Mickey Arthur backs Ponting, Hussey
Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey still have plenty to offer the Australian middle order and will play in the Boxing Day Test against India, according to Mickey Arthur, the team's coach. Arthur, who is also a selector, said there had been no discussions by the new selection panel on how to plan for the exits of Ponting and Hussey, the two oldest members of Australia's side.
Ponting, who will be 37 by Boxing Day, is still searching for his first Test hundred in nearly two years. His two dismissals in the loss to New Zealand in Hobart reignited debate over his position in the side, after a pair of half-centuries in the previous two Tests had eased the pressure on him. Hussey, 36, had a terrific tour of Sri Lanka but just endured the two least productive series of his career.
However, despite the fragility of Australia's batting at Bellerive Oval, where David Warner was the only man to pass fifty, Australia are reluctant to make too many changes ahead of the India series. Shane Watson is expected to return from a hamstring injury but Shaun Marsh now appears unlikely to reclaim his place after being withdrawn from the tour match against India due to his ongoing back problem.
Phillip Hughes is expected to be axed, but Hughes for Watson might now be the only alteration to the batting order. It had been expected that one of the other batsmen, possibly Usman Khawaja, would have made way for Marsh. A likely Australian top six for Boxing Day appears to be Watson, Warner, Khawaja, Ponting, Michael Clarke and Hussey.
"I think he should [play on]," Arthur said of Ponting after the Hobart Test. "I've had a chat already to [selector] Rod Marsh . . . we're trying to give ourselves a bit of direction to Boxing Day. I still think Ricky fits very firmly in that picture.
"We're certainly not managing yet how they [Ponting and Hussey] go out of the side. In my opinion they've still got big roles to play because we do need some experience within our middle order, there's no doubt about it. They bring that experience that we need. We haven't even come to any thought on how we manage any exit on any of those players. The key for us is the get them up firing ... on Boxing Day, because they're key."
The anticipated return of Watson will be a boost to Australia's team balance, provided he is fully fit to bowl, and they are planning to have Watson fly to Melbourne early to be assessed. Key to that assessment will be determining how much of a bowling load they can give Watson, who hurt his hamstring while bowling in last month's Johannesburg Test.
Arthur said the time had come for the Australian team management to decide what role Watson needed to play in the Test side. He has been one of the most important bowlers over the past year and a half, with his ability to swing the ball and make the batsmen play, but his bowling workload appears to have affected his batting. Arthur said there might come a time when Watson has to move down the order.
"It's been speculated a huge amount," Arthur said. "I think we've got to come to a point now where we make a decision on where Shane is going to bat in the batting order, and how many overs we expect of Shane so there can be no more debate around the issue. We probably need to give him role definition before the Boxing Day Test match."
The Australians flew out of Hobart on Tuesday after their shock seven-run loss to New Zealand knowing that plenty of work remains before they take on India. There were some positives, notably the emergence of Warner and James Pattinson as strong Test players, and they are expected to play significant roles in the four-Test series against India.
But the brittle top and middle order is the major concern. And unless the two oldest players in the team stand up, it will remain that way.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo