Australia's sensational seven-run loss to New Zealand at Bellerive Oval on Monday was the first Test defeat for new chairman of selectors John Inverarity and new team coach Mickey Arthur. Signs are that there will be more losses against India. Change is coming, but it is neither quick nor easy.
Since Australia's pummelling in the Ashes last summer they've played seven Test matches - a three Test series against Sri Lanka, and two "two-offs" against South Africa and New Zealand. Australia has won three - one against each opponent. It has lost two - one each to South Africa and New Zealand, both featuring horrific batting collapses. Two in Sri Lanka were drawn - one (Pallekele) where Australia was on top, the other batted out on the Colombo SSC highway.
Michael Clarke's record as Australian Test captain, commencing from the Sydney Test against England, currently stands at 3 wins 3 losses 2 draws.
The woeful showing against England in 2010-11 has seen some necessary rolling of heads. Firstly Ponting's as captain, then following the ensuing Argus Review, those of Andrew Hilditch, Greg Chappell and Tim Nielsen. Whatever the dividends of the fresh outlook of Pat Howard, Inverarity, Arthur and Clarke, Australia still faces some major hurdles for the series against India and beyond: an alarming injury rate, especially among its pace bowlers, and some much-loved batsmen past their use-by date.
From the eleven that played both Tests against New Zealand only five can consider their places secure for the Boxing (St Stephen's?) Day Test against India: Clarke, Warner, Pattinson, Siddle and Lyon. It seems amazing that David Warner has a safe spot in the Test eleven right now but he is justifying it. Just who goes from the remaining six (Hughes, Khawaja, Ponting, Hussey, Haddin, Starc) depends quite a bit on the medical reports of others.
Phil Hughes, he of so much promise but with that dreadful weakness outside, ct Guptill b Martin four times out of four, has no place in the team to play at the MCG. Usman Khawaja, as good as his temperament is, certainly is not ready to be regarded as a first choice Australian number three or even four. If, as seems likely, Shaun Marsh is not ready for Boxing Day, he might keep his place.
Back to the middle order in a second, but Brad Haddin struggles to justify his place as a batsman-keeper these days. Unfortunately, his main rival Tim Paine has a finger injury which will keep him out of the game for the rest of the season. The heir apparent to Paine's heir apparent is Victoria's Matthew Wade. It may come down to how many changes the NSP are prepared to make before facing India.
Nathan Lyon has been a revelation in the spin role, the last actual selection success of the Hilditch era. James Pattinson has made a great start to his Test career, already outstripping the achievements of his English brother Darren. Siddle will share the new ball, but Mitchell Starc looks a bit raw at Test level at this stage. Eighteen year-old Pat Cummins made a sensational debut at Johannesburg but now has a heel injury. Ben Cutting was twelfth man in Brisbane and shows promise, but is now out with a side strain. Mitchell Johnson is gone for the season, but he was about to be dropped anyway.
Which brings up the question of Ryan Harris' fitness - will it be him at the MCG or Starc taking it up to Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Dhoni?
And so back to those two elephants in the middle of the batting order, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. Both are clearly on the decline, but both have - and have those inverted commas poised - "experience". While coach Arthur seemed to indicate to the media yesterday that both should play at the MCG, he is but one of five on the nouveau NSP. My opinion is that either Ponting and Hussey can stay in the Test team for Melbourne - but not both. I favour Ponting to continue, although there is a hint of sentiment in that view, as I really want to see Ponting and Tendulkar on the same Test ground one last time.
Hussey could be retained as an opener if Shane Watson is unfit, but I don't believe this is the time for makeshift solutions. Should Watson open or bat down the order? So long as he is not ready to bowl again I would leave him where he has been successful. Watson and Warner is not an opening Test combo I would ever have anticipated, but now I feel a quiet faith in the prospect. If Watson is unfit to play at the MCG I would bring in Ed Cowan.
There's also a chap in great form called Simon Katich. Realistically, though, that ain't gonna happen. Yet.
Australia needs an all-rounder at six, with the golden era of Mitchell Johnson at eight now behind us. South Australia's Dan Christian, twelfth man for Hobart, is clearly the selectors' anointed one, and Melbourne may well be the moment for that debut. (And I can't ignore the fact that he would become Australia's second indigenous male Test cricketer after Jason Gillespie.) Andrew McDonald appears to have dropped off the radar.
Injury news seems to be changing rapidly, but with that in mind here is my choice as at lunchtime Wednesday December 14 for the Australian First Team for Boxing Day:
1 Shane Watson (vc), 2 David Warner, 3 Shaun Marsh, 4 Michael Clarke (capt), 5 Ricky Ponting, 6 Daniel Christian, 7 Matthew Wade, 8 Peter Siddle, 9 James Pattinson, 10 Ryan Harris, 11 Nathan Lyon. 12th Usman Khawaja. On standby in case of injury: Ed Cowan and Mitchell Starc.