convinced me that Steve Waugh is surely the greatest Australian test captain of all time. It is easy to say that his success was mostly down to the fact he had some of the greatest ever players in his team (Warne, McGrath, Hayden, Gilchrist and so on), but they still had to be motivated into performing coherently as a whole. Waugh's capacities as captain can be proven by a comparison with Ponting's captaincy when it was in it infancy.
Steve Waugh would not have lost the Ashes in 2005. While that team still had every superstar in it, the fact was that they and indeed Ponting still needed to be uplifted, motivated and injected with the spirit required to win the Ashes that no other Australian has exemplified as well as Waugh. Complacency lost that series and the wretchedly immovable Waugh would not have allowed it to infect any of his teams.
It is easy to criticise Ponting for that series, but I believe his legacy will be made in this Ashes series and in the next few years. The Australian team for the first three years of Ponting's captaincy was still Waugh's team - both a blessing and a curse for Ponting. The team currently competing is the first XI that has been assembled and developed under Ponting's watch, and thus there is a case to be made for the fact his motivation is stronger, as he has watched his young bucks emerge in his image rather than Waugh's. They are firmly his and if his sense of history is as acute as it should be he will see an opportunity to establish a new formidable generation of Australian cricketers. Therefore it is important he sticks around as captain for the next three or so years to see this through.
Empire of Cricket had some fascinating footage of those 90s/00s teams, and I was of course moved to put together a best Australian XI for the time that I have been following the Australian game, which is since around 1990. Batting order manipulated a little to ease selection.
1. Matthew Hayden
2. Mark Taylor
3. David Boon
4. Ricky Ponting
5. Steve Waugh
6. Allan Border
7. Adam Gilchrist
8. Shane Warne
10. Craig McDermott
11. Glenn McGrath
It was difficult to leave out Dean Jones, Michael Slater and Justin Langer (without whom we'd be without the Telemachus Brown song '(I Was Wrong About) Justin Langer), and I'm still unsure of picking Brett Lee in place of Merv Hughes. Apart from anything else, you have to include the blonde-haired shark from Wollongong for this.