Hitting out … Usman Khawaja was in good touch for the Chairman's XI against Sri Lanka on Thursday, making a solid 56, but it came too late to boost his chances of a Test berth. Photo: Getty Images
RICKY PONTING has endorsed the selection of Phillip Hughes as his Test replacement as it emerged the 24-year-old was shielded from an international return against top-ranked South Africa.
A year after playing the most recent of his 17 Tests, in Hobart, Hughes was officially welcomed back to the fold for Australia's first Test against Sri Lanka at the same ground. The latest vacancy in Michael Clarke's line-up was opened by the retirement of Ponting, who announced before the deciding Test against the Proteas at the WACA Ground it would be his final one, and paves the way for Hughes to feature in next year's Ashes.
''It's great for Phil,'' Ponting said on Thursday. ''He's made a lot of changes in his life and the stuff he's done since moving to Adelaide has been really good. He's playing really well, so hopefully he grabs the opportunity with both hands.
''I'm not sure which way I would've gone. Rob Quiney played a couple of Tests a couple of games ago, so he's going to feel a little bit disappointed. But that just goes to show that when you're playing cricket for Australia you have to make the most of the chances you get. Phil's been around and played well for Australia before, so I'm pretty sure he'll do that again now that he's got another shot.''
The news was not as bright for Quiney. The 30-year-old Victorian had been enlisted for Tests against South Africa in Brisbane and Adelaide, in the absence of an injured Shane Watson, and made only nine runs in three innings.
National selector John Inverarity revealed Hughes had essentially been protected from facing the Proteas' formidable attack, with a recall against the less imposing Sri Lankans considered a more appropriate setting to re-establish himself.
''We did feel that throwing [Hughes] into a Test against the world No.1 with their attack was probably not the ideal set of circumstances for him and we feel the time now is absolutely right for him,'' Inverarity said. ''He's very much a man of the future.''
Hughes, an opener, is likely to bat at No.3, with Watson shifting down to Ponting's position at No.4 in Hobart. However, the order is the domain of captain Clarke and coach Mickey Arthur and they have not finally decided on who will bat where. A complication is that Australia's top six includes four openers - David Warner, Ed Cowan, Hughes and Watson, who has enjoyed most success in Tests at the top of the order.
''In the end, that is up to Michael Clarke having a discussion with some of his players, and Mickey Arthur to finally decide,'' Inverarity said. ''But Shane Watson opening, batting No.3, batting No.4, perhaps batting No.6 - they're all options for him.''
Hughes, who spent an off-season in county cricket and left NSW since being dropped last December, was delighted to be told on Thursday he was back in the Australian side.
''It is actually really special this time,'' Hughes said. ''The sacrifices that I have made in the last 12 months have been quite big. I knew I had to do them … so to me, I can go in there with a fresh mind.
''To move away from my family and my close friends in Sydney, and to go to Worcestershire for a season and now to come to South Australia, it has been a huge change for me.''
The former wonder boy, who made his debut at 20 and scored twin hundreds in his second Test, is careful to somewhat temper expectations. ''There is no one out there that can replace Ricky Ponting,'' he said.