It was the moment that signalled the break-up of one of the most successful sporting empires in history.

In a corner of the Australian dressing room at Perth’s Waca ground sat a contented Ricky Ponting, beer in hand, reflecting on a job well done. His side had just regained the Ashes 3-0 but as the celebrations began to wind down, over walked Shane Warne uttering the words Ponting had never wanted to hear: “Can I have a chat before you leave?”

The 37-year-old leg-spinner said his captain repeated three times, “No, I’m not talking to you”, and was in a state of “shock” as they
discussed Warne’s impending retirement.

Ponting’s distress was understandable. Warne has 699 Test wickets to his name, while the man with whom he has operated in tandem so successfully, 36-year-old Glenn McGrath, has 555,
the highest number for a pace bowler.

In the 103 Tests the pair has played together they were the men Ponting turned to when a wicket needed to be plucked out of thin air. Rarely has a captain of any team had two such diverse but lethal practitioners of their bowling arts at his disposal.

With McGrath also potentially set for a Sydney swan song at the fifth and final Ashes Test, Ponting must feel like a hapless detective in an Agatha Christie novel. First there were 11, and then there were nine. After 35-year-old Damien Martyn’s mid-series flight from cricket this month, eight even.

Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden are also all 35 or over. The Australians could end up losing half the side that is unbeaten in its past 15 Tests, victorious in its past 10. Not since Australia lost Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh to retirement in 1984 has it faced such a period of transition.

Aside from devastating spells, Warne and McGrath possess exceptional control, offering Ponting the opportunity to dry up runs and then take wickets – as England discovered on the final day of the Adelaide Test.

So integral to Australian supremacy are Warne and McGrath, team coach John Buchanan, who is also set to leave after the World Cup in spring, has voiced concerns. “It was always a significant advantage to walk on to the field with Shane Warne,” said Buchanan. “From a selection point of view that will be a huge void that could take generations to fill…you have to rethink and re-look at your team and the balance and the way you want to play the game.”

In short, when McGrath and Warne go, will Australia still be able to pick just four specialist bowlers? The luxury tactic of batting first, sending out six batsmen to rack up a huge score before releasing Warne on to a wearing pitch in the final innings will soon be confined to DVDs.

Australia’s goose is far from cooked, however. The belated emergence of Stuart Clark and Mike Hussey
in this series bodes well.

Clark could lead
Australia’s attack for the next five years. The 31-year-old seamer has taken more wickets than anyone else so far in the series with an immaculate off-stump line – 16 dismissals at an average of 18.43. Originally dubbed a “poor man’s McGrath”,
he could yet out-bowl the prototype.

Hussey, 31, has become the most prized wicket after his captain’s and is top scorer so far this series for either side with 415 runs at an average of 138.33. Dubbed “Mr Cricket” – supposedly by Andrew Flintoff for wanting to play a league game in a Lancashire tempest – Hussey is a steadfast left-handed accumulator. He would be a fine future leader, though he is close in age to Ponting.

Beyond these two players, the picture is less clear for Australia – they have no Test cricket for 11 months after this series for starters.

In terms of providing balance for the selectors, all-rounder Shane Watson will need to rediscover his fitness and prove his bowling and batting are Test class.

Leg-spinner Stuart MacGill, 35, has 198 Test wickets to his name and could step into the breach until a successor for Warne is groomed. The legendary spinner has tipped the likes of Cameron White, Nathan Hauritz, Cullen Bailey and Beau Casson. All are in their 20s. Casson is seen as the pick of the bunch for his ability to bowl a Chinaman and extract turn from almost any surface. More worrying for Australia’s rivals is that Warne hopes to launch his own spin-bowling academy.

As for the batting, if
Australia lose Langer and Hayden before the Ashes series of 2009, players are waiting in the wings. Chris Rogers, 29, scored 219 against Australia in 2005 for Leicestershire and Phil Jaques, 27, is rated by Steve Waugh. Wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, 29, has understudied effectively for Gilchrist.

Left-arm quick bowler Mitchell Johnson impressed at the ICC Champions Trophy this year. The tall Ben Hilfenhaus and the slingy Shaun Tait offer further future seam options.

Yet before the old order fades, the finely grooved action of McGrath and the pure theatre of Warne taking his 700th wicket are on display from December 26 in the fourth Test. Their imminent departures have revived a dead rubber, but they are as sad as they are seismic for cricket.

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