If Australia are to achieve their Test cricket aspiration for the year and assume the ranking of world’s best team, they need only prevent New Zealand from levelling the Trans-Tasman Trophy Series when the final game is played in Christchurch next week.
Having this afternoon secured an innings and 52-run win over the Black Caps at Wellington’s Basin Reserve with a day and half to spare, Steve Smith’s team has one hand on the ceremonial mace (and the hefty accompanying cheque of $1 million) that comes with being crowned the game’s pre-eminent Test team.
Quick Single: Australia chasing $1 million bonus
Such are the vagaries of a global rankings system that sees competing teams involved in vastly differing number of matches amid myriad other mitigating factors over a period of years, the annual award is dispensed to the nation that has accumulated the most points at a pre-determined cut-off date.
With the start of May nominated as that deadline.
Should New Zealand win the second Test at Christchurch’s Hagley Oval starting on Saturday, then India will take the honour even though they have not played a Test for more than two months and won’t contest another before the end date.
And were involved in fewer Tests over the competition period than all other nations save for Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
But if Australia win or draw that match, which will also signal the end of NZ skipper Brendon McCullum’s celebrated international career in his adopted home town, then Australia will sit atop the world rankings in Test and ODI cricket.
With a climb up the T20 ladder being the outstanding result needed to achieve their stated KPIs in the men's game.
Given the run of results they have produced since their failed Ashes campaign in the UK – undefeated in home series against NZ and the West Indies and inflicting the Black Caps first home loss under McCullum’s leadership – it's a due reward for some impressive work.
Especially given that the team which was in the running for the prize a year ago has needed to find replacements for retired or injured regulars Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers, Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc during that 12 months.
A drain of talent and experience that any Test team from any era would have been hard pressed to cover without a corresponding dip in performance.
The scope of today's victory, achieved an hour after lunch on day four at Welington amid a flurry of late hitting from NZ tailender Tim Southee (48 off 23 balls) was a fair reflection of the dominance Smith’s team held from the time they took the new ball on Friday morning.
With some outrageous good fortune along the way.
Indeed, for an occasion that was much awaited and was to be even more heartily celebrated, the Black Caps could not take a trick from the moment that McCullum – in his 100th consecutive and penultimate Test appearance – lost the coin toss.
Both he and rival skipper Smith knew that batting would be a challenge on that first morning, though perhaps not as daunting as NZ's day one lunch scoreline of 5-84 suggested.
Their hopes of gaining some benefit from the conditions in the final session were overshadowed by the now infamous and clearly incorrect no-ball call that cost them the wicket of Adam Voges, and would have seen Australia 4-143 and still 40 runs adrift of their hosts’ first innings.
Liked dropped catches and presidential recounts, such errors in adjudication only become talking points when the outcome is subsequently distorted.
The fact Australia’s 40-run deficit was transformed into an unassailable 379-run lead while Voges cashed in heavily and remorselessly on his gift voucher confirmed that this Test will be forever remembered for its phantom call.
With Voges adding 232 of those additional 419 runs – every one of them compounding the indignant heartburn felt up and down NZ's North and South Islands – the Black Caps admitted to being sapped of energy by the decision as surely as they were cruelled by fortune.
Then, when they did begin their two-and-a-bit day journey to save the Test, the man who had successfully led them on a similarly unlikely mission two years earlier – when McCullum became the first New Zealander to post a Test triple-century – was adjudged out on the final ball of day three.
A decision that was legitimately challenged by the Black Caps skipper but was upheld through implementation of the same technology that sat by idle and impotent throughout the no-ball imbroglio.
And which not only robbed the home team of any last lingering belief they might be able to withstand Australia’s bowlers for two days of Test batting, but also denied Wellington Cricket the few thousand walk-up ticket sales McCullum would have undoubtedly drawn for his farewell to the nation’s capital.
The final injustice arrived this morning when the cloud that is as much a feature of Wellington’s diurnal weather as the howling wind – but had proved as uncharacteristically absent since the Test started – hovered above the Basin Reserve for the opening hour.
Which saw the ball swing pronouncedly for the first time in the game, and that movement was sufficient to account for NZ’s last remaining specialist batsman Corey Anderson after half an hour’s play in which he showed dogged resistance but was unable to find a run.
It left Test rookie Henry Nicholls with the task of shepherding wicketkeeper BJ Watling and the bowlers through the best part of two days to save NZ from their first Test defeat on home soil since 2012.
The 24-year-old showed that a berth in the Black Caps’ middle-order awaits once McCullum leaves and Ross Taylor returns by compiling a compact, patient 59 in more than three hours of batting.
But his dismissal to a full delivery that dipped in and clipped his pads en route to the off stump – giving Jackson Bird his first Test wicket in more than two and half years in the process – meant the result that had looked increasingly inevitable since Saturday evening was but a formality.
Apart from a couple of sloppy moments in the field today when errant throws gifted Nicholls and Watling bonus runs through overthrows, Australia takes just lingering concern across the Cook Strait to Christchurch when they travel on Wednesday.
Apart from the anxiety that accompanies the string of aftershocks the still-recovering city felt in the wake of last Sunday afternoon’s 5.9 magnitude earth tremor, that is.
Peter Siddle appeared decidedly inconvenienced throughout the day by the back problem that forced from the field the previous evening, and he did not take the ball at all during today’s session and a half.
Partly because his absence on Sunday afternoon precluded him from doing so for more than an hour today, and largely because the other bowlers were doing the job of wrapping up the necessary wickets.
But if the back spasm that has been a recurrent feature throughout the summer does not settle before the second Test begins in Christchurch on Saturday – and given ongoing concerns about James Pattinson’s capacity to endure a full five-day Test – than Chadd Sayers might come into calculations for a Test debut.