Ponting sees no weak links in developing squad
Australia's 2009-10 won't go down in history as one of the great summers. It didn't have the hype of an Ashes series, nor the tension of a contest against India, nor the raw combat of a series against South Africa. But don't be fooled, this was a big season for Ricky Ponting's men. It was an important two months during which Ponting's hard work to mould a new-look outfit could have unravelled if the side had sunk into a post-Ashes-loss depression.
Instead, his team won five of six Tests, enjoyed a whitewash against Pakistan and most importantly almost all the players made significant personal progress. In a bridging summer in the 18 months between Ashes battles, it was the best Ponting could have hoped for.
His eyes are firmly fixed on England's trip to Australia later this year, so much so that he stayed up on Sunday night to watch their defeat in Johannesburg. Following Australia's victory against Pakistan in Hobart, he said there were no boxes yet to be ticked ahead of the Ashes in November.
"I don't think there are, to tell you the truth," Ponting said. "I'm really comfortable with the way a lot of the guys have come on through the summer. If you look at Shane Watson in the opening role, it was probably something that we weren't entirely sure about, coming in to the summer, but I think he's put his own stamp on that role particularly well, as he has with his bowling as well.
"Nathan Hauritz has certainly stepped up in this series alone to take 18 wickets in this series on two wickets, particularly in Melbourne and Hobart, that didn't really offer much for him at all. That sort of return for a finger-spinner is a great effort. Those two guys in particular have really stood up and started to learn a lot more about themselves and about the game."
Watson was comfortably Australia's best and most consistent batsman for the season, with 609 runs at 60.90. The ease with which he adjusted to the Test opening role was a surprise to everyone but the Australian selectors, and 13 wickets at 25.84 with a handy knack for reverse-swing was an added bonus.
Hauritz and Mitchell Johnson shared the top bowling honours with 29 victims each but just as impressive was Doug Bollinger, who entered the summer with only one Test to his name and collected 25 at 20.80, bringing extra intensity to Australia's new-ball efforts. Peter Siddle performed a workhorse role and finally gained some reward with five wickets at Bellerive Oval, which confirmed the attack is on track with Ben Hilfenhaus still to return.
In the batting line-up, Ponting atoned for a quiet couple of months with nearly 300 runs for the Hobart Test, Simon Katich provided reliable starts, Michael Clarke built his highest Test score and Michael Hussey saved his career with a summer average of 55.77. Brad Haddin was very good behind the stumps and the only man to struggle was Marcus North, although Ponting defended his No. 6 and hoped he would bounce back on the tour of New Zealand in March.
"He's not a weak link at all," Ponting said. "It was only a couple of Tests ago that we were saying he was probably our best and most in-form player. Coming in to this week I was in the same boat [out of form] and things change pretty quickly. I don't see a weak link in our side at the moment. Hopefully everything turns out the way we want it for Marcus and he can go to New Zealand and have a good series there and then there won't be any speculation about anyone in our line-up."
What has impressed Ponting most about the summer has been the clinical nature of his team's victories. It began with a three-day mauling of West Indies at the Gabba and finished with a 231-run demolition of Pakistan. In all six Tests, even the draw against West Indies in Adelaide, Australia's attack took 20 wickets, which was a major achievement given the struggles they had endured trying to knock sides over during the past year.
"It's been a great series for us, it's been a great summer for us to tell you the truth," Ponting said. "There was a fair bit of conjecture coming into the summer after the end of the Ashes about where we were going with our Test cricket and I spelled things out pretty clearly to the team about where I thought we were going and I think we have improved a lot through the summer.
"You just can't afford to have half an hour or an hour's play where the game's not going anywhere. You can't afford to let that happen. Someone has continually got to put their hand up and make sure the game is going forward and that's the way I will keep challenging the team. We certainly can't be happy with just sitting back and accepting what we've done through the summer."
Australia have four Tests, two in New Zealand and two in England against Pakistan, before they set out to regain the urn at home. After their success over the past two months, those four games will be about fine-tuning rather than remodelling.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo