Ponting, Haddin buy themselves time
Three Australians entered the Johannesburg Test with their credits running out. Over 16 years in the side, Ricky Ponting had built up a significant portfolio of blue-chip innings. His value was high but for nearly two years, his yields had plummeted. Brad Haddin's stocks had also taken a dive. After their match-winning half-centuries in Johannesburg, both men flew back to Australia having at least bought themselves time.
Ponting and Haddin are now both expected for the first Test of the home summer, against New Zealand at the Gabba starting on December 1. The situation is not so clear for Mitchell Johnson, who also played a key role with the bat in Australia's chase of 310, the highest fourth-innings total to win a Wanderers Test, but whose primary worth in Australia's team should be with the ball.
Australia's new selection panel - John Inverarity, Rod Marsh, Andy Bichel, the coach Mickey Arthur and the captain Michael Clarke - will meet in Brisbane during this week's Australia A game for their first meeting as a group. Their initial task will be to choose a squad for the New Zealand series, and matters are clouded by injuries to three key players: Shane Watson, Shaun Marsh and Ryan Harris.
Ponting scored 62 and Haddin made 55 in the win at the Wanderers. Their contributions were critical. But the Man of the Match was the 18-year-old debutant Pat Cummins, who stunned viewers all around the world with his seven wickets and by scoring the match-winning runs. His maturity was incredible.
Combined with Marsh's hundred on debut in Sri Lanka, it has highlighted that some of the untried talent that is out there in Australian cricket could be the spark the team needs. Cummins certainly was in Johannesburg. Ben Cutting, James Pattinson, Matthew Wade, David Warner - there are other untested young players around the country just waiting for that same opportunity.
But after the win, Clarke was effusive about the performance of the under-pressure players, especially Ponting. While the runs were not coming for Ponting earlier in the series - his 62 was his first Test half-century since the opening match of the Ashes last year - he had been working hard in the nets to help other players, giving throwdowns to the young batsmen and offering words of advice, and Clarke said that influence was vital.
"I hope they proved themselves once again to you guys and to the people that do doubt them, they don't need to prove anything to anybody in that change-room and they certainly don't need to prove anything to me," Clarke said. "Ricky, 39 Test hundreds and the best batting statistics apart from Bradman as an Australian player, if that doesn't prove something, I don't know what does.
"[He has a good] work ethic, what he gives to the team off the field. I've made it clear that Ricky Ponting has been a large part of the last bit of success we've had in Sri Lanka and here and I'd love to see that continue. I'd love to see him making runs no doubt, like all of us [would], but he's been a great contributor to the team on and off the field."
Haddin was under severe pressure as well, particularly after his two poor shots to get out during the debacle in Cape Town. His glovework was also slammed by Ian Healy last week and, significantly, the Victoria wicketkeeper Matthew Wade - who at 23 is 11 years Haddin's junior - has been piling up runs in the domestic competitions this summer as well as last.
The scrutiny on Haddin won't disappear completely, particularly if Wade continues to score heavily and if Tim Paine makes a strong return from injury. But his 55 at the Wanderers, which featured some wonderful drives down the ground and through the off side, was exactly what Australia needed in a tricky situation.
"Brad Haddin has been under pressure no doubt," Clarke said. "I think he's been a bit disappointed himself with his batting results but he feels like he's keeping okay. Again today [day five at the Wanderers, he showed] true character, a lot of courage to be able to play his way. He could have gone into his shell and batted for his career, but he backed himself and played his way. Not too many guys can do that, the one guy who can is Adam Gilchrist and he's the greatest keeper I've played with, Hadds isn't far behind."
Johnson also backed himself with the bat, but series figures of 3 for 255 were not good enough. He changed his run-up halfway through the Johannesburg Test, a sign that he was not happy with the way he was bowling, and although he did improve against the South African tailenders, he was completely overshadowed by Cummins.
The Australians are also waiting on Johnson's fitness after he injured his foot during his innings of 40 not out; he hobbled through for his runs after hurting himself taking off for a single. Whether fit or not, Johnson is now the member of the side in the most danger of being dropped for the Gabba, after taking 35 wickets at 45.71 in the past 18 months.
"He's one of the hardest tryers you'll ever see," Clarke said of Johnson. "Yes, he needs wickets, no doubt, and he's not hiding behind that fact, but if he continues to bowl like he bowled in this Test match and he continues to keep the same attitude in regards to trying to get better, he'll keep having success. Everybody goes through it, I'd like to make 100 every time I bat but it's just not the game."
Johnson might have the backing of his captain, but it remains to be seen what value the rest of the selectors place on him. For now, Ponting and Haddin have bought themselves a reprieve. But it was only one innings. Their margins remain slim, and the selectors would be wise to keep their options open.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo