Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Aussie captaincy enters transition phase

Before it actually happened, it was quietly taken as read by some journalists and fans that Australia's selectors would move to appoint a new captain across all formats if Ricky Ponting was to lose a second Ashes series on English soil.

Nothing like it had happened to an Australian skipper since Billy Murdoch's team were demolished by Kent's Fred Martin in the 19th century - an era of comedy moustaches and rudimentary protective equipment.

But two weeks after Ponting made the long journey home to ruminate on a 2-1 defeat by the old enemy - he will return to England in time to lead his side in the fourth one-day international next weekend - there are no immediate signs that his deputy Michael Clarke is set to be handed the captaincy on a permanent basis.

On Monday, it was announced that Ponting would draw a veil over his international Twenty20 career - and Clarke, who has already shown imagination in his two stand-in appearances as Aussie captain to gain a 2-0 lead in the one-day series - will surely assume that role in due course.

But it is Ponting who will defend the 50-over-a-side ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa at the end of this month and, unless Australia's selectors are ready to throw a curve ball, the 34-year-old will also captain his country in home Test series against West Indies and Pakistan.

Positive results against weak opponents will only stiffen Ponting's resolve to fulfil his final ambition, that of winning an Ashes series in England at the third time of asking, in 2013.
But fans of Clarke, 28, must not despair. The pretender will continue to get opportunities to lead his country as Ponting gets the luxury of further "periods of rest" throughout the foreseeable future.

And tantalisingly, Cricket Australia did not confirm Ponting's Test captaincy in its statement on Monday. That alone is a strong incentive for Clarke to showcase his leadership skills when the opportunities come his way.

Ponting is arguably the greatest batsman to wear the baggy green cap since Bradman. Under every statistical measure his Test exploits surpass the sparkling careers of Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Greg Chappell.

Coincidentally, those three were all captains of Australia too, but none surely had their tactics questioned as readily as Ponting.

Ten years ago, the Tasmanian arrested a downward spiral of drinking and gambling - the "Punter" nickname sticks to this day - with the considerable support of Cricket Australia.

He has repaid the national board with two World Cups and countless Test series successes - beginning with a 3-0 sweep in Sri Lanka, and also including wins in other tough locations like India and South Africa.

It was a run that kept Australia on top of the world rankings until Ponting's England curse struck for the second time this summer (although we shouldn't forget he was in charge for the crushing 5-0 Ashes win in 2006-07).

But Cricket Australia's dilemma is clearly apparent. It would look almost brutally cruel if it suddenly shed the avuncular role it has adopted over Ponting since rehabilitating him at the start of the decade.

While fans' favourite Shane Warne was busy texting his way out of the captaincy, Ponting went from bad boy to poster boy after taking over from Steve Waugh - and his remorseless run-accumulation shows that leadership suits him just fine.

But when not able to dictate with the bat, Ponting is prone to making poor decisions. He had Marcus North, the sort of bowler who Geoffrey Boycott's female relatives would salivate over facing, sending down those crucial final overs in the Cardiff Test when Australia were unable to force victory.

The rub-off was severe. By lunch on day one of the subsequent Lord's Test, he wore a perplexed look, having swiftly run out of ideas. The four-bowler system that had worked so well with bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne in the side looked a deeply flawed tactic with Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook in control.

England put on 126-0 in the first two hours of the match, and went on to win comfortably.

Australia's non-selection of Nathan Hauritz in the final Test, which saw England's specialist spinner Graeme Swann took eight wickets, may not have been Ponting's decision alone. If he had pressed Hauritz's case with coach Tim Nielsen and the selectors, however, the off-spinner would have played.

Four years earlier, there was the biggest faux pas of all - Ponting's decision to insert England at Edgbaston knowing that his most dangerous bowler in the prevailing conditions, Glenn McGrath, had injured himself in the pre-match warm-up.

Clarke is a ferociously eager school prefect whose own sobriquet "Pup" is attributed to his youthfulness.

And while the British media have rightly castigated Andrew Strauss's team for their failure to chase down two gettable targets in the one-day series, Clarke's sure leadership has been a factor in each match.

He has performed some sort of minor miracle by converting Shane Watson, a reluctant bowler indeed during the Ashes, into a devastating wicket-taking option.

And his aggressive field placement throughout England's innings at Lord's on Sunday was rewarded handsomely when wickets kept on falling. Of the recognised batsmen, only Paul Collingwood - starved of the easy singles which he so often dines out on - lasted until the final overs, by which point Brett Lee would not be denied.

It was smart captaincy, and though we will again see Ponting resume as skipper the gradual transition has already begun.

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