Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 3rd day December 3, 2006

Australia must sense warning signs

Ricky Ponting held Australia together but didn't have much support from three senior colleagues © Getty Images
Ricky Ponting's brilliance has masked some of the focus on his aging top order. If Ponting had not excelled in a 192-run partnership with Michael Hussey and Australia had been forced to bat again, Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden and, to a lesser extent, Justin Langer could have been worrying about their careers.

The selectors' metronome has swung more quickly for Australia during recent Ashes series and it is clicking furiously again. Last year the decision makers waited at least a Test too long for recruits and only two players, Michael Kasprowicz and Jason Gillespie, are not part of the current set-up. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath showed their age in the field and three of their 35-and-over team-mates were the opening victims as England threatened to up-end Australia.

Ponting made sure it did not happen with help from Ashley Giles, who spilled a hard chance ten metres inside the square-leg boundary when the batsman was 35. With his 142 and the compilation with Hussey, Ponting dragged his side towards the safety of avoiding the follow-on mark of 351 on a dead pitch that Matthew Hoggard has gone closest to taming.

The three men who preceded Ponting into the dressing room should also have been pleased with the work of their friend, who became the Australian record holder for centuries with 33. At the end of the 2005 loss Ponting shouted Martyn and Hayden, whose positions were under close scrutiny, a ride in a Rolls-Royce and last week he allowed Langer to reach an unbeaten century when even the batsman felt they should be declaring. The trio has been essential ingredients to sustained success and Ponting recognises its importance, but the overall build-up of wrinkles is stretching Australia's campaign.

Five of their six oldest players are yet to make an impact on the game and Adam Gilchrist is unbeaten on 13. The benign surface had an effect on the performances of McGrath and Warne, but it was the same pitch Langer, Hayden and Martyn folded on by the time Australia reached 65. Hoggard produced an outstanding early spell, returning late in the day to account for Ponting and Hussey, but Australia's other most senior batsmen were again showing the traits that cost them in England.

After the Gabba victory Ponting told the team to remember how quickly the series turned in 2005. In the first session today their opponents had again been under-estimated. The batsmen still went hard at the ball, were not prepared to leave enough deliveries and suffered against a controlled attack. Ponting countered the departures and Hussey performed the innings of an opener who has been camped in the middle order. His value somehow manages to increase and he has scores of 91 and 86 in the series.

Hussey played and missed a number of times before reaching fifty, but he also waited, watched and summed up the conditions. He allowed himself to pull an early six and the shot remained an option, but he had calculated it would not be a problem given the generous pitch. Off and cover drives became his staple and he is a genuine candidate for a promotion to No. 4 or his preferred spot at the top of the list.

Ponting stands by all his men but three of his closest allies are walking nearer to the endangered list. Langer had an outstanding first Test and is safer than Hayden and Martyn, but they should be monitored on a match-by-match basis. Another lifeless pitch is expected in Perth and if that is the case an extra bowler will switch from a luxury to a necessity. It would mean a batsman would have to give way.

Michael Clarke, who is 30 not out, is part of the future and has been working in the off-season to alter his thinking. Hayden and Martyn may be constrained by an often-glorious past. Australia's selectors cannot afford to miss the crucial moment for change again.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo