Filling the Ponting void
Australia's Test team convened without Ricky Ponting in Hobart on Monday evening. Barring reasons of injury or personal leave, this is the first time such a state of affairs has existed since 1999.
The space left by Ponting will be felt as much in the dressing room as out in the middle, for while his run-making trailed off badly towards the end, his contribution to the team's development as a mentor and example was seldom stronger.
Phillip Hughes occupies Ponting's place on the team sheet, but all will be expected to take up the considerable hole left by his presence. Apart from the captain Michael Clarke, the most senior members of the squad to play at Bellerive are Michael Hussey, Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson.
Their insights and examples will be critical to younger team-mates, and so too will the personal experience of Ed Cowan. Having benefited greatly from the time he spent around Ponting both before and after his elevation to the national team, Cowan will now be expected to show that example.
"It's an odd situation in that one of the guys that has been inked into the top order, but more so inked into the culture of the change room, will be missing," Cowan told ESPNcricinfo. "So there are two ways to look at it. One is to reminisce and think what a hole he's going to leave. The other side of the coin is that it's an opportunity for guys to step up, not only as players but as leaders around the change room, and that's an opportunity for a number of guys to combine together and try to fill the void of his presence.
"I think cultures evolve, and the culture of this team has evolved since Michael's taken the captaincy, so it's a question of guys being willing like Ricky was to give of themselves to the team like no other. Put the team first, play to win, and make sure the change rooms are a better place when the next person steps into it. A massive loss off the field, but the identity of this team has been growing since Michael took over the captaincy, and that growth's been pretty evident in the results."
That those results did not culminate in a series victory over South Africa was down to a major malfunction at Nos. 3 and 4 in the batting order - of which Ponting was of course a part - the toll of three Tests on the hosts' bowlers, and the resilience of the seasoned visitors. Cowan enjoyed a productive series personally, making his first Test century and looking comfortable at other times, but the most resounding lessons of the series were of the five-day game's unremitting nature.
"From a team point of view it was a great lesson that Test series are exactly that," Cowan said. "It's not one or two days of really decent cricket, to beat the best you have to be consistent for 15 days. As a group we felt as though we dominated them for eight or nine days of the series, maybe had points decisions on two or three days and only lost two or three days to them, and you end up losing the series. So it was a great lesson for us that the great teams soak up pressure when they have to and have an ability to really nail you when they have that momentum.
"They were due to have a good day. That was in the back of everyone's mind that they'd been pounded and pounded and pounded and yet it showed 0-0, and it took a toll on our bowlers a bit more with both quicks sitting out [Perth]. So we were up against it when our top three quicks were all unavailable for what was a grand final, so it was always going to be hard work. We had our opportunity after day one with the bat to really nail them and we didn't take it, then with the ball we let things slip, and in a matter of hours the series was prettymuch gone.
"Having said that, deep down we knew we gave it a massive shake. The best team in the world had come here with the intention of proving how good they were, and we flexed a few muscles and showed how good we were over the course of the series, but didn't come away with the biscuits."
Ponting's retirement and its associated melancholy appeared to add a mental toll to the physical strain evident after the sapping conclusion to the Adelaide Test. Cowan said the start of a new series would allow the start of a new and fresh chapter, without anything like the pathos that enveloped Australia at the WACA ground - there will certainly be fewer tears shed this week, both in private and in public.
"It was tough mentally, and physically because it was a back-to-back Test," Cowan said. "Now we've had a chance to refresh, take stock and move forward. Phil Hughes is coming into the side off a lot of runs and we're pretty confident that everyone can contribute to the team moving forward. We're now missing Australia's greatest modern batsmen, but it's an opportunity for guys to step up. It puts expectation on other guys to fill the void. That's the only way."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here