PERTH, (Reuters) – With a three-test series against Sri Lanka starting next week, Australia have no time to dwell on what might have been after getting close to beating the best side in the world before being blown away at the end of a hard-fought series.
They will, of course, be without Ricky Ponting for the first time in 17 years after the former captain bowed out following his 168th test, which ended with a 309-run defeat and the loss of the series to South Africa in Perth.
“I just hope I’ve left the team in a better place than it was when I started,” Ponting, struggling to contain his emotions, said at the conclusion of his final news conference as an international cricketer on Monday.
“I think every player that comes into international sport wants to say that they can walk away with the team being in a better place than it was, hopefully my impact and input on Australian cricket has left something behind.”
Ponting’s impact on cricket certainly goes beyond the 13,378 test runs he scored.
There can be no doubt that, through no fault of his own, the Australian cricket team is not in a better place than it was when he made his debut against the Sri Lankans in 1995.
The then 21-year-old had forced himself into the team by sheer weight of runs and batted behind Michael Slater, Mark Taylor, David Boon and Mark Waugh at number five.
Glenn McGrath took seven wickets and Shane Warne six as Australia won the match by an innings and 36 runs.
Australia clearly have some players in fine form – Michael Clarke was named Player of the Series against South Africa for his two brilliant double centuries and Mike Hussey also scored two centuries.
But no-one would pretend for a moment that the current side is close to the complete article.
First and foremost, before the first test against Sri Lanka in Hobart next week, they must decide who replaces Ponting at number four in the batting line-up.
With time running out before the tour of India and back-to-back Ashes series next year, coach Mickey Arthur and captain Clarke have suggested a completely new look to the top order might be on the cards.
“We need a lot more consistency from our top four because we know at five and six we’ve got the best batsman in the world (Clarke) and Mr. Cricket in Hussey, we just need one-two-three and four to be giving us a really good platform,” Arthur told reporters after the Perth test.
“We haven’t discussed it yet but it’ll probably be a guy that comes in and bats at three, with a possible move for Shane Watson to four. It just looks right and gives us a little bit of stability.”
Watson has not looked wholly comfortable at number three in the tests he has been fit to play since dropping down from the opening partnership. His average slipped to 36.92 after making 35 runs over two innings in Perth.
Clarke, the top ranked batsman in the ICC rankings, said he would be happy to consider moving up from number five.
“I’ll bat wherever Mickey and I think is best for the team,” he said. “The number I bat makes no difference to me. If it’s best for the team for me to bat three, I’ll bat three.
“If it’s best for me to stay at five, I’m not bothered. I guess we need to work out what player is getting selected first and then what’s best for the team in regards to batting order and the whole top six.”
Rob Quiney, who replaced the injured Watson for the first two tests against South Africa, looks to have a good chance of a return, while test rejects Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja, as well as the uncapped Alex Doolan, are also in the mix. Arthur conceded there was plenty of work to do before Australia match the standards set by his old team South Africa, but said there had been clear improvements since their last test in Hobart, which they lost by seven runs to New Zealand.
“I think we are in a much better place than we were this time last year and we’ve got to just keep building,” he said.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got a settled unit very clear in their roles come those big tests that lie ahead.”