Ponting fails the pressure test

January 20, 2008

When a cricket team is trying to reach a winning total that is well beyond what most other teams have made, one man has to put up his hand and bat through the innings - or at least for most of the innings. That man has to be someone who can handle pressure, one who is among the better batsmen in the team.

And at least one other batsman has to hang around for some time with the man who has taken on the role of saviour.

On Saturday, January 19, as Australia faced a target of 413 to set a record of 17 Test wins, the man who obviously had to take on this task was Ricky Ponting, the captain and also a batsman who is among the top three in the world today.

If anything, Australia's failure to reach the target - it is by achieving the extraordinary that a team marks itself out as something special - tells me one thing. Ricky Ponting cannot handle pressure.

When the odds are against you and someone has to play an innings of character, Ponting is not the man to call. That role was almost taken on by Michael Clarke, a much younger and inexperienced player. Clarke made 81 but could not hang around long enough to take Australia closer than 160 runs from the target. In a few more years, he may well come to that stage of his cricketing career when he can resist temptation and stay till the end. If Australia lost by just 72, it was due to some lusty hitting by the pacemen at the end.

Ponting's innings was marked by an enthralling duel with 19-year-old Indian medium-pacer Ishant Sharma - who incidentally had snared the Australian captain in the first innings. That a teenager in just his fourth Test could cause Ponting problems over after over shows the Australian captain's state of mind. Nobody of his experience should have allowed any bowler in this Indian side, least of all one who was so raw, to settle into such a beautiful rhythm.

There are two options in cases like this - either you take on the bowler and hit him off his length - and with Sharma it would have taken less time to do that than with an experienced bowler - or you acknowledge the fact that the bowler has hit a purple patch and use your skills to deny him success. Even if he was unwilling to take the risk of hitting Sharma out of the attack, Ponting should have been capable of riding out the medium-pacer's nine-over spell and coming out with his wicket intact. Instead, Ponting played Sharma like a novice, using his pads most of the time; he was lucky to escape two leg-before shouts before he snicked a ball to first slip and became Sharma's victim for the second time in the match. His contribution? Just 45, a shade over a tenth of what was required for victory.

To really obtain a contrast, one can go back to the 1999 Australian tour of the West Indies. The West Indies had just returned from South Africa after losing a Test series 0-5; the tour had been marred by the players' demands for more money before they even reached South Africa. Back in the Caribbean, the West Indies were soundly beaten by Australia in the first Test, recording their lowest Test score - 51 - in their second innings. Brian Lara had been named captain for just the first two Tests of the series - that was an indication of the pressure on him,

On day two of the second Test, Lara found himself at the crease, with the team on 34 for four and facing an Australian total of 256. He did more than just rise to the occasion - he stroked a marvellous innings of 213. With support from James Adams, who made 94, he took the West Indies to a decent score above 400 and they finally won the Test.

But he hadn't done with things yet. In the third Test, the West Indies trailed by 161 on the first innings to which Lara contributed little; on day four, the team was faced with the task of making 309 to win. At the end of the day, they were 85 for three, Lara on two; this quickly became 105 for five soon after play began on the fifth day.

At the end of the game, which the West Indies won by one wicket, the little Trinidadian had made a marvellous unbeaten 153; the next highest score was 38 by James Adams with whom Lara shared a sixth wicket stand of 133. Australia had Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill in its ranks - a bowling attack any captain would die for.

Could Lara handle pressure? Is that a question or a statement???

But why go back eight years? In this very series, there have been two instances of batsmen taking on the pressure and standing tall when someone had to - Sachin Tendulkar in the first innings of the second Test and V.V.S. Laxman in the first innings of this very Test.

Tendulkar made a determined unbeaten 154 and allowed a number of batsmen to bat around him; he inspired the tailenders and India ended up with an unlikely lead of 69 when faced with an Australian first innings score of 463

Laxman made just 79 but he was calm and collected as he stayed at the crease; the lower order played around him as he absorbed all the pressure. India ended up with a lead of 412, after having at one stage been five down for 125 and holding a lead of just 243. Importantly, Laxman eschewed his usual flamboyant style and hit just four boundaries in this innings.

Ponting's leadership skills were also shown to be poor. His handling of Shaun Tait was an indication of this. Instead of bowling his two more effective bowlers - Brett Lee and Stuart Clark in tandem, what he should have done was to use Tait with either Lee or Clark. That way, Tait would have been encouraged, and also able to capitalise on the pressure created by the bowler at the other end. It is easy to lead a team when things are going well - Gordon Greenidge once commented that a retiree could have led the West Indies when they were in their heyday. But leadership skills are on show when the chips are down. Ponting failed on this score.

Further, Ponting couldn't manage to keep the over rate going - and when he was forced to bring in two part-time slow bowlers in during India's second innings, he let India off the hook. Managing over rates is bread and butter stuff for any captain. Slow over rates have been a means of slowing down the opposition from gaining momentum but a captain has to keep things under control to the extent that he is not in danger of losing his place in the team due to the slowdown. This, Ponting failed to do, and he has only himself to blame.

Contrast the way Tait was treated with the way Anil Kumble handled young Sharma. In fact, every veteran in the side - Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and Saurav Ganguly - was pushing Sharma along, offering words of encouragement and guidance and he repaid that in spades.

Consider this: the last white man to captain the West Indies, Gerry Alexander, killed off the career of a promising, but callow, fast bowler when he sent Roy Gilchrist back from India in 1959. Gilchrist was from a small fishing village in the Caribbean and had a habit of bowling the occasional beamer; Alexander told him to stop and, when he did not, ordered him home. Gilchrist was history after that.

I doubt we'll see Tait at the international level again for some time. If he is picked, he will fare poorly. His self-belief would have taken a battering. Ponting's poor leadership has ensured that he will be a mass of self-doubt when he next approaches the popping crease in an international game.