In the aftermath of Australia’s galling loss to New Zealand in Hobart, knee-jerk reactions emphasised the need for change, for the axe to be swung. But now, with the dust settled and a four-Test series against India beginning on Boxing Day, a familiar mood has returned, accompanied by the sense of resignation that has shackled this current Australian side to its deepening mediocrity: sure, the incumbents aren’t performing, but is there really anyone better?

Former captain Ricky Ponting’s spot is the most obvious point of conjecture and, given his output over the past three years, it’s easy to see why. Since the start of 2009, Ponting has scored 1959 runs at an average of 35. More recently, that number dives further – this year alone, his average is down to 26. These are the numbers of a once-great batsman in terminal decline. This week, he turned 37 and, briefly, after the loss to New Zealand, after the shameful second-innings collapse that scuttled Australia’s pursuit of an eminently gettable target, some scribes and former players were emboldened to suggest Ponting’s time was up – that it was time to throw the pendulum toward youth, toward players who, though unproven at Test level, are the future.

In the interim, though, the claims of the prospective replacements have been weighed and, according to three former players canvassed by Australia’s Fairfax papers, Ponting should bat on.

“I think Ponting should definitely stay because he gives so much to the side. OK, he’s not in the best of touch with the bat, but he’s such a bloody good fielder and he’s a terrific mentor for the young blokes,” former Test spinner Ashley Mallett said of the under-pressure former skipper. “I’d be steady as she goes. India is a terrific batting side, and we’ve got to have as much experience as possible to confront it. We’ve got a young attack, and I think we’ve got to retain our experienced batsmen.”

Former fast bowler and selector Merv Hughes was equally convinced Ponting remained part of Australia’s best side, echoing Mallett’s view that, even if Ponting’s place isn’t justified by weight of runs, his fielding makes up for it.

“Two of Ponting’s past five innings he has scored over 50 – he set up a game in Johannesburg for us and got runs in Brisbane,” Hughes said. “He’s still catching them in the slips. He’s still the best fielder. He’s working hard at training and he’s done enough in the past three Test matches to deserve another go.”

Concern about Ponting’s form is magnified by the fact that Mike Hussey, 36, has also been short of runs recently. With Australia struggling to win matches, how long can two ageing batsmen be carried in a combustible middle order?

In Hussey’s defence, he has scored more runs than any other Australian batsman since the start of last year’s Ashes – he was one of the few players to emerge from that series with his reputation intact and also scored heavily in Sri Lanka earlier this year. Former Test batsman Dean Jones, though, would be happy to axe Hussey to shield Ponting.

“Hussey goes because it’s either him or Punter, and seniority wins,” Jones said, in a bizarrely counter-intuitive assessment. “Cricket Australia made the call that the criteria was to pick the teams that will play in the 2013 Ashes and the 2015 World Cup. I’ve got the feeling Ponting still wants both of those. He’ll make a hundred somewhere; he’s too good a player. ”

Judging by the votes of confidence offered by these former players, one might be forgiven for thinking Ponting is merely coming off a couple of lean series. But remember the numbers – during the past three years, he’s averaged 35 and this year he’s averaged 26. It makes former paceman Geoff Lawson’s dissenting view seem conspicuously clear-eyed.

“Hussey stays, but he is on a short leash,” Lawson said. “Ponting isn’t there. I wouldn’t even give it a second thought. He is just clogging up the Australian team at the moment and has been for some time. It’s pretty obvious stuff, if people aren’t performing, they have to move on. Ponting has had his chance to make a glorious exit at Bellerive and announce his retirement, but he didn’t.”

There are mitigating factors. The first is the injury to Shaun Marsh, Ponting’s nominal replacement at first-drop, who will be sidelined with a bad back. If Marsh was fit, the selectors would be compelled, as if dragged toward a fork in the road, to drop one of Ponting, Hussey and 24-year-old Usman Khawaja. But if Marsh is unready to be shoehorned back into the side, there is no hard choice to be made.

Still, the preference for the status quo jars with the performance of recent debutants – James Pattinson, David Warner, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon have all acquitted themselves well, while Trent Copeland and Usman Khawaja have both shown promise. But, when it comes to the veteran batsmen, Australia appear unwilling to either shit or get off the pot.

No Australian cricket fan wants to see Ponting bow out a diminished figure – they long to believe he has one more scintillating innings, one more dominant series. Ponting has a proud record at the MCG – maybe on Boxing Day, he will turn back the clock and notch his first Test century since January 2010, 31 innings ago. But, more likely, Australia will receive yet another stinging reminder of how far they have fallen from the top of the tree. And the calls for change will ring out all over again.

Words: Tom Sturrock