Final Ashes Test: Ponting’s mixed feelings

RICKY Ponting faces five very difficult days ahead. Days when he will be torn between wanting Australia to do well in the final Ashes Test and also fully aware that any improvement will be put down to the stand-in captain Michael Clarke.

And any improvement will also decrease even the smallest chance he has of regaining the captaincy when Australia next plays Test cricket in August. Thus in a perverse way, Ponting will probably be happy if Australia suffers another defeat.

Would Ponting play under someone else as captain? He really wouldn’t have a choice – if the selection panel decides that a new captain must take over, then he will have no choice. And the new captain wouldn’t have much choice to having Ponting in his team if he merits a place on form.

Ponting is anxious about the captaincy and also highly insecure. This is evident from the fact that he wants to be in the dressing room for the fifth Test even though he is not playing. He wants to be around so that he can claim some credit in the event that the team fares better than it did in Melbourne.

Clarke must be feeling as though he has a millstone around his neck. It is highly unusual for a situation like this to develop but both the selectors and Clarke are being diplomatic about it. Nobody wants to make it appear as though Ponting has played his last Test as captain.

But that is what is very likely to happen. Ponting has some years left as a batsman but the team needs some rejuvenation and the long gap between Tests is exactly what is needed to blood new players.

The selectors have to look seriously at trying to regain the country’s ranking in Test cricket – it now stands fourth, thanks the weather in Sri Lanka that caused both Tests in the two-Test series between the West Indies and Sri Lanka to end in draws. Lanka thus slipped back from fourth to fifth and Australia moved up a notch.

It is always a touch tragic to see a good batsman come to a fork in the road as Ponting has. He is desperate to hang on to the captaincy and does not see that his time as captain is up. If he were to step down voluntarily it would be good for him. He could then continue as a player as long as his form warrants.

From good to bad in the space of a week

AUSTRALIA’S national cricket team seems to swing from bad to good to bad in the space of a few weeks or sometimes even a week. The team was thrashed in the second Test of the ongoing Ashes series, bounced back to win the third by 267 runs, and today, the first day of the fourth Test, was bowled out for 98.

Yes 98, the lowest score at the MCG for an Ashes Test. Australia was bowled out for 83 by India in 1981 at the MCG and has been dismissed for scores below 120 in home Tests four times since 1990.

At the close of play, England is 59 runs ahead with all its wickets intact. A miracle is required for Australia not to lose this Test and with only sporadic showers forecast for one remaining day of the Test, even the weather can be counted out as a saviour.

But why do these dramatic swings of fortune take place? In Perth, Mitchell Johnson bowled very well, aided by a pitch that was helpful to fast bowlers. The scores were not high – the highest innings total was 309 by Australia in its second innings. England made one run more than this in both its innings combined.

Johnson managed to produce quite dramatic late swing which brought him a number of wickets; he took nine in all for the match. Elated by his success, this was put down to changes in his action. Nobody factored in the easterly wind that blows in Perth and tends to make the ball swing. Nobody also thought about the fact that Perth is an open ground, allowing the wind to sweep over it, not a cauldron like the MCG, venue for the fourth Test, where the imposing structure prevents any wind from sweeping through.

Everyone expected Johnson to repeat his heroics. A little less was expected from the other hero of Perth, Ryan Harris, who also took nine wickets, though a number of them came after England had thrown in the towel in its second innings and had resigned itself to defeat.

Neither bowler has been able to do a thing on the MCG track. And when you have only 98 to defend, you need wickets fast to put pressure on the opposition. Skipper Ricky Ponting, who is likely to lose the captaincy if the series is lost, gave Johnson three overs but saw the paceman leak 17 runs. As the England batsmen kept scoring steadily, Ponting fell back on the more economical bowlers.

Whenever Australia is caught on a wicket where the opposition can make the ball move sideways, its batsmen stand exposed. They do not know which ball to leave and which to hit. They dab at balls that can be well left alone; only Mike Hussey seems to know where his stumps are. But today, Hussey also failed; by the law of averages he was due a low score, having scored more than 500 runs in the series to date.

One of Australia’s openers lacks technique (Phillip Hughes) and the other is a makeshift opener (Shane Watson) who would be much more comfortable batting at six. Ponting is no longer the best batsman in the side and therefore should not be at one-drop. But his deputy, Michael Clarke, cannot handle the pressure of the one-drop and hence bats at four.

After the success of Perth, Australia chose to go into the MCG Test with four pacemen, the first time in decades that the country has played without a regular spinner at this ground. It appears that Ponting was ready to insert the opposition if he won the toss and had picked four pacemen for that reason. Given that one only has a 50 percent chance of winning a toss, it looks as though the Australian captain had left his brains at home.

Even if Australia manages to pull the chestnuts out of the fire in this Test and go to the final Sydney Test level at 1-1, it is unlikely to win the series. As the holders of the Ashes, England only needs to draw the series in order to carry that precious little urn back home again. The prospect of rain affecting the game in Sydney is very high, given the existing weather patterns.

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.