Australia’s current crop of stars is coming to the end of a lengthy period of sustained success without ever becoming truly great like dominant teams of the recent past.
But the cohort under Pat Cummins has the opportunity looming on the horizon of becoming the first side to “unify the belts” in boxing parlance.
In the relatively short 16-year history of the T20 era, no men’s side has simultaneously held the two white-ball World Cups while also being ranked No.1 in the five-day format or in possession of the World Test Championship trophy.
England became the first side to be the reigning T20 and ODI World Cup champions and they had designs on their Bazballing brigade to get them to the top in Tests to complete the treble but they’ve already surrendered the 50-over trophy with their meek recent display in India.
Australia have the Test crown in their keeping after triumphing over India at The Oval but their beaten opponents are No.1 on the rankings by virtue of their Border-Gavaskar Trophy victory on home soil earlier in the year.
India are also atop the ODI and T20 rankings but haven’t touched a World Cup trophy since winning the 50-over crown at home 12 years ago. That drought may be ending on Sunday after they made it 10 straight with Wednesday’s semi-final win over New Zealand in Mumbai.
For the Aussies to deny India first they have to get past the Proteas.
It’s a dangerous scenario for Australia. They are considered the bookmakers favourites after recovering from their 0-2 start with a seven-game winning streak.
But they are facing a team that walloped them last month to make it four straight stretching back to their warm-up series in South Africa.
And with memories of past World Cup chokes being brought up all over the place, there’s a possibility of complacency consciously or subconsciously entering the Australian camp’s psyche.
It’s not as simple as putting up a big total and waiting for Temba Bevuma’s team to fall in a heap under pressure.
This South African team does not have the big names of past iterations but it also doesn’t have the battle scars.
Sporting teams tend to break hoodoos when they’re least expected to do so.
It’s wrong to think a team with this much talent is destined to fall short just because there’s a history of underachievement.
With the batting firepower of Quinton de Kock, Aiden Markham, Rassie van der Dussen, Heinrich Klaasen and David Miller combined with a balanced attack featuring Kagiso Rabada, Gerald Coetzee, Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen and Keshav Maharaj, the Proteas have enough oomph to take any opponent down.
Bevuma, who is in doubt with a hamstring strain, is the only player who doesn’t have the ability to take the game away from Australia with flashes of brilliance.
Australia need to be bold, which has not been evident too often in a tactical sense from Cummins and coach Andrew McDonald in the white or red-ball arenas.
They tend to play at their best when individuals go off.
Whether it’s David Warner, Travis Head or Mitchell Marsh at the front end or Glenn Maxwell in the closing overs, the Aussies have tended to play with patience unless those four are having a day out.
Adam Zampa’s return to form after a rare poor series in South Africa has masked the lack of impact or accuracy with the new ball from Mitchell Starc.
Josh Hazlewood’s miserly reliability has also made up for Cummins being hot and cold spell to spell, game to game.
Win or lose, the end is high for this group of players who have dominated Australian selection across the three formats for several years.
Even if they can defy the odds to win this World Cup in India, the selectors need to refresh the T20 squad with young blood for the following showpiece tournament in the Caribbean and US next June.
They paid the price of rolling out a veteran squad on home soil at last year’s T20 World Cup and BBL-bred stars like Matt Short, Tim David, Ashton Turner, Spencer Johnson and Nathan Ellis need to given a decent crack rather than occasional brief forays into the national team.
The fact that Matthew Wade has been brought back from the Tasmanain Retirement Lounge to lead the team in the five-match T20 series after this World Cup in India isn’t a great sign that the Australian “brains trust” is thinking about the future.
But the selectors will have to finally locate their big boy pants, put them on and tell a few of these current stars their time is up in a format or two – David Warner is going, on his own terms it seems despite mediocre Test form, Steve Smith couldn’t be more vague about his plans while Starc said earlier this week he wouldn’t be quitting the ODI format for another year or so at least even though he’s returning to the IPL and looks fatigued from representing Australia in the three versions of the game.
Cummins was non-committal about whether he would continue as ODI skipper when clearly a new leader is needed for the white-ball squads, Head should be ahead of Mitchell Marsh, so the seamer can concentrate on Test duties.
Winning all three titles is a mammoth task that may be beyond the rising superpower of India in the future but as it stands Australia are a chance, albeit a long way from unifying the belts.
Doing so would lift this group up alongside the golden generation that dominated the Test and ODI landscape under Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting either side of the turn of the century.
But you get the sense they will continue to occupy that space just below the legendary teams of the pace as a very good squad that was not quite in that stratosphere.