Australia face short-term pain for Ashes success - Ponting

Australia's cricketers have got plenty on their plates already, after slumping to an innings defeat in the second Test against South Africa in Hobart - which condemned them to only their fifth home series loss since 1988. But, as is the way in the inexorable cycle of the oldest rivalry in the game, attention is already beginning to drift 12 months into the future - to November 2017, when England travel once again to defend the Ashes Down Under.

Forewarned is forearmed where long-range Ashes projections are concerned. After all, it was at roughly this stage of the cycle four years ago that Australia's juggernaut last began to slide off the road. Another home series loss to South Africa was followed, in the spring, by their calamitous 4-0 whitewash in India, and there were few signs of a revival when Michael Clarke's men were muscled out of the big moments of the 2013 series in England.

But then, back on home soil and reeking of vengeance, Australia seized a violent 5-0 whitewash, with the twin forces of nature, Mitchell Johnson and David Warner, storming to the fore. It just goes to show, a year is a long time in cricket, particularly if - as the former Australia captain, Ricky Ponting, has implored - his fellow countrymen use their current problems as a cue to get their act together before it is too late.

"I'd like to think they've got one eye on the Ashes already, in what is going to be a very tough series," says Ponting, who will be commentating on the series for BT Sport next year. "If you look at England's team and Australia's team right now, you'd probably say that England's team is more settled - Kevin Pietersen was calling for nine changes after the Perth Test - but it'll be interesting to see who starts favourites when the Ashes come around."

Michael Vaughan, Ponting's opposing captain in the 2005 Ashes, has been sitting alongside him in the BT Sport studios watching Australia's fortunes over the past few weeks - including their capitulation from a dominant position at Perth, and their collapse to 85 all out in the first innings at Hobart - and he is unequivocal in his current assessment of the two teams' merits.

"My scouting report is that England have got nothing to fear," Vaughan says. "But with Australia you know that, 12 months down the line, they can't be any worse than this. I look at their batting line-up and it hasn't improved at all since 2015. As soon as the ball moves laterally, they've got hard hands technically. One or two are strong but the rest are very vulnerable, but in 12 months' time, I'm sure they'll be much better."

Whether Australia's projected improvement can atone for their current weaknesses, only time will tell. But both former captains are in agreement that Australia's chopping and changing must stop if they are to give their players a chance of being ready for the most scrutinised contest in the Test calendar.

The number of players that Australia have churned through in recent times is startling - 23 in the 16 Tests since Steven Smith inherited the captaincy from Michael Clarke. That may be some way short of England's dark days in the 1989 and 1993 Ashes when they ploughed through 29 and 24 players respectively, but it is distinctly un-Australian in approach nonetheless. By way of contrast, Ponting and his precedessor, Steve Waugh, used just 58 players between them in a combined total of 134 matches in charge.

"We've had such a bad run with injuries," Ponting says in mitigation. "I know that sounds like a bit of an excuse, but we've lost [Peter] Siddle, [James] Pattinson, [Pat] Cummins, [Nathan] Coulter Nile … even Shaun Marsh broke a finger last week. A lot of the changes have been forced, but then there was the situation in Sri Lanka, where [Usman] Khawaja and [Joe] Burns were dropped after two Tests, then picked again straightaway. It seems they are forever trying to find a better formula."

Defeat in next week's third Test at Adelaide would be Australia's sixth in a row - they've only twice lost that many on the bounce since the start of the 20th Century - and while their current form brings with it some inevitable pressure on Smith's captaincy, Ponting doesn't seriously believe there are any other candidates to lead Australia into next winter's Ashes. It's the identity of the team-mates that is the biggest single issue.

"I don't think the wolves are circling," Ponting says. "Up until the start of the Sri Lanka series, he'd won seven out of 11 Tests and not lost a game. There's no doubt in my mind that Steve Smith is the right man for the job.

"But they are throwing things around to find the right combination from series to series. If we take a view for the Ashes, and prioritise that, then let's start picking guys that we think, with 12 months' cricket under their belt, might be ready for that series. It might mean a little bit of pain along the way, but they are getting that at the moment anyway."

The bigger captaincy question mark, in fact, hovers over the more settled of the two Ashes teams. While Alastair Cook would surely love to exact revenge for England's humiliation in the 2013-14 campaign, he hinted recently that the time might be nigh for him to take a step back into the ranks.

