'Michael as captain has been very high quality'
Ricky Ponting laughs when asked whether or not he was a better captain of Australia than Michael Clarke. Eighteen months into the job, Clarke's leadership has helped push the national team to a point where they can glimpse the world No. 1 ranking, a summit that will be achieved if they can defeat South Africa at home in November.
When he gave up the captaincy, Ponting had said he hoped to give Clarke the best chance of putting his stamp on a new team, something the younger man has done. Irrespective of their relative merits as tacticians, Ponting and Clarke both need each other still, especially if Ponting can bat with the authority he showed against India last summer. While a little envious of the support network Clarke has around him as a result of the Argus review, Ponting is generous in his praise.
"The thing I know about him, and it was similar to when I took over the captaincy as well, I think Michael's been able to elevate his game to a different level," Ponting said. "I think the way he played over the summer last year was very impressive, both one-day cricket and Test cricket. And when I took over the captaincy it was a bit of the same with me as well.
"Certain players respond to that responsibility a little bit better and make everybody feel and look very comfortable. As players and captains you're always judged on records, and what Michael has done as a captain and a player so far has been of a very high quality."
Clarke's role as a formal selector as well as a captain is a dual post Ponting coveted during his time as a leader, and he had little doubt that the system brought in following Argus' frank critique of the state of the national team had made a major difference to the team's fortunes. Having slipped to as low as fifth in the world following the 2010-11 Ashes drubbing, Australia pushed back up to third with series wins over Sri Lanka, India and West Indies, plus two 1-1 results against South Africa and New Zealand.
"If you're looking to lead an organisation or a team well, you want to have total responsibility for what's going on," Ponting said. "I never had that, but that's something I'd always asked for and it's good to see that's the direction the game's going because I think it's the direction it had to go.
"I think there's a lot of positive things that have happened around Australian cricket in the last 12 months. The way the selection thing is structured now with [the team performance manager] Pat Howard being involved, some really good and smart decisions are being made around giving players in our team the best chance possible."
Following the all change approach taken last summer, this one should bring a greater measure of stability, and Ponting said the team needed to consolidate its gains. There will be few excuses in terms of staff, structure or schedule, either for Ponting or the Test team as a whole, if they do not keep up their winning ways.
"Absolutely, we don't want to be taking any steps backwards," Ponting said. "CA are going to give us everything we want and everything we need to be the best team we can be, and as players now we have to, one, understand that, and two, win games of cricket. We're international players being paid good money to win games of cricket, and that's what we have to do.
"I couldn't ask for anything better really than my lead-in, having a couple of months off after the Caribbean, then getting back in the gym and training hard for a couple of months before the Tassie pre-season stuff started. A couple of games under my belt now and Tassie's got off to a pretty good start. I've a couple more Shield games to play yet and another couple of one-dayers, so there'll be no excuses as far as I'm concerned about where my game will be by the time November comes around."
The winter brought an unfamiliar sense of peace and quiet for Ponting, as he returned home from the West Indies to enjoy the longest break of his international career. Now exclusively concerned with Test matches, Ponting said the winter's experience had been foreign, but refreshing.
"You're definitely fresher but whether that means you're better off cricket-wise is another thing. Something so foreign to me is not playing cricket continually," he said. "One thing I do know is I've now got Test cricket only and only a few one-day games for Tassie through the course of the year, so I've had a pretty clear picture of what my career looks like. That can't hurt. Also having a good break and some sort of pre-season for the first time in 20 years is a little bit foreign as well, but it's been very enjoyable."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here