Australia v South Africa, CB Series, 1st ODI, Melbourne January 15, 2009

New format continues summer of change

Ricky Ponting expects new players like Ben Hilfenhaus to be given plenty of opportunities over the next two years © Getty Images

This really has been a season of evolution in Australian cricket. For the past 16 years the sight of Australia crushing whoever visited for Tests was as much a fixture of the Australian summer as the one-day tri-series, which lasted nearly three decades. Now both eras have ended. Friday's ODI at the MCG is the first of a five-match series against South Africa, after which New Zealand will visit separately for the same number of games.

The three-team format was stale. It was a hangover from the 1980s and early 1990s, when there was far less cricket on offer and fans would gladly watch two visiting teams go head to head to get their international fix. Now, in the era of future tours programmes and matches all year round, there will be no more clashes between neutral sides and Ricky Ponting is pleased.

"We and probably the public to a certain degree over the last few years have probably been screaming out to have this sort of series that we've got at the moment," Ponting said on the eve of the first game. "We've identified with crowds and even viewership on the television that the triangular series had probably reached its use-by date."

The format will not be the only alteration this season. Ponting's men - and spectators - must also get used to the new rule that allows the batting team to choose when one of the three powerplays takes effect. It is a regulation that has been used in domestic one-day games but never in an ODI in Australia.

It is such a change that Ponting has had to ask for tactical advice from the younger members of his squad, men who have spent more time in their state sides than in Australian colours. However, players like David Hussey, Cameron White and Ben Hilfenhaus are likely to become more permanent fixtures in the one-day side as Australia prepare to defend their World Cup title in 2011.

"It's about that time of our preparations when we do start looking ahead to the World Cup," Ponting said. "We were talking this morning, I think there's about 80 games of one-day cricket for us to play between now and the World Cup. [There's an] opportunity to give plenty of experience to some of these younger guys before the World Cup comes around."

It's not only the Australian line-up that is changing. South Africa are also looking ahead and will blood some new men in the ODI series. They will be hoping for a smoother effort than in their two Twenty20 losses, when the stand-in captain Johan Botha at times seemed to be struggling to maintain control in the field. Ponting said it was natural that the team would lose some of its solidity without Graeme Smith at the helm.

"Smith's been their leader for such a long time now," Ponting said. "That's always going to happen when someone that's been around for that long, and probably commands the respect that he does from his team and from the public, that that will happen.

"Yeah, I think we did notice that. Even more so at the end of the game the other night where there seemed to be three or four skippers out on the ground up in Brisbane, trying to control things. That's for them to worry about."

Point made and point taken. Botha said South Africa had addressed the captaincy issue following the Twenty20 games, when he was in charge of a side that included Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis, who have both led South Africa in the past, and the experienced domestic skipper Neil McKenzie.

I have to probably handle myself a bit better, not show so much emotion on the field.Johan Botha

"I've got some input back from them," Botha said. "We've spoken about it, not to have too many guys say too many things on the field because it does get a bit crazy at times. We've definitely spoken about that. In the one-day series that will be sorted out."

The constant on-field discussions contributed to South Africa being fined for a slow over rate in both Twenty20 matches, although Botha was confident that would not be copied in the 50-over format. It is a hard task for a man who was not part of the Test joys and has captained his side only six times in Twenty20 or ODI matches.

"I've picked up a bit of experience," Botha said. "I have to probably handle myself a bit better, not show so much emotion on the field. So far it's been good and I've really enjoyed it.

"Replacing [Smith] makes it a huge thing. It does make it quite difficult, the guys had something good going and it's difficult just to carry on. You've got to almost start the tour again and then see it as a second part of the tour."

After their Twenty20 struggles, he might prefer to see this as the beginning of the third part of their trip. Whatever the case, Friday's game represents change - for Australia, for South Africa, and for the Australian cricket public.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo