After a dramatic slide in the rankings following two Ashes beatings and a lost series in India, Australia are once again on the rise. However, satisfying overseas wins against Sri Lanka and the West Indies isn't ironclad proof that a revitalised Australia have improved dramatically. Nevertheless, the definitive answer to the extent of Australia's improvement will be known soon enough.
With tough series looming against South Africa, India and then England, and only the confrontation with the Proteas at home, Australia's resurgence will quickly be revealed as either genuine or a false dawn. What will give Australia hope in this daunting schedule is the emergence of a promising pace attack under the aggressive captaincy of Michael Clarke. Despite this vital ingredient to victory being in place, the key to Australia winning consistently will be the performance of the batsmen.
The challenge of playing India and England on their home turf is a testing one for the best of batting sides. But prior to those challenges, Australia's inconsistent batting line-up will be pitted against a strong South African pace attack on the bouncy Gabba and WACA pitches. X'mas could literally come early for Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and the thriving Vernon Philander when the series concludes at the WACA on December 4.
To ensure the batting examination is thorough, in February/March, Australia will then face the spin test in India. That will be followed by perhaps the most demanding scrutiny of all against an England attack that is the most complete in world cricket under their home conditions. Not only are Jimmy Anderson and a raft of fellow pacemen a handful in England, especially if the ball is swinging, but they'll also be probed and prodded by the best spinner in the game, Graeme Swann.
Up against the best
If the off-spin challenged Australia line-up survives following the South African series and a tour of India, Swann, who has a history of devouring left-hand batsmen, will face four of them in the top seven. In a series where the Australians have to win to regain the Ashes, the customary cricketer's farewell of "good luck" to a batsman departing the dressing room will have extra emphasis.
If the Australians take the positive outlook (and they generally do) they'll be thinking; "When we've overcome the India spinners we'll be perfectly prepared for anything Swann can deliver." Not necessarily true, as Swann is far better than any current India off-spinner but a worthy sentiment nevertheless.
The inference from India (not the players) following the four-nil drubbing at the hands of Clarke's men was that the Australians will be confronted by pitches that assist spinners. While I despise the sentiment that pitch preparation should be dictated by anyone other than ground staff, the Australia batsmen can't say they weren't warned.
The Australians shouldn't be too fearful of what they'll face in India because there's no Harbhajan at his peak and his successors are yet to strike fear. However, the fact that part-time off-spinner Narsingh Deonarine had success in the Caribbean should give Australia cause for concern. There's no doubt that a fully stocked Australia pace attack should keep their team in the game in both the series against South Africa and England. Whether they can be effective under Indian conditions is a question still to be answered.
However, the more pressing concern is the batsmen. The failure to produce young talent has meant the line-up is still heavily reliant on aging stars Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. Australian cricket has shown over the years that it has a remarkable ability to regenerate quickly. This attribute will be tested in the next 12 months as the batsmen will face a thorough examination and in all likelihood, readymade replacements will be required.