Australia are likely to be dethroned from the top of Test cricket's world rankings in the first series since they rose to No. 1, after crushing defeats in their first two Tests in Sri Lanka. Moreover, with India's imminent 13-Test home season, it may be some time before Steven Smith's men can reach the summit again.
It was only two weeks ago that Smith was handed the Test Championship mace by ICC chief executive David Richardson – in a ceremony that was kept private at Sri Lanka Cricket's request. But Australia's pair of defeats to Sri Lanka, in which they were exposed as having little to no idea of how to bat in Asian conditions, has left the door open for England or India to ascend to No. 1, perhaps leaving Smith's team as low as third.
Australia's chances of remaining at No. 1 now depend on favours by Pakistan and West Indies, who are currently trailing in their respective Test series against England and India. England would go to the top by winning the final Test against Pakistan, while wins in the final two Tests over West Indies would take India there. In the medium term, India's long upcoming home season, which includes Test series against England and Australia, gives them a good chance of building a lead at the top of the table.
"It would be very disappointing if we lost that – we haven't had it for that long, we were really hoping to try and stretch the gap," allrounder Mitchell Marsh said. "We've got the opportunity to win this next Test match and that's all we can do. It means a hell of a lot. It's what we strive for. In the Test arena you don't play for a premiership, you play to be number one in the world and that's what we strive for every day. Any team that gets knocked off the perch as the No. 1 Test team in the world, it would certainly hurt everyone."
The "hurt" would extend beyond pride to pockets, as Australia's players are awarded handsome bonuses for time spent at the top of the rankings. These performance weightings were added to the MOU between the players and Cricket Australia in 2012, meaning that over the period of the agreement the players' share of total cricket revenue can vary from 24.5% to 27% depending on team performances. In 2014, the Australian Ashes-winning team went on to defeat South Africa on the road to briefly claim top spot, with all players collecting a more-than-handy extra payday as a result.
James Sutherland, the Cricket Australia chief executive, offered a typically conservative viewpoint on the results in Sri Lanka, arguing that the time for a proper reflection on the result would be after the end of the third Test. "It's probably a bit early to say – give everyone a little bit of scope to have proper reflections after the series," he said in Melbourne. "The first two Tests have been pretty disappointing and no doubt everyone over there is feeling it. But I wouldn't want to rush to any conclusions.
"We would on the surface – and I think everyone has said this – appear to have had a pretty good preparation. Obviously not good enough in terms of getting the result that we wanted. Let's reflect on that after the series and see what we've got to learn out of this. Obviously a very disappointing result so far."
Sutherland also explained the decision to lock in the contract of the coach Darren Lehmann until 2019. "Clearly we've got a young and developing team that's done well in recent times, found itself to be No. 1 in Test cricket and one-day cricket, won a World Cup," he said. "I think it's an endorsement of the work he's doing and the confidence that we have in him and the staff around him to keep progressing and keep improving. That's what we're all about – sustained performance and improving. This is a major blip on the progression to what we would have hoped, but it's also a good wake-up call for us to have a really good hard look again at the way we play over there."
The introspection appeared already to have begun in the second innings of the Galle Test. When faced with a near impossible fourth-innings chase Australia's batsmen tried numerous more aggressive approaches based on observation of Sri Lanka's batsmen. "We decided that we wanted to be a bit more positive and show a lot more intent, certainly early on in our innings to try and hit the spinners off their lengths," Marsh said, "and try and get the field out so there's a few more gaps to get off strike.
"That was the plan, I thought we did it reasonably well, it was just the fact that we didn't do it for long enough. Probably the one thing I've noticed [about Sri Lanka's batsmen] is that they're extremely positive from ball one. That's helped get our spinners off their length and being able to rotate the strike. That was something we tried to do in the second innings of this last Test match and I'm sure it's something we'll try to do in the next Test.
"I've felt really comfortable when I've gone out into the middle. For me it's just about doing it for longer periods of time, a lot longer periods of time. Our batting group has managed to get starts, which is something we pride ourselves on is when we get to 20 or 30 we go on with it. If we had one or two blokes do that then the last few Test matches would have been different games. That's been the disappointing thing as a batting unit."