With a draining tour of India currently underway, followed by a natural seven-month break from Test cricket as England switch to one-day cricket ahead of the Champions Trophy in June, it is not out of the question that Cook's heir apparent, Joe Root, could be at the helm for South Africa's tour of England in July.

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"Alastair has had this question thrown at him for the last seven series," says Vaughan. "Two years ago [after losing to Sri Lanka in 2014], I thought he was gone, but he keeps springing up. But I do think he's the type of character who could fit back into the team. I've played with many captains who couldn't cope with having someone else direct them. I can't think of a better person to be that father figure in the corner, standing at first slip, giving the new captain plenty of advice."

And if there is any doubt about Cook's hunger to carry on in the role, then Ponting believes that the handover should come sooner rather than later.

"The longer that Joe Root, if he is to be the captain, can have leading into the next Ashes series would be absolutely beneficial," he says. "For all the obvious reasons, everything that comes around in an Ashes series - whether it's the pressure on the players or in the media - everything is magnified ten times on every other Test series. You don't want to have someone going into an Ashes series who isn't ready for everything that comes with it.

"We all look forward to that time when you don't have that extra responsibility," Ponting adds. "The thing with the captaincy is, it does really wear you down because you almost have to find a way to reinvent yourself as a leader every series. England have maintained a solid group for a long time, so your messaging to those players - finding a way to make it new and fresh and different - gets harder and harder by the series, and therefore by the year. That might be the stage that he is at."

That apparent desire for a quieter life does not, however, mean that Cook is remotely close to calling time on a remarkable career in which he has played in 133 consecutive Tests since 2006, and last week scored his 30th Test century to go past the tally of the great Sir Donald Bradman.

"He's remarkable," says Vaughan. "When you look at what he's gone through, for three-quarters of Alastair's career, batting has been very difficult. He's had to scrap for every one of his 10,000 runs, and there have been periods of play when he's looked like he's batting with a toothpick, but he's eked every ounce of runs out of his ability.

"He's not just great but he's so strong mentally. He's worked out the opposition and kept to a simple method, and the three or four shots he does have, he sticks to them. He never goes out of his bubble. He has his sheep on the [family] farm that chill him out and get him out of the pressure zone, and he goes back and bats every other week. It's a remarkable story."

A return to the ranks ahead of a return to the scene of his most prolific series - the 2010-11 Ashes, in which he made 766 runs to set up a historic 3-1 victory - could be, in Vaughan's opinion, the start of a prolific final chapter to a record-breaking career, and the chance to pass his experience onto his opening partner, Haseeb Hameed, a player who looked, in making 82 on debut in Rajkot last week, accomplished beyond his 19 years.

"He came into the side with no game for three weeks, but it just proves the mental side is key," says Vaughan. "He's got a mechanism in his mind that makes him a good player. He's 19, he's going to make mistakes, but he's obsessed with the game and he'll learn quickly. He looks controlled against the seamers, very controlled against spin, and he has that cheeky chappy character. He'll be just fine.

"They had to go with a kid," says Vaughan, after nine inconclusive attempts to find a long-term successor to Cook's former opening partner, Andrew Strauss. "All our great players start as kids. Gower, Cook, Botham, Anderson, Broad, Flintoff … Compton was 19. If you want to be a great player you start young, because you don't have time to become a great player if you start at 24-25.

"And if Cook has three years left, if he can have three years' opening with Haseeb Hameed for 30-40 Tests before retiring, Haseeb can take over Alastair's mantle. It will give Alastair a spring in his step to know he is guiding a young lad through the ranks."

All things being equal, Hameed and Cook will have had 12 Tests in harness by the time the 2017-18 Ashes gets get underway, and by then, the strength of Australia's challenge should be far more apparent. In particular, nobody foresaw quite how savage their pace attack would turn out to be on England's last visit in 2013-14, and though the gaps in their ranks have been telling against South Africa, Ponting is adamant that a potent line-up is not so far away.

"Australia have two very good up-and-coming fast bowlers in [Josh] Hazlewood and [Mitchell] Starc, and hopefully by then they'll have Pattinson and Cummins back and fit. When you start talking about those four guys, suddenly the Australia attack looks pretty formidable.

"England have been a bit like Australia in recent months," he adds. "They've had some serious batting collapses when the ball has moved or turned. And that's what makes the next Ashes so intriguing. Who is going to handle the conditions better, who will bowl the best?

"The one thing about England's guys is they've been there and done it before. [Stuart] Broad and [Jimmy] Anderson continue to get the job done more often than not. But you'd like to think that the Australian players will have a better handle on the conditions than the English."

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