Of poor captaincy and vapid excuses

November 12, 2008

"I don't want to be reported on the cricket field, I don't want to miss a game for Australia. So those things taken into account probably gives you an idea why I made the decision I made." - Ricky Ponting talking to the ABC after the fourth Test.

It is not often that the game of cricket lends itself to an a binary choice - the glorious uncertainty of the game is what attracts people to it in the first place and also what helps to keep them interested.

One only has to spend some time in the press box at any Indian cricket ground on the first morning of a Test to view an example - there will be as many ways the first ball moved as there are cricket writers at the ground.

But then I guess that at times this doesn't hold good. A classic example is the case of the Australian captain Ricky Ponting who has been shown up as a poor tactician and a selfish individual due to a wrong choice made on the fourth evening of the fourth Test against India at Nagpur.

Australia had to win this Test in order to retain its hold on the series trophy. The team had drawn the first Test, lost the second and drawn the third.

India had taken an 86-run lead on the first innings in the fourth Test and, after cruising to 98 for no wicket in the first session of the fourth day, lost six wickets in the second session. The home team's tally was 166; both Brett Lee and Shane Watson had bowled with great vigour and, supported by debutant Jason Krezja, had ensured that India's lead at that stage was just 252.

Anybody would assume that it would not require intelligence of a very high order for a captain to continue with these three after the break in order to bowl India out. There was just one recognised batsman at the crease, the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

But Ponting was more concerned about the over-rate - Australia was 9 overs behind the prescribed rate at that stage. The only backlash from being more than six overs behind the specified rate - 90 overs in a completed day - would have been the suspension of the captain for one Test or two one-dayers, whichever came first.

This was quite clearly a binary choice - either bowl the three who were doing the damage, risk a suspension and give Australia its best chance of winning or else look after the over-rate and take the risk of allowing India to get away. The second option would also ensure that Ponting would not lose any fees for the next Test, which is against New Zealand.

When Ponting brought on part-time bowlers like Cameron White (who rates his own bowling poorly) and Michael Hussey, both Dhoni and the pugnacious Sikh, Harbhajan Singh, were no doubt amazed. But they capitalised on the situation and put on 108 for the seventh wicket. White bowled some atrocious tripe. Hussey was not expensive but wasn't in any way threatening and Michael Clarke, who was also called on to send down a few overs. did not pose a threat either. Krezja kept going at one end - he did pose a threat but as always kept leaking runs, at the rate of five an over. That's not a good tactic when one is trying to reign in a team and keep the victory target down as much as possible.

To get a better idea of what transpired, let's look at what happened after lunch. The first over after the break was bowled by Mitchell Johnson - Clarke was deputising for Ponting and it was his choice to bowl Johnson. No harm, Johnson kept it tight and gave away two runs. That was over 52 in the Indian second innings. Ponting came out and took over from the second over onwards - we are told that the match referee spoke to him about the over-rate and that is why he was delayed. Others say that he had to go to the toilet.

Whatever the reason for his delayed appearance, from over 53 till over 77 which Watson bowled after being brought back, there was Krezja at one end and White, Hussey and then Clarke at the other. Those 24 overs were enough for India to put paid to any chance of an Australian victory.

The fact that Ponting had made a mistake was underlined when he finally brought Watson back to bowl over 77 with India at 274 for six - within 21 runs the Indian innings folded, with Watson getting two wickets and Krezja the other two. But the target was now an imposing 382 in 92 overs. And Ponting's decision, no doubt, demoralised the entire team.

If Steve Waugh had made a similar decision to Ponting, it is doubtful whether either Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne would have accepted the decision as meekly as did Lee and Watson. And if Ian Chappell had done something similar, one can just imagine what one D.K. Lillee would have had to say. Not that Jeff Thomson would have been quiet either.

So Ponting put himself before the team. Why not simply admit it and apologise? No, he has to insist that the decision was taken in the best interests of the team and that, hold your breath, he was trying to uphold the spirit of the game as bowling overs at such a slow rate was not the right thing to do! A classic case of a batsman trying to spin!

The apologists who emerged from the woodwork and tried to cover for him were no better. Former opener Justin Langer was one. This is the same Langer who, when chasing 362 for victory against Pakistan in 1999 in the company of Adam Gilchrist, snicked a ball to the keeper, a snick that was loud enough to be heard all over the globe. The umpire did not react and Langer later said that his bat handle had cracked at precisely that instant!

Gilchrist was the other former cricketer out there trying to spin for Ponting. The same Gilchrist who has been described as a "licker" by Shane Warne. According to Warne, Gilchrist got into the Australian team ahead of a much better keeper, Darren Berry, because he had this characteristic.

Warne was honest in his comments, pointing out that while Ponting was not normally selfish, this decision had been a wrong one.

What is Ponting trying to say - that, without him, Australia cannot win a Test against a team like New Zealand? That he is indispensible? If he had been suspended for one Test, then Clarke would have captained; I think Ponting was afraid that this would reveal that Clarke is a better tactician and also possesses better man-management skills. And from that point on, it is quite likely that selectorial minds would have turned to the fact that Ponting is 34 and not getting any younger. Was this the real reason why Ponting suddenly remembered about the so-called spirit of the game???