The 'Ponting Age' has truly begun

The headwear gave them away. Ricky Ponting and Phillip Hughes sat together after Australia's win in Durban and the most obvious sign of the generational gap that divides them was the state of their baggy green caps. Ponting's was battered and faded, a victim of sweat-drenched toil and booze-soaked celebrations from 130 largely successful Tests. Ponting's was baggier but Hughes' was, appropriately, greener.

Whereas Hughes' cap - one of ten handed out over the past year - has seen only the eastern half of South Africa during the past two weeks, Ponting's has travelled the world for nearly 14 seasons. It has been sprayed with so much beer that it must smell like a bar-room dishcloth. Most of those celebrations came with a familiar group of faces: Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn, to name just a few.

It was a squad that Ponting inherited from Steve Waugh who, in turn, had accepted it from Mark Taylor and, before him, Allan Border. It was a group that struck fear into the hearts of those who faced it and forged the greatest cricketing dynasty Australia has known. It was a squad that, over the past few years, eroded steadily with each retirement.

The departures of so many luminaries left Ponting with the youngest and most inexperienced side he has ever led. Ponting has captained Australia for five years but only now, with a new generation at his command, does he have the chance to create his own distinct legacy for the next captain. The "Ponting Age" has truly begun.

The loss to South Africa in Australia this season was the end of an era. Australia had not been defeated in a home series for 16 years. Through most of that period they were unquestionably the world's best side. The beginning of the end of that era came in the 2006-07 Ashes when Warne, McGrath, Langer and Martyn all retired. Gilchrist departed a year later. The loss of Hayden this summer left Ponting as the only link to the full stretch of Australia's glory days.

It has forced a change in Ponting's leadership style. Where once he was criticised for captaincy by consensus, turning to the likes of Warne, Gilchrist and Hayden for advice, now he is demonstrably in charge in every aspect of Australia's on-field performances. There are fewer committee meetings on the ground. Ponting directs traffic with the confidence of a policeman.

His authority extends beyond the field. During the net sessions in the lead-up to the Kingsmead Test it was notable that Ponting stood in the umpire's position and watched every one of his new bowlers and batsmen with an analytical eye, handing out advice when required and presumably confirming in his mind who he wanted in the side.

Those decisions haven't been as easy of late. During the glory days of what is sometimes known as the Warne-McGrath era, the team picked itself. All the selectors had to do was cut and paste the squad from the last match and if there was an injury, throw in the man who had been next in line. Now things are far less simple.

Phillip Hughes, Marcus North, Ben Hilfenhaus and Andrew McDonald are not names that most observers would have expected 12 months ago to be in the Australian Test side. It has meant an enormous challenge for Ponting.

"It's certainly a unique phase in my career as a captain," Ponting said. "To have a number of debutants, and a number of inexperienced guys in the side, it's something I haven't been accustomed to in the majority of my career as a captain. I've said right from the start, that when these challenges come up and this transitional phase first started, I always looked at as being one of the most exciting little phases of my career.

"Being the captain of the side when I was, when we were so dominant, Test series and Test matches seemed to roll into one another. We were winning everything that came along and we were expected to win everything that came along. If you look at our group of players [now] … a lot of people around the world didn't think that this was achievable."

It has helped that Australia entered this match with an unchanged side for the first time in 16 Tests. Following the controversial home series against India in early 2008, the squad rarely looked settled throughout the remainder of the year. Now Ponting is in charge of a group of men who have been told their roles and are keen enough and capable enough to perform to specifications.

Players like Hughes, Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and Doug Bollinger could have ten-year careers ahead of them. They are without question benefiting from starting their careers under a leader who believes in them and is willing to persist with them. Five years into his captaincy, Ponting is finally starting to leave his own unique mark on the Australian team.