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March 2, 2009
As Australia neared victory on the final afternoon at the Wanderers, Ricky Ponting stood at second slip and surveyed the men closest to him. The cordon was made up of Ponting, the debutants Marcus North and Phillip Hughes, and also Andrew McDonald, who was playing his second Test. Even the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin was less than a year into his Test career.
For anyone who hadn't fully comprehended the magnitude of change in Australian cricket over the past few months, it was a telling image. Barely a year ago, the same positions would have been occupied by Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, and going back a further 12 months, Shane Warne and Justin Langer.
Also scattered around the field were the debutant fast bowler Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle, who was in his fifth Test. When Mitchell Johnson fired in a full one that bowled Dale Steyn, Ponting collected the stumps and distributed them among his new colleagues. Each of them deserved a reward. Whereas Ponting spoke of the team's "passengers" during the series in Australia, every player contributed in Johannesburg.
Of the debutants, North's 117 in the first innings was the standout. Hughes' fighting 75 in the second innings was also important and Hilfenhaus did what he was asked to do - he ran in hard all day, swung the ball and collected three wickets for the game, including the key breakthroughs of Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher in the second innings. Each of their efforts pleased Ponting but none shocked him.
"I'm not surprised that Hilfenhaus came in and bowled well because I know what he's capable of," Ponting said. "I'm not surprised that Hughes came in and made runs because he's been making runs for the last couple of years in domestic cricket in Australia. I'm not surprised that North did because he's an experienced player that has faced his own challenges in a very high domestic competition in Australia.
"I'm not surprised by what they've achieved. Now it's a matter of those guys being able to do it again next week. That's what Test cricket is all about. You don't get the luxury of having a couple of weeks between games to get yourself prepared again. It's about bouncing back in a couple of days."
There are several men back in Australia who will be watching with interest to see how the fresh faces respond after their opening win. Stuart Clark, Brett Lee, Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson would all have been in the starting line-up in Johannesburg had they been fit. If the new boys can continue to thrive at the highest level, there is no guarantee that there will be places for the more experienced men later this year.
Clark is a must-pick but Australia will learn more over the next few weeks about how much they really need the out-of-form Lee, the ill-disciplined Symonds and the injury-prone Watson. With an Ashes tour coming up during the Australian winter, now is the perfect time for the likes of North, Hughes, Hilfenhaus and McDonald to complete irresistible auditions.
But for all the hype the Ashes will bring, the past four Tests have shown just how highly South Africa-Australia contests deserve to be rated. For the second time in successive Tests these sides have taken the match into the final session of the fifth day and ended with a result. The Perth and Melbourne Tests that came before weren't over before lunch on the last day.
The battles have been so tight and unpredictable that with a day to play in Johannesburg, few onlookers were prepared to confidently tip a winner. At a time when Tests in the West Indies and Pakistan have featured such high totals that draws appear inevitable, the South Africa-Australia bouts have been immeasurably valuable for a five-day format that is trying to hold its place as the game's pre-eminent style.
One of the reasons Test cricket may have lost some popularity over the past decade was the fact that Australia dominated so comprehensively. Since the days of Mark Taylor's captaincy they have been underdogs as often as the Harlem Globetrotters. That they flew into South Africa a fortnight ago without being favourites was a major shift in the game's foundations.
That they won the opening Test with one of their least experienced teams in 20 years is good for cricket. Fierce and even competition between the world's top teams can only be positive for the game. The challenge for Australia's young squad now is to prove that their display was not a one-off.