Has Ponting undermined his own team’s confidence?
When Ricky Ponting returned from the disastrous tour of India in October, a small scrum of media cornered him outside the international airport, asked a brace of tough questions, recorded a brace of defiant answers, then scurried off to file for deadline.
Hanging back behind it all was Ponting’s wife Rianna and his two year old daughter Emmy, who must have been busting to hug her Dad. When the last reporter disappeared, Ponting picked up Emmy in one hand, and manfully pushed his overburdened trolley through the car park with the other. He then packed his large, shiny SUV and drove off to his spacious, waterfront home in the Sutherland Shire.
In those brief, private moments, the Pontings looked like any other happily reunited family at the airport. Ricky was a dad and husband, not a cricketer and captain. It kind of made you feel all warm and gooey inside. But there’s nothing warm and gooey about the way this summer of cricket is panning out. And that same media scrum, quite rightly, is interrogating Ponting with increasing ferocity.
Their main focus is his scratchy batting, his seemingly directionless captaincy, and the fact he may be forced to walk (with a payout) just months into his latest two-year, multi-million dollar Cricket Australia contract if things don’t improve.
But there’s one question no one dares ask, even as England dominates Australia in all facets of the game and Australia’s cricketers, individually and collectively, at the crease and in the field, achieve new personal worsts.
The question is whether Ponting himself is to blame for Australia’s all-round cricketing ineptitude. Not just Ponting the batsman and captain, but Ponting the man manager.
Blaming the captain for his teammates’ incompetence might seem a ridiculously long bow in a game like cricket, a team sport which is really just 11 blokes performing individually in caps of a similar colour.
But many well-connected cricket people and former topline players are quietly saying that Ponting has been an undermining force in his time at the helm. He doesn’t inspire, he intimidates. Instead of including, he excludes. Instead of championing an us-against-them ethic, it’s us-against-us in the Australian dressing room.
They won’t, of course, write any of this in their media columns or blurt it out via Twitter, unless their name is Shane Warne. But in hushed conversations in car parks and the quieter corners of public watering holes, these former giants of the game will tell you that the one word which best characterises Ponting’s six year captaincy is “disharmony”.
I’ve interviewed Ponting one-on-one just three times. Afterwards, I have written mostly glowing things about him, including this piece. So this is not a gratuitous attention-grabbing do-over. I could have written that piece long ago and come off looking as stupid as Peter Roebuck, who ludicrously called for Ponting’s sacking after the controversial 2008 Sydney Test against India. Like, what was Australia supposed to do that day – curse the fact they’d had a lucky win?
But let’s ask the following about Ponting. Which player has blossomed under his tenure as captain? Forget for a moment the other measures of captaincy success, like a winning record (where he still matches Taylor/Waugh) and tactical nous (where he clearly languishes).
Instead, let’s ask: which player has blossomed under Ponting, the way Hayden and Langer, to name just two, gained self-belief under Steve Waugh’s protective wing?
Well, Shane Watson has come good in Ponting’s time, but probably only because he finally worked out that going to the gym 11 times a week wasn’t such a great idea. And Mitchell Johnson blossomed, then spectacularly unblossomed
Andrew Symonds is another who prospered under Ponting, before Ponting tossed him aside in 2009. Yes, Symonds was drunk one too many times. Yet Ponting still seemed keener to adhere to CA’s implicit demands for squeaky clean players than he was to help the bloke who almost single-handedly delivered him his first big trophy as (One Day) skipper – the 2003 World Cup.
Ponting plays the dog whistle almost as well as he plays the pull shot. Two days or so before the axe falls on a player is typically the time when he praises that player’s abilities loudest. It happened just the other week with Nathan Hauritz.
On the flipside, Ponting has an uncanny ability to downplay the form slumps of those he favours. You wouldn’t have heard Ponting say his good golfing buddy Marcus North was on his last chance lately, even though the whole of Australia knew it. In fact, he avoided the topic entirely.
And what About the Xavier Doherty selection? Ponting wanted the modestly-performed Tasmanian and he got him. If you reckon that would have made that better-credentialled Tasmanian spinner Jason Krejza feel unloved by his national skipper, you’d be right. And you’d have to assume that he is.
Under beloved coach Paul Roos, the Sydney Swans had a celebrated “no dickheads” policy, which was all about barring players, or types of behaviour, which everyone in the club pretty much mutually considered to be detrimental to morale. But the Swans are a club in a 16 (now 17) team league. They’re perfectly entitled to pick and choose who they want based on both merit and cultural fit. You could even argue they’re obliged to do so.
The Australian cricket team is different. It is, or should be, a pure meritocracy. Yet the whisperers will tell you than an implicit “no dickheads” policy exists in Ricky Ponting’s Australian team. Rub the skipper the wrong way and you’re out of there.
How else to explain Brad Hodge not playing despite averaging over 50 in tests. Or the Phil Hughes dropping early in the 2009 Ashes, despite the young opener banging together four tons in a mere month of county cricket on the eve of the series.
Never mind that Hughes now appears to be back in favour, despite (paradoxically) a run of poor form.
The inference is that if Ricky has an issue with a player, that player is cast aside. He doesn’t take them in for counselling, as I was reminded a good leader should in a HR briefing at work only this week. Instead, he gets Australian selectors to do his bidding, then presumably smiles inwardly as they wear the flak for their endless “chopping and changing”.
Most of this is hearsay, of course. What goes on in the Australian rooms is well protected and in the current news climate, that’s almost a relief. But geez, wouldn’t it be great to get a Wikileak or two on the inner workings of Ponting’s captaincy.
Bet your bottom dollar he’d come across as a lot less sensitive and loving than the guy in the car park with his two year old daughter on his arm.
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