A travelling Panzer division

The victorious Australian team after the third Test. As coach John Buchanan said after the World Cup: "Our playing skills are probably better than most countries and we also play them consistently better, that's why our results are better. But we're examining new things, whether in batting, fielding, the use of technology, we're re-examining the way the game is played and the way we play." -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

The Australians regularly score at over four an over, bat deep, have bowling reserves, and play each session as if they were gladiators facing lions in a Roman coliseum, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

THERE was a small moment on the first day of the third Test at Bridgetown, Barbados when even miles away you could smell that powerful musk of confidence that the Australians wear.

Ricky Ponting, who gets up and scores centuries these days with the nonchalance of a man having a shave, was facing the press after his third ton in three Tests. He was apparently modest, and suitably manly, and then under further questioning revealed that his form was in direct proportion to his preparation.

So you might think, perhaps he's discovered meditation, reads holy books and has quietly set some world nets-record for continuous practice. After all, something must explain the fact that he's scored more runs against the West Indies this tour than any Australian before.

Then comes the secret. He says he practiced between the second and third Tests for just "five minutes." Not a second more, or less. Keeps me "fresh," he says. It must be driving the West Indies nuts, not to mention the rest of the world. Across the world players are slogging at the nets, doing a tango with bowling machines, attempting to polish their art with sweat, and this Australian says more than five minutes work is too much!!!

Of course, Ponting had spent so much time at the crease that it made the nets redundant. And he is a very conscientious fellow. And the five-minute workout was just his way to stay fresh over a long season. Still, it almost seemed to suggest, that so complete is the Australians' dominance that no opposition is worth more than five minutes work. What gall, what confidence.

Of course, that is not true, for no team works harder than this. It is too glib to call the Australians a force of nature for that description does not account for the toil that goes into their victories. When they won the third Test after asking the Windies to follow-on, they had been on the field for nine straight sessions, 1064 minutes, chipping away on a pitch balder than Shetty used to be, presenting an intimidating, irrepressible mix of skill and sweat, discipline and defiance.

Darren Lehmann, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden have all scored centuries in the series. The most prolific of them all has been Ponting with three centuries in a row. He revealed that his form was in direct proportion to his preparation: that he practiced for just "five minutes" between the second and the third Tests, so that he could remain "fresh." -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

It was a performance Steve Waugh was proud of — "It was one of our best Test match wins because we had to be really dedicated and committed to the task," he said — simply because it was a purely professional one.

The win also returned Australia to the No.1 Test position, though the mere fact that they had to regain the top spot from a South African team who lack the credentials to even carry drinks for the Aussies, suggests it is a dubious ranking system. Nevertheless, Waugh, who no doubt will speak his mind on the subject some other time, gratefully accepted it, saying: "We're delighted. It's been at the back of our minds since the start of the series, so to achieve that goal is very satisfying."

One of the tragedies of outstanding teams (Real Madrid, Los Angeles Lakers) or individuals (Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher) is that so often do they win, that we take them for granted, we forget the enormity of what has been achieved. Australia is no different.

For instance, even now, when calling Pedro Collins a fast bowler is an insult to Michael Holding, teams travelling to the West Indies are mostly happy to draw a series. But no one thinks whitewash or clean sweep, words ironically that once had a distinctly West Indian ownership. No one thinks clean sweep except Waugh's Australians that is; in their mindset, the ordinary is locked away, the extraordinary is their goal.

Admittedly, inter-island politics has destabilised West Indian cricket, the bowling attack has less teeth than an octogenarian, the once athletic fielding has disappeared, and young men are filled with an unlikely arrogance. Chris Gayle apparently preferring to play a double-wicket tournament rather than turn out for a first class match is baffling.

Still, even this Windies team, whose pride has gradually slipped into the sea, must be bruised from the beating they have received. The first Test lost by nine wickets, the second by 118 runs and the third by nine wickets. A clean sweep is imminent barring some act of mercy from a West Indian god. Once teams visiting the West Indies prayed for hurricanes to wash away Tests; now, imagine this, the West Indies are doing the praying at home.

Waugh is not moved, mercy is not his business. As he said pointedly: "I can't remember the West Indies easing up on us back in '85 or '86." It is an attitude that rattles even the best. Home captains, for instance, never like to admit to anything, even if they know hope is their only weapon left. Still, Brian Lara, overwhelmed by the relentless visitors, suggested, only half-jokingly, that like horse-racing the Australians "should be handicapped."

Perhaps allow them only nine players, make them play seven bowlers, ensure they only bat once? Of course, it did not seem like a pertinent time for Lara to be reminded that the Australians were handicapped. Shane Warne isn't playing, Glenn McGrath missed the first two Tests, Steve Waugh with an injured hand did not even bat in the second.

