South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Cape Town November 8, 2011

Biggest challenge yet for Clarke

On Australia's last tour of South Africa, Ricky Ponting seemed to have started building a successful team. Now it's Michael Clarke's turn.

It was in South Africa nearly three years ago that Ricky Ponting began to build a side that seemed like it would carry Australia into a new era. Four debutants played in the series, which Australia won 2-1, and after some shaky periods following the retirements of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, things appeared to be back on track.

They even secured the Test mace, which ICC staff had feverishly polished as it toured the country, to be claimed by the side that won the series and took No.1 spot. Within six months, Australia had lost the Ashes. The downhill slide was briefly arrested with wins over West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand, but last year's calamitous Ashes campaign was the end for Ponting.

Of the squad that visited South Africa in early 2009, the group that showed so much promise, Marcus North, Ben Hilfenhaus and Simon Katich are now out of the picture. Others, like Bryce McGain and Andrew McDonald, are long gone and forgotten. Now the time has come for Michael Clarke to build his own team. It started with success in Sri Lanka and will continue with a preposterously short two-Test series in South Africa.

Clarke is confident leading in to this series. He is yet to lose a Test or one-day series as captain and his leadership is assured, attacking and appropriate. There is little awkwardness caused by Ponting's continued presence in the squad. This week the former leader was floating around the nets offering advice when asked.

He delivered throwdowns to Shane Watson at training on Monday, suggesting the opener was a few inches short when stepping out to drive. But Ponting is comfortable in whatever roles, on or off the field, Clarke asks him to perform, including his move down to No.4. This is unquestionably Clarke's team; he is captain, selector and motivator.

Two of his most important foundations for the future could be the No.3 Shaun Marsh and the teenage fast bowler Pat Cummins. Marsh, whose career is only two Tests old, is already one of the most important men in the team. Cummins is unlikely to play at Newlands in the first Test, starting on Wednesday, but by travelling with the squad he is gaining valuable experience.

The offspinner Nathan Lyon can enhance his reputation, which was sealed with a wicket with the first ball of his Test career and five for the innings in Sri Lanka. The conditions at Newlands will assist him, but it is also the venue that destroyed any hope McGain had of playing Test cricket again, when he took 0 for 149 on debut there.

But all is not lost from the class of 2009. Mitchell Johnson and Phillip Hughes starred in that series and while both have been dropped since, they now loom as critical men in Clarke's future planning. Johnson especially holds the key to his captain's fortunes. He thrived in South Africa last time, but showed his frustrating inconsistency with a horror Ashes tour a few months later.

"I think him and Hughesy are two guys who are dying for this Test series to start, knowing how successful they were last time we were here," Clarke said. "Every time I take the field I look forward to captaining someone like Mitch because he's a match-winner. He's going to have days when he's going to get hit around the park, but he's going to have other days where he's going to win the game on his own.

"I've made it quite clear to Mitch how I feel. He's a vital member of this team. If he continues to work the way he's working I see no reason why he won't continue to have success. His record is as good as anyone's for the amount of Test matches that he's played. He's swinging the ball back in to the right-handers, he's bowling at good pace."

Johnson warmed up for Wednesday's Newlands Test with nine wickets in the tour match in Potchefstroom. The pitch offered pace and bounce, but his wickets came largely through full, fast, swinging deliveries that had batsmen bowled, lbw or caught behind the wicket. It is the same sort of bowling Australia's batsmen can expect to face against Dale Steyn.

The similarities between the two sides, who each play hard, aggressive cricket, led to an enormously entertaining pair of tours three years ago. If the six Tests were taken as a whole, the result was a fitting 3-3 tie. While Australia have slid to No.5 on the Test rankings and are climbing back up, reaching No.4 after beating Sri Lanka, South Africa have remained steady in second position.

"Both teams have a lot of similarities," Clarke said. "They've got good fast bowlers, who aren't afraid to stick it up the batsmen. And they've got batters who don't really like sitting around batting all day for not many runs. Generally when we play South Africa, I think you see really good attacking, positive cricket from both sides. Generally that's why there's a result every time we play."

A two-Test series offers little scope for themes to develop or for contests to bubble away between individuals. But it does offer the chance for a result. And after Clarke led Australia to ODI series wins against Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa, and a Test victory against Sri Lanka, this is his toughest challenge yet.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo