Thursday 11 June 2009

Time's arrow

Perhaps Ricky Ponting has played his last T20 international. The game's waiting for no man at the moment, and Ponting looked like yesterday's man during Australia's two games. His bewilderment at their exit was perhaps the most bewildering thing of all: how could he not see what was wrong?

It's strange that such an instinctive batsman, one with an eye for the kill, seems to lack a feel for the ebb and flow of the game, yet it has always been missing. Ponting's professional life has run along straight rails, he is the uber-pro, brought up by Taylor and Waugh, the man anointed young to take over the war machine. So grooved was that machine it didn't take much insight to run it, just that flinty sporting heart that allows you to put a foot on a head that's already been in the dirt for days. 

But few great sportsmen are schooled purely by victory. Waugh was the last Australian captain that knew not just what it was to lose, but to be beaten. On the few occasions Ponting has been confronted by it, he hasn't really known what to do. The most resourceful captains of recent years - Hussain, Vaughan, Vettori - knew the feeling inside out. When your plans work for years on end, you don't really need any others. 

The other great and intangible facet of captaincy is personality, but what is Ponting's? After all of this time, I'm not sure anyone really knows that much about him. Under extreme pressure Waugh had that bloody-minded steel, that thrilling love of the fight. Vaughan had a preternatural calm that held flaky England together. Ponting's prime traits have been anger, frustration. 

He's been uneasy with his selectors, short of faith in some of his players, and, like Langer and Hayden, he has a hankering for the good old days. He thought T20 was a joke - he was not alone there - but he failed to catch up. He looked bewildered at the World Championship, and more than that, he looked old, his face deeply lined, his body-language agitated. His confusion was manifested most in his handling of Brett Lee. In a game where one bad over results in a 'thanks very much' and a quick hoicking off, Lee bowled three in a row. 

Now he's clinging to the win over South Africa at the start of the year, but South Africa's recent history is one of boom and bust, each big win followed by a big deflation. Australia's weaknesses - no spinner, a tendency to collapse against spin, Mike Hussey's decline and Brett Lee's too - have not been managed, or even addressed.

That's not to say that England will win the Ashes, but they might if they exploit the holes. T20 may be nothing like Test cricket, but it proved a decent x-ray of the Australian condition, and of Ricky Ponting's. Time's arrow is flying his way.


Tony said...

Too true, TOB.

Ponting has been so long in "the process" he's never learned how to captain by instinct. In fact, in modern, managerial cricket, instinct is probably discouraged.

Russ said...

Good article, OB. I'd add "execution" to the list of managerial aphorisms that have dominated Ponting's captaincy.

There was this amazingly telling sequence during Australia's loss to Sri Lanka, where batsman after batsman came out to tell us that yes, "their favourite player was Mike Hussey". It was almost a shock that Mike Hussey didn't do it too, so well schooled were they. But think about it, Mike Hussey!? An entire batting lineup's favourite player is an excessively dedicated professional of limited genius in a horrid form slump? It spoke volumes about their insularity (Australian, still playing) and their approach (boring pro-bot) that he was their choice.

Ponting's personality by the by, is hidden (or consumed) by his will to win at cricket. He has played some outstanding knocks when the team needed him (and after he felt he'd failed them), more-so than his flawed talent should allow. It is almost a golfing mentality, that what matters is beating the course, not the opposition, but the game itself. And the game has turned on Ricky.