What Australia needs is a new cricket captain

A MOUNTAIN of sorts has been scaled by the England cricket team by defeating Australia by an innings and 71 runs in the second cricket Test in Adelaide. The last time Australia suffered an innings defeat at home was in 1993 when the West Indies were the victors.

The loss has put Australia in a position where it needs to win two of the remaining three Tests and ensure that England does not win any more. Judging by the cricket that has been on display in the first two Tests, this is wishful thinking of a very high order.

England owes more to its inspirational captain Andrew Strauss than anyone cares to document; when nobody notices a captain, it can confidently be said that he or she is playing the role of leader to perfection.

Much praise has been lavished on the batsmen like Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen who have scored heavily for England; the bowlers like James Anderson, Steve Finn and Graeme Swann have earned their share of praise too.

But nobody has bothered to remark that when England was up against it, facing a deficit of 221 on the first innings in the first Test, it was the captain, Strauss, who put his head down, scored a century and led the way out of the woods.

Strauss was coming off a third-ball duck in the first innings and was nearly out off the first ball of the second. That makes his achievement all the more creditable.

By the time he was out, for a well-made 110, Strauss had ensured that Australia would have to bat again; the deficit was only 33 when he was dismissed. As a true captain should, he led from the front.

On the final day of the second Test, when Swann was troubling the Australian batsmen the most, with the home team four wickets down and looking like it had a decent chance to save the game, Strauss took the decision to take the new ball.

This, despite the fact that Anderson, one of his new-ball bowlers, had bowled badly in the innings up to that point and his other new-ball bowler Stuart Broad had been ruled out of the game and the series due to a stomach muscle strain.

It was a bold move but his instincts proved him right. Finn got rid of the danger man Mike Hussey, Anderson took two wickets and when the ball was about seven overs old Swann came back into the attack and wrapped up the innings.

His counterpart, Ricky Ponting, has been a woeful failure. His field placings have been bizarre. He has backed the wrong players – Xavier Doherty is no Test-class spinner – and has played only one innings of note, an unbeaten 51. In the second Test, he made 0 and 9, hardly the contribution that a captain should make when the team has its back against a wall.

Yet Australia is looking at everything other than replacing him in order to try and do better in the remaining three Tests. There will be a few changes in the team for the third Test – Doherty will be dropped and Doug Bollinger may be sidelined as well. The same fate may befall Marcus North. Yet Ponting will remain.

Tacking the effects without dealing with the cause is common in today’s world. It is harder to cut down a tree than to remove the branches. Until Ponting is replaced, Australia will continue to plumb the depths of world cricket.

Bowlers pay the price, batsmen get off scot-free

PREDICTABLY, Australian left-arm paceman Mitchell Johnson has been dropped from the team to take on England in the second Test in Adelaide.

Johnson returned figures of 0-66 and 0-104 in the first Test, was dismissed for a duck when he batted, and also dropped a catch.

When a team fares well below its best, someone has to be made the scapegoat. Ricky Ponting wasn’t exactly the wisest of captains in the first Test but he has escaped scrutiny.

But what of Marcus North? The left-hander has been having a dreadful time with the bat – but nobody is talking about the possibility of bringing in someone to take his place.

Let’s have a look at the two players, going back all the way to the middle of the year. In two Tests against Pakistan (played in England because of the security threat in Pakistan), North made 0, 20, 16 and 0. He got 6/55 in the second innings of the first Test and did not bowl in the other three innings. Johnson returned figures of 1/31, 0/74, 1/71 and 1/41. His best effort with the bat was 30. North was marginally ahead.

Australia then played a two-Test series in India. North made 0, 10, 128 and 3. He bowled in the first Test, getting 1/39 and 0/8. Johnson got 5/64, 0/50, 3/105 and 0/42 and scored 47 in one of the Tests. I would say that Johnson was clearly ahead in this series if one matches the two players’ performances.

