Australia might be locked in a neck-and-neck battle with South Africa over the No.1 mantle in Test cricket, but the truth is that it is a long way from being a genuinely great side.
Even if Australia were to regain top spot – and let’s face it, that is not such an achievement these days, given India’s obsession with the short game and the disintegration of the West Indies – it is a shallow claim if you don’t have great players.
If you want to be a genuine No.1, you have to have great batsmen. That was the case with the last authentic No.1 team South Africa, when the Proteas had batting giants Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla in the side. Of those, only the latter two remain.
Australia has not had a batting line-up worthy of comparison with that lot since Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey and Justin Langer shared a dressing room.
In terms of batsmen, the current side boasts only one true great in Clarke, and he is in serious physical decline.
There are two players who need to step up to the next level and turn into superstars if Australia is to become a great side: Steve Smith and Dave Warner.
The time to do it is now in the two-Test series against Pakistan starting in Dubai at 5pm on Wednesday.
Smith has given every indication that he has arrived. He has made centuries in each of Australia’s last three-Test series and is justifiably favourite to be the next national captain.
Importantly, his scores in the one-day series against Pakistan – 101, 12 and 77 – are further indication that he is ready to graduate. It is worth noting that the century in Sharjah was his first one-day ton for Australia, after being carried for 38 matches.
To me, Smith is a batsman in the mould of Allan Border, a craftsman who is across the art of batting. A potential great. I believe he is ready to go to the next level.
Warner is more like Hayden, all aggression and brute force. He is going along quite nicely, averaging 46 in Tests at the age of 27.
But to become a great, Warner must succeed in all conditions. He needs to learn the art of batting. We threw him into Test cricket and he has brutalised some fast bowlers, but he now needs to brutalise the spinners.
And to succeed in the Sahara-like conditions of the UAE, you must be able to sweep.
Hayden taught himself how to sweep in 2001, massacring the Indian spinners on their own soil. That was the moment he was transformed from a basher to a batsman.
Warner must now do the same.
He has a walk-up start because he gets to open against the quicks with a hard ball. The hardest time to bat is when you come in against quality spin.
No matter how many times we send development squads to practise in dry, dusty conditions, and for all the hard work and money we put into our players, we never seem to nail it in these zones.
We went to India in 1979 and Graham Yallop, Kim Hughes and Allan Border were magnificent against the Indian spinners, because they could all sweep. They were all across the art of batting.
This is what Smith and Warner need to do.
The Australians will be assisted greatly by the loss of Pakistan’s best spinner Saeed Ajmal, which has substantially weakened the ‘home’ side.
As for Australia’s bowling, the selectors look to be doing the sensible thing, with New South Wales spinner Steve O’Keefe likely to make his debut alongside Nathan Lyon. They will have to do the bulk of the work.
So many times we travel to these conditions and think we are going to bounce the daylight out of everybody, and it just doesn’t happen – except for Glenn McGrath. Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle cannot be expected to make too much of an impact.
O’Keefe is likely to get the nod ahead of off-spinner Glenn Maxwell because he is a left-arm orthodox, while Maxwell bowls the same stuff as Lyon.
Unlike many of the dozen or so spinners we have picked post-Shane Warne, O’Keefe actually deserves to get a game for Australia. He has done a proper apprenticeship, with 128 first-class wickets to his name at an average of just under 25.
A final word of congratulations and commiseration for Mitchell Marsh.
Congratulations because the 23-year-old looks certain to make his debut in the baggy green. The selectors love him and have picked him on potential.
Commiserations because Dubai is a shocking place for a power all-rounder to make his Test debut. His bowling will probably be useless, so hopefully he can make a good first at No.6 against the spinners.
Good luck to him.