Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Perth November 29, 2012

End of a great career, start of a new era

Regardless of what happens in the Perth Test, it will be a watershed for Michael Clarke. He knows nothing of Test cricket that doesn't involve Ricky Ponting. His challenge now is to define a new era alone

There was a fitting sense of symmetry in Ricky Ponting's decision to leave Test cricket after the upcoming Perth Test, and not just because the WACA is where his career began 17 years ago. Should Australia send Ponting off with his 109th Test victory, they will return to the top of the ICC's Test rankings. Under Ponting's leadership, Australia sat at No.1 for five-and-a-half years. For most of his career they were the best side in the world, even if rankings didn't exist to confirm it.

The remarkable nature of that achievement has only become fully apparent since Australia fell from the top with their 2009 Ashes debacle. South Africa spent a few months at No.1. India were there for a year and a bit. England occupied top spot for 12 months. Now South Africa are back, but it could be temporary. The concept of any team remaining at the pinnacle for as long as the Australians did is becoming hard to fathom.

There are players in Michael Clarke's team who, until the past couple of years, knew nothing of Australian cricket except success. Josh Hazlewood, who may well make his Test debut in Ponting's farewell game, is too young to remember the match in which Ponting was handed his baggy green. Hazlewood was four years old at the time. By the time he finished primary school, Australia were firmly in the middle of their golden era.

The same goes for Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson. These are the young men who grew up knowing only the triumph of the Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting eras. They are also the ones who will help Clarke define his own era. Whether that post-Ponting period will begin with Australia at No.1 remains to be seen. Under Ponting, Australia's highs were stratospheric but the lows were pitiful, as anyone who saw the 2010-11 Ashes will attest. Fairytales, such as leaving with the team at No.1, don't always come true.

Regardless of what plays out over the next five days at the WACA, it will be a watershed for Clarke. Apart from the odd match in which his predecessor was injured, he knows nothing of Test cricket that doesn't involve Ponting. Clarke has been his own man as captain, more adventurous and assured in his thinking than any leader since Mark Taylor, but Ponting has always been there as a sounding board. The way Clarke choked up while speaking about Ponting on Thursday showed the high regard in which he holds him.

Whether Australia reach No.1 in Perth is immaterial to their long-term goals. Two years ago they sat fifth on the ICC's list. Rankings are fluid. Clarke's challenge will be not only to steer his side back to the pinnacle, but to keep them there. Five-and-a-half years might be asking a bit too much, but a brief touch of the fingertips to the peak only to slip back down will be unsatisfying.

"It's not so much the ranking, it's to be the best," Clarke said. "That's what you strive for every day as a player and as a team. We want to be the best we can be. That doesn't mean you get to No.1 in five minutes. It takes a lot of hard work. To stay there is even harder. We've still got a lot of work to do to get to being the No.1 Test team. Five tough days of Test cricket, and if we are lucky enough to get there, we've got a hell of a lot of work to do to stay there."

Just as a hell of a lot of work went into Australia's golden era under Waugh and Ponting, the presence of freakishly talented men like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist notwithstanding. Besides Clarke himself, there might not be any obvious candidates to carry Australia through the next few years in quite the same way, but he has at his disposal the building blocks of a very strong side.

In 15 years, will Australian cricket be farewelling a Test veteran like David Warner, or Usman Khawaja, or Phillip Hughes? Who knows? They can all look back at the end of their careers and say they played with Ponting. That's not a small list: 81 men have played Test cricket with Ponting, nearly one-fifth of the 429 men who have ever worn the baggy green. Clarke's challenge is to give his players their own golden era to look back on.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here