Johnson’s performance in the first Ashes Test has been detailed above. North got 1, did not bat in the second innings, and took one wicket in England’s second innings, the only wicket to fall. Hence, that wicket was of no relevance; the only difference would have been that England would have finished with 0-517 instead of 1-517 and the England openers, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, would have become the holders of the record for the first wicket partnership in Tests, displacing Nick McKenzie and Graeme Smith of South Africa who hold the current record of 415, set against Bangladesh in 2008.

Remember one thing: North is primarily playing as a batsman and Johnson, despite having made runs on occasion, is considered the main strike bowler.

Has Johnson fulfilled his primary role? No. Should he be dropped? Well, yes, one can make a case for that. But then the same logic should apply to North. He has done as much as Johnson over the last five Tests, in fact, less.

The argument used to justify North’s inclusion is that there are not many options to fill his spot. Rubbish, there are plenty of batsmen – David Hussey and George Bailey, to name just two – who can fill the role of a number six. Hussey is 33 and Bailey is 28 – but remember, Australia once played a 38-year-old, Bob Holland, to try and defeat the West Indies in 1984-85. And who can forget Colin “Funky” Miller who made his debut for the country at the ripe age of 34?

Age is not a problem. Neither is the lack of batsmen. No, the problem is that cricket has been and will always be a batsmen’s game. The bowlers always bear the brunt when punishment is doled out.

The bowlers failed but so did the captain

IT’S the fourth day of a Test match, the first of a series that is the most important of the year for your country. Your team is 202 runs ahead at the start of play; the opposition has knocked off 19 runs of a 221-run advantage that your boys gained in the first innings.

First thing out on the field, what would be your reaction as captain? To put as much pressure on your opponent by using the most threatening and intimidating fields possible or taking a milk-and-water approach that indicates an ambivalent attitude?

Do you show faith in your bowlers by packing the slips cordon and keeping two short-legs to occasionally get in the face of your opponents? Or do you use a standard field, an indication that you are basically a bob each way man even in a situation when your team is clearly in an advantageous position?

The Australian bowlers have copped a lot of flak for letting England nullify a 221-run first-innings deficit and allowing England to make a mammoth 1-517 in its second innings in the drawn first Test.

But the Australian captain Ricky Ponting has escaped scrutiny in toto though the tactics he employed on day four were those of a coward.

At the start of play on the fourth day, Ponting had two fielders on the boundary. For what? Was he trying to win or draw? He had 202 runs to play with, he had nothing to lose.

Remember, Australia is the team which has to win back the Ashes; for England a drawn series will suffice. One cannot blame England for looking for such a result as the whole point of playing five Tests in Australia is to retain the Ashes. That is the prize, nothing else matters.

This is not the first time that Ponting’s inability to captain the country properly has let the team down. It happened earlier this year in England. He is far too cautious and often looks to his own interests, rather than that of the team.

It is unlikely that any remarkable new talent is going to be unearthed in some part of Australia soon enough to make a difference to the Australian team in the remaining four Tests; any new blood brought in will be much like the old.

A trend of picking players based on reasons other than merit has been around for too long and mediocrity has crept in. Australia is fifth in the world Test cricket rankings and that is a good reflection of its strengths.

Ponting is favoured by the selectors because he has become an administration man. He knows when to speak and when to keep his mouth shut. Some months ago, people were theorising that if Australia failed to regain the Ashes, he would be stripped of the captaincy.

But that seems unlikely in the wake of reports that Michael Clarke, his deputy, is not exactly the flavour of choice with the rest of the team.

If Ponting regains the Ashes, he will stay as captain for the World Cup that begins in February next year. And it is also likely that he will continue to captain Australia until he chooses to retire – which may well be in 2013 after the tour of England. Ponting has said often that he wants another chance to win the Ashes in England, having lost two series in 2005 and 2009.

But if he fails to regain the Ashes over the next four Tests, then there will be plenty of pressure from people to play him as a batsman only. He still has some of the magical touch that he displayed in his early career and is easily the best batsman in the team once he gets going.