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Nov 11, 2008

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Whereas a Test series starting against New Zealand in Brisbane – in November – would normally attract only marginally more interest than that accorded last night’s harness meeting at Globe Derby, the upcoming matches against the Kiwis will take on a special significance in light of what has transpired in India over the past month or two.

Having had a bust-up with his leading fast bowler Brett Lee, lost the Indian series 2-0, been forced to hand back the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, and had former Australian players queueing up to pillory his captaincy abilities, Ricky Ponting must now dust himself off and start again, against New Zealand on Thursday week.

It cannot be a task he is relishing. After enduring the most difficult campaign in modern cricket – playing India in India – Ponting, and coach Tim Nielsen, now have to take stock, tend to their wounds and quieten the baying pack of critics.

They then have to set about reshaping and reenergising their squad before playing almost 10 months of solid cricket: two Tests v NZ, three v South Africa at home, three v South Africa away (plus, of course, the obligatory ODIs and Twenty20 matches – 20 in total). After a break in May, they then travel to London for the Twenty20 World Cup, after which the real challenge begins: the five-Test Ashes tour of England from late June until late September.

It shapes as the most telling period for Australian cricket since Kim Hughes tearfully resigned the captaincy in January 1985, handing over the reins to a reluctant Allan Border. Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Brett Lee, and Stuart Clark are close to the end of their international careers; Shaun Marsh, Beau Casson, David Hussey and Ben Hilfenhaus, among others, are ready to begin theirs.

That critical 10 months for Ponting, Nielsen and co starts next week at the Gabba. Then we should gets some clues about the future make-up of the Australian team, and answers to the following key questions: 

– Where to from here for Test cricket? Already under siege from the Twenty20 format, the five-day game took another hit in India when negative tactics, of the sort that blighted the game 30 and 40 years ago, came to the fore. It will be fascinating to see what sort of crowds turn up to Brisbane and Adelaide for the NZ Tests. And then what the Twenty20 matches draw later in the summer. I’m tipping the comparison – in both attendances and TV ratings – won’t make for pretty reading for Cricket Australia.

– Andrew Symonds: will he be welcomed back into the fold for the New Zealand series? If so, Cameron White’s Test career will be abruptly cut short. (The exciting Shaun Marsh has a gowing number of supporters and the selectors will find ways to give the WA all-rounder as much international exposure as possible this summer.)

– Stuart Clark: after bursting on to the Test scene and taking up the McGrath mantle with gusto, the 33-year-old New South Wales trundler suddenly looks vulnerable. Shaun Tait, Peter Siddle, Doug Bollinger, Hilfenhaus and others wait in the wings.

– Ditto Brett Lee.

– Matthew Hayden: he’s signalled his desire to bat on but the selectors will be pondering whether they really want to take the 37-year-old on such an important Ashes tour? Phil Jacques, who has made a power of runs for Northants and Yorkshire in the past, will be pressing hard for an opener’s berth. 

– Who will be our next frontline, and long-term, spinner? Jason Krejza can have done little more in an outstanding Test debut but, away from the dusty crumblers of Nagpur, is he the man to shoulder the load over the next 12 months?

All will be revealed over the coming months, starting next Thursday in Brisbane.