England should just go ahead and retain the Ashes. It would establish that the most dominating team over a grueling 5 Test match series will win the trophy at the end of the day. It would also do a ton of good for Australian cricket, because they will cease living in denial that everything is all right with the team. Gideon Haigh’s spot-on observation about Ponting’s captaincy career was noted on this post before, but the comment itself is much more revealing that one might think. Sure, we can bash Ponting all day for his childish and immature behavior at a correct decision taken by the umpires. We can also point out that his behavior has never been appropriately reprimanded by the powers that be in the past. But I’ll take a stab at getting to the core of Australia’s problems at the moment through Ponting’s reactions yesterday.
Going by Haigh’s remark that Punter is living Border’s career in reverse, it implies without explicitly stating that Punter never grew into the captaincy role. He became the captain in 2004 after Waugh’s retirement as a natural successor. But Waugh left a team that was dominating world cricket. Every player in the team understood his game inside out. They knew their strengths, had excellent individual plans on how to go about their game and were able to execute them consistently. Punter really did not have to do anything with the team until January 2007, which ended in a super-high of an England whitewash 5-0. In fact, he was spoilt as a captain. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath anchored the bowling attack. They can take wickets at will. They always delivered under pressure and got Australia back in the game. There was Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowiz providing excellent support cast to the bowling superheroes.
Batting wise, there was Hayden, Langer, Gilchrist, an in-form Michael Clarke, Damien Martyn and above all Ponting himself. Punter could focus on his batting while the team managed itself, as if they were all on auto-pilot. If Punter failed, it did not matter as there were others who will step up. Never was a moment when all the batsmen were out of form. Somebody always stood up and had the ability to take the game away from opposition. Punter averaged 64 as a captain during this time and that tells how clear his mind should have been when he went to bat on the field.
Occasionally things did go wrong. Ashes 2005 is a good example. But Punter knew deep down that they will always come back. A team with so many greats cannot have a bad trot for too long. And they never did. So these occasional losses did not teach Punter anything. In fact they spoilt him more by getting him to think and believe that Australia are invincible and never lose by habit.
Contrast this to now. Everything is going wrong. The Australian top order has collapsed 7 times and if they do it one more time, it will be that the top order never showed up for the entire series. Their bowling attack has been blowing hot and cold, rendered toothless more often. Fielding is certainly not at the Australian ruthless best. There was a time when they used to create chances out of thin air. In fact, England are doing what Australia know how to do best. That Collingwood catch at Perth is the best example to prove this point. Towering above all is the leader himself, who is woefully out of form. 93 runs in 7 innings. More telling is the fact that Punter is unable to do anything on the field when things aren’t going his way. Wondering why? Because he never learnt how to get back in the game when the plans aren’t working. Since 2007, Ponting had to step up on the field and actually come up with plans to get batsmen out. He had ordinary bowlers who needed help and guidance. He did not have bowlers who will always execute the plans perfectly. Things can go wrong here and there when bowlers stray from their plan of execution and they needed correction time and again. Ponting got found out.
Prior to the start of this series, King Viv, Warney and Sachin have noted a strikingly similar aspect in different ways: Target the leader and kill the team spirit. I haven’t heard from any English player say explicitly that this is a part of their plan, but ensuring that Punter never came back to form has done wonders for England so far. For starters, it has compounded the problems that Punter faces right now. When everything is not all right with the team, he could at least seek solace in the fact that he is among the runs. He cannot even do that now and that would be his serious headache. When his own strength has deserted him, it leaves him high and dry causing to overreact.
Interesting times are ahead for the selectors when (and not if) Punter loses the Ashes for the third time. The leader is not able and the obvious “anointed” successor is also out of form. They could make the man Australia relied on the most in this series as the successor. He is not very young, but can at least make sure that their transition is smooth. Then, they need to select a composition that they would back to the hilt. Something similar to Border’s team in the late 80’s. Players will fail and they need to be given time to develop. As they harden, Australia can plot their way back to ascendancy.
Guest Article by B Sundar
If Sundar is not playing cricket, he’s watching and tweeting about it @elegantstroke . If he’s not watching it, then he’s writing about it at http://elegantstroke.blogspot.com Amidst all of this watching and playing and tweeting and writing about cricket, he works as a Design Engineer and tries to keep his family happy.