Clarke sounds out Ponting warning
Without the burden of captaincy, the pressures of leading the world's best one-day team and the complications that come with being the man in charge, Ricky Ponting is a freer man. According to new Australia captain, Michael Clarke, he is also a fiercer one.
"I have a feeling he is on the brink of having one of the best series of his career," Clarke said. "Watching him in the nets, I wouldn't be surprised if he gets Man of the Series in the one-dayers and is our leading run-scorer in the Tests."
Such a vote of confidence comes after Ponting finished as the second-highest run-scorer for Australia in their ODI series against Sri Lanka in August and scored 87 for Tasmania against Western Australia last week. To have a senior player in good nick will serve Clarke, who is still in his early days as captain, in good stead. "Ricky has been a big help to me throughout my career," he said. "He is a wonderful guy, very experienced and talented, still has a lot to offer in Australian cricket in both ODIs and Tests."
After leading Australia to victories in Bangladesh and the ODI and Test contests in Sri Lanka, Clarke faces arguably the biggest challenge of his leadership so far, in South Africa. Apart from the famous rivalry between the two countries, there are rankings at stake in both formats and Clarke recognises that it will be a significant test of his leadership.
"It's always great when you get the chance to play against tough opposition. I have enjoyed every challenge I have had against them," Clark said. "They are a very strong, experienced team. They've got some youngsters as well, who haven't played much cricket which is pretty similar to our team."
Australia's youth have burst onto the scene, with teenage paceman Pat Cummins stealing the headlines after his performances in the two T20s. He was fast-tracked into their Test squad and many feel he is on the brink of something special. Clarke was measured in his praise of Cummins, compared to T20 captain Cameron White and New South Wales team-mate Shane Watson, but recognised his potential. "He is very exciting young prospect, he can bowl fast, he can move the ball and for a youngster he has great knowledge of fast bowling."
He was equally conservative about the other prospects, James Pattinson and Mitchell Marsh, and made it clear that they will have to graft to make their names. "I'm excited to see the guys get an opportunity to stake their claim and now they have got hold of their chance and are playing for Australia."
It's in the fast-bowling department that Australia have sprouted talent and Clarke said that has more to do with the conditions in South Africa than the need to look for replacements for the likes of Brett Lee. "We're just trying to pick the right combination for where we are playing. Having two spinners and four quicks is the right mix, now we are just trying to pick the best 11 on the day."
Clarke said Australia will put their best foot forward, particularly because have their status as the No. 1 ranked ODI team in mind and want to hold on to it. "It's certainly something that we are aware of and very proud of. Hopefully we can continue playing good cricket and stay on top." South Africa could close that gap to a fraction if they win all three matches in the series. Hashim Amla said the team has not even thought about that because "they have bigger things to worry about."
Amla, himself, forms one of the sub-plots of the series, which was initially supposed to be a contest of the young leaders between AB de Villiers and Clarke. He said he is "enjoying it although it is taking some getting used to." While Clarke did not give an appraisal of Amla's leadership, he said the stand-in skipper may be under some strain. "I think it's more of a concern that they haven't got AB. He is a very good player. They'll certainly miss him and there'll be a little bit of extra pressure on Hashim's shoulders."
The return of Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn had Amla beaming as he welcomed back "familiar personnel" but the resumption of a format of the game in which has excelled seemed to please Amla more. Amla had only played three T20s for South Africa before captaining in the previous two and was dismissed cheaply both times. Now, he returns to the fifty-over game, where he is the world's top ranked batsmen and it seems he enjoyed the extra time it allows. "It will give us more time to assess and it's not just a case of one the day someone makes a big impact," he said.
Amla also hoped the change in format would result in a change in fortune for his opening partner Graeme Smith, who was in miserable touch in the T20s, after making his return from injury. "There is a lot more time to build innings so hopefully he will do well."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent