No more excuses: sack the selectors and punt Ponting
Defeat at the hands of a weak English side is the wake up call that the Australian cricket hierarchy has needed.
The Australian cricket supremacy has passed. That supremacy dated from 1995, when Mark Taylor’s team defeated the then world champion West Indians in the Caribbean. 95 Test matches were won, and only 24 lost, over the following twelve years. The cricket world became accustomed to the inexorable dominance of Australia’s national side.
Now Australia has suffered series defeats to India, South Africa and England in the last twelve months.
Today the side is ranked fourth in the International Cricket Council’s Test Rankings, behind South Africa, Sri Lanka and India.
In truth the era of unchallenged supremacy concluded in January 2007, along with the careers of the team’s two bowling greats, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Yet many in the Australian cricket community carried on as if nothing had changed, as if Australian dominance over the cricket world was a fait accompli.
The Australian camp and the travelling media pack sang from the same hymn sheet throughout the ten days leading up to the deciding Ashes Test of 2009: Australia had peaked at the right time; the English camp had panicked; the Old Country no longer contained any Englishmen who could play the game of cricket; the tourists had ‘the momentum’ that would make victory at the final denouement inevitable.
The widely derided English team went out and won the final Test to regain the Ashes.
The match resembled the final Test of the 1953 tour of England, also played at The Oval. The 1953 Australians were forced to rely on part time spin, having neglected to take a specialist spinner into the match. England won the match and regained the Ashes.
England not only triumphed at The Oval and at Lord’s in 2009, they also dominated the Edgbaston contest curtailed by wet weather.
The England team’s critics were right in one sense. This is not a vintage English side. No English bowler averaged under 30 with the ball in the series, only two averaged over 40 with the bat. The side’s all rounder played out his final campaign on one leg. The team was shorn of not only its outstanding batsman in Kevin Pietersen, but also its other two leading batsmen of this decade, Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan. Only two centuries were recorded by Englishmen in the series.
The conventional wisdom since the retirements of McGrath and Warne has been that the Australians may struggle to capture twenty wickets per Test, but that the nation’s batting ranks remain robustly healthy. The quartet of experienced men in a remodelled side hold down four of the first five positions in the batting order.
Yet it was the Australians who collapsed in the first innings in three Tests. England dominated three of the five Tests as a consequence of Australian first innings batting collapses. The tourists lost 8 for 112 at Lord’s, 6 for 70 at Edgbaston and 10 for 87 at The Oval.
Andrew Strauss laid the platform for England’s victory. He radiated an air of calm at the helm of the home side, no small feat after the schizophrenia of the Pietersen – Moores 2008 regime. He was also comfortably the batsman of the series.
His opposite number Ricky Ponting should now step down from the captaincy of the Australian cricket team.
The notion that Ponting cannot play on under another captain is a furphy. Ian Chappell stepped down from the leadership after The Oval Test of 1975, feeling he had nothing more to give. Granted, he took this decision from a position of strength, following a successful Ashes defence and on the back of his highest Test score. He remained in the side as its number three batsman, with his brother Greg, five years his younger, assuming the captaincy.
Ponting is the premier batsman of his generation, the finest in world cricket throughout this decade. He is an inadequate captain.
Bill O’Reilly never tired of reminding us that the difference between a brilliant captain and a failure is the presence of two match winning bowlers in his eleven. Ponting took over a side containing two of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game. His lack of astuteness as leader mattered little. It took the absence of McGrath and Warne to expose Ponting’s shortcomings as leader.
The Australians had an hour to take the last English wicket at Cardiff. Ponting put his faith in a part timer. On the third morning at The Oval he opted for men sweeping the boundary when all out attack was called for.
At Nagpur last year Ponting inexplicably threw the ball to part timers Hussey, White and Clarke when the Indians were tottering. At Birmingham in 2005, with McGrath hors de combat, he sent the English in, who brought up 407 on the first day.
When Australian cricket remade itself in the mid 1980s after the retirements of the greats of the previous decade, the new captain could rely on strategic thinkers in the cricket administration. Allan Border came to the Australian captaincy reluctantly. He was comfortable with authoritative figures around him; men such as chairmen of selectors and board member Lawrie Sawle and new coach Bob Simpson.
Ponting, by contrast, has exercised considerable power off the field as well as on. He has heavily influenced selections, keeping Katich on the outer for two years, remaining loyal to Hayden and Symonds past their used by dates, insisting on Hauritz as the specialist spinner.
The mistaken exclusion of Hauritz from The Oval Test was not the number one selection atrocity of the 2009 Ashes campaign. The failure to include an attacking specialist spin bowler in the touring party was. It cost them dearly at Cardiff and The Oval.
That the English would produce turning tracks where possible was foreseen by many, but not by the Australian hierarchy. It is one of the joys of the game that a spin bowler, often the most unathletic of the participants, can on the final day of a cricket match deliver victory to his team through his specialist skill. Nathan Hauritz has never taken five wickets in an innings in a first class game of cricket. He has never won a game for his side. He exceeded expectations with ten wickets in three Tests.
The Australian captain sought, and the selectors granted, a defensive containing bowler as the national squad’s specialist spinner. A decision at odds with Australia’s cricket history.
Having been granted such influence over selections, Ponting must be held accountable. Michael Clarke is now in the prime of his career. He should lead the side this summer.
The structure of cricket in Australia remains the best organised in the world. But new challenges must be addressed. Too many professional cricketers in their thirties, with no prospect of ever playing for the national side, linger in state sides, blocking the path of outstanding youth. Administrators and selectors must unblock the way.
Selectors are required to plan for both the short and long term. Andrew Hilditch and company are manifestly not up to the task.
Australian cricket today suffers from a lack of leadership off the field and on.
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