Australia’s selectors won’t know whether to be relieved or concerned following the announcement that everyone expected but, at the same time, few saw coming when it arrived.
The selection panel didn’t want to force Australia’s best batsman since Sir Donald Bradman to retire from Test cricket. They’d much rather he took the road more travelled and realise that his time had come.
While they got the desired outcome, with Ponting boldly declaring the decision was his and his alone, it would’ve come just a little too soon.
Generation next was supposed to earn the call-up on the back of a solid Sheffield Shield season. They were meant to bang the door down through pure weight of runs over a sustained period of time.
They had to prove they were back, prove they had matured and prove they either deserved a baggy green cap or had earned the right to put one back in its exalted position.
We all know that Phil Hughes, Usman Khawaja and Callum Ferguson can score plenty of runs in a short space of time, but what about their mental toughness over a long period?
Hughes and Khawaja have displayed that type of quality before. In the 2009/10 Sheffield Shield season they both averaged over 50. But since then, they’ve been in and out of the Test side, lost form before finding it again and packed up and moved interstate in search of a fresh beginning.
Those beginnings have got off to promising starts and Ponting’s decision to walk away from the Test arena has thrust them both back into contention for national selection.
Hughes moved from New South Wales to South Australia with a seemingly re-jigged technique which looks strangely likely the one that piloted him towards 17 Tests for Australia with three centuries, three half centuries and 1072 runs at an average of 34.58.
Today is his 24th birthday and his celebrations will no doubt be made all the sweeter by the fact that at a time when there is a vacancy in the Test squad, he is the leading run scorer in shield cricket.
The left-hander has one century and three half centuries for the Redbacks from five games and is averaging 51.80.
Is Hughes the man for the impending moment?
The opener could be a square peg in a round hole. Shane Watson, fitness permitting, will be batting at number three, but I don’t see any reason why Hughes couldn’t slot in at number four.
Given Australia’s penchant for top order collapses he might not even have to wait too long to face the new ball.
State teammate Callum Ferguson is also starting to rediscover the touch that, three years ago, had him earmarked as one of Australia’s best young talents.
The then-24 year old was going through the initiation process of international limited overs cricket before he slipped while fielding in the final of the 2009 Champions Trophy against New Zealand. He’d end up having a knee reconstruction and many wondered if he’d ever be the same player.
Now 28, he has started to show his class once again.
Ferguson is second, behind Hughes, on the Sheffield Shield run scorers list with 463 at 42.09. That tally includes one century and one half century. He also has two scores in the 40s that could’ve translated into bigger innings.
In his favour, he is a specialist middle order batsman. Round peg meet round hole.
But his story is the type of premature elevation the selectors were trying to avoid.
Ferguson is batting well and if his form keeps tracking this way he’ll be hard to deny, but for now it would be a gamble.
Usman Khawaja, has amassed a similar tally to Ferguson for his new state. He has one century and three half centuries for Queensland, the same as Hughes.
Khawaja was the heir to the throne not so long ago. The 25 year old has a technique that would make a training manual look sloppy.
He played six Tests and while he looked solid, his average was just 29.22 with one half century. Grass grew quicker than he scored.
He appears to have learnt the same lesson as Ed Cowan.
Cowan recently said that you could get away with not scoring for long periods of time in domestic cricket before eventually breaking out of the slumber, but in Test cricket not scoring creates pressure unlike any a cricketer has felt before. Pressure will generally translate into a contemplative walk back to the pavilion.
Khawaja has been far more aggressive in his stroke play this season and with a new found determination to punish the bad ball his selection wouldn’t be a shock.
Tasmania’s Alex Doolan is also one to keep an eye on.
He turned 27 yesterday and while the average cricket fan could trip over him in the street without realising who it was, the selectors have noticed his potential.
He was picked for Australia A against South Africa before the Test series started and made an unbeaten 161.
Add to that one century and two half centuries for a total of 409 runs at an average of 58.42 and you have a contender.
Those runs have also been accumulated from just eight innings, which is three less than Ferguson and Khawaja and two fewer than Hughes.
Then there’s Rob Quiney.
He’s the Victorian who scored the best nine in the history of any sport which uses numbers as a measurement of success.
The excitement around that nine on debut for Australia in Brisbane wasn’t his fault. He looked genuinely comfortable at the crease and bigger things were expected at the next time of asking. The only problem was that a pair in the second Test in Adelaide and a fit again Watson meant he was given his marching orders.
This is one the selectors will agonise over.
Do they shun a man with a Test average of three? Or do they continue to show the belief that was so prominent a month ago?
These aren’t lollies they’re handing out. These are baggy green caps and they should mean something.
His shield form this season has been terrible, but last season he was the leading run scorer and the season before that he was second on the list.
To say the domestic talent pool is dry isn’t fair.
Hughes, Khawaja, Ferguson, Quiney and Doolan are clearly talents.
The only problem is that the selectors have been forced to go to the well a little earlier than expected.
The road back from the well takes in a visit from Sri Lanka, a tour of India and back to back Ashes series.
This selection is crucial.