Still, the Australians roll on. Their machine is too powerful and carries too much momentum that no single cog can disrupt its progress. Not even Waugh. There was much fingernail-biting and raised voices when he was booted from the one-day team, but Ponting took his team unbeaten to World Cup glory and that was the end of that nonsense. Sentiment exists in Australian sport, but practicality is given more weight.

That said, this team, the Test one, is Waugh's team; he is a stubborn, ruthless man focussed on rewriting history and his team has been a willing part of his crusade. In many ways they resemble a travelling Panzer division — grim mechanical monsters who traverse the world and break hearts, reputations and records.

Cynics say Waugh is besotted with his legacy, though Alexander would have approved for that is the way of the conqueror. For all his work with leper children in Kolkata, Waugh is a hard man. You may not like him, but it is impossible not to be convinced by his numbers.

The third Test in the West Indies gave him his 36th win as captain; in one sense he has equalled Clive Lloyd's record, in another he has outstripped him. Lloyd's 36 captaincy wins came in 74 Tests; Waugh's have come in 48.

Already this tour he has become the most capped Australian (157 Tests, when he played the first match of the series, beating Allan Border's 156. Waugh's tally after the third Test is 159), has overtaken Sunil Gavaskar (10,122) to become the second-highest Test run-getter (10,179) behind Allan Border, and has scored more centuries (30) than any man except Sunny (34) and Sachin (31). He has also now beaten the West Indies in nine Tests in a row and Haley's Comet will make a few visits before that is equalled.

We may not like the manners of his team, but complaining about behaviour has become a sort of last refuge of the defeated. Everything else they do magnificently. They regularly score at over four an over, bat deep, have bowling reserves, and play each session as if they were gladiators facing lions in a Roman coliseum.

It is a concentrated fury, a relentless pursuit of the impossible, that makes them spellbinding to watch but impossible to play against. The 16 Tests in a row was no fluke; already they have won 15 of their past 17 and with Bangladesh next on the menu that number will grow more menacing.

As coach John Buchanan told this writer after the World Cup: "Our playing skills are probably better than most countries and we also play them consistently better, that's why our results are better. But we're examining new things, whether in batting, fielding, the use of technology, we're re-examining the way the game is played and the way we play."

For Waugh, this dominance is licence to experiment and fiddle. He can play five front-line bowlers, hardly a novel tactic, but a wonderful extravagance these days. He can play four fast bowlers and a spinner, or three fast and two slow, and while the combination doesn't affect the end result (always they win), he is spoilt for options. Of course, when a fast bowler who is hard-pressed to make the team scores 71 at a run-a-ball (Andy Bichel, third Test) it makes life a trifle easier.

The West Indies clean sweep, should it happen, will not so much reopen but continue an old argument. Is this the best team ever? Comparisons over eras are fraught with difficulty even when it comes to individuals (Laver vs Sampras, for instance); with teams it becomes an impossibility.

Too many things have to be factored in, from travel (sure they flit around more these days, but what about those six-month boat journeys in the old days) to pitches, to the rewards they play for, to fitness levels it is never-ending. Would Ponting have played Ray Lindwall (Bradman's 1948 Invincibles) with assurance, would Hayden still be doing Darth Vader impersonations when confronted by Dennis Lillee (Ian Chappell's 1970s team) at the other end, would McGrath be snarling if Viv Richards (West Indies' 1983-84 team) came out with a gum-chewing swagger? They are delicious questions without adequate answers.

The rival captains, Steve Waugh and Brian Lara. Half-jokingly Lara suggested that the relentless Australians "should be handicapped." Waugh, on the other hand, said pointedly: "I can't remember the West Indies easing up on us back in '85 or '86." -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

In 2000, Neil Harvey, a bit of a constant critic, said Bradman's 1948 Invincibles, who never lost a match on their tour of England, were better than Waugh's team "by a reasonable distance." Two years later, in late 2002, Keith Miller went the other way, saying of the present Aussies, "they have to be the best side I've ever seen."

Waugh's team owns the fanciest record, but some might argue the numbers are flattering. That for all its gifts, his team's dominance has been heightened by the mediocrity of the competition. Rarely have so many countries played such artless cricket at the same time. But it is an unreasonable argument, for every era will find its own excuse: for instance, it has been said that Bradman's 1948 team was fortunate for the War had robbed England of so many of its young men.

One asterisk remains though, a small flaw in the record, an imperfection that Waugh feels compelled to rectify. India. For once reality outweighs hype, this is truly his Final Frontier. To win in Sourav Ganguly's subcontinent will be mission's end. For this Australian team, this is the last remaining serious examination.

It is why Waugh will keep playing; for him there are still lands to conquer.