Not many cricket lovers question that Ricky Ponting, along with Tendulkar and Lara, is one of the best three batsmen of our generation. The stats certainly back this up as he stands on the verge of surpassing Alan Border as Australia’s highest ever run getter. Ponting has hit 38 centuries, second only to Tendulkar who has 42 albeit in 26 more tests, and his average before the start of the Edgbaston test is 56.31.
Yet there are regular murmurings and criticisms about his qualities as a captain both here in England and also from his homeland. Jeff Thomson was decidedly uncomplimentary about Ponting’s captaincy skills before the series started, and the reaction from both the Australian and English media after the 2nd test at Lords was pretty scathing. Indeed, at Lords, that supposed bastion of civility, we witnessed the Australian captain being booed by the crowd at various times during the match. But is all this criticism fair, or is Ponting being a bit hard done by? I suggest that he is.
Certainly, his record as captain is very impressive with only three series losses in England in 2005, India in 2008 and at home to South Africa in 2008/09. Both the England and South Africa series were very close and could have gone either way and he is not the first Australian captain to lose a series in India. In the one day game, he has led Australia to two successive World Cups, the first despite losing Shane Warne on the eve of their first match against Pakistan.
It has to be said, of course, that the team he inherited from Steve Waugh was one of the greatest teams ever and contained several all-time greats (Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist and Ponting himself), as well as many other players just below the all-time great level (Langer, Hayden and Gillespie). Players of that quality could easily have hidden an average captain. But the fact that he got the job above Warne and Langer, who both would have been exceptional captains, suggests that the Australian selectors saw something special there.
However, where Ponting has really shown his mettle is in dealing with the simultaneous retirements of these great players whilst still keeping Australia as the leading test team in the World, albeit by a close margin from South Africa. This is in stark contrast, for example, to the World Cup winning England Rugby team of 2003, who following several retirements soon after their triumph slid down the rankings faster than an Andrew Flintoff yorker.
There is no better example of Ponting’s captaincy skills than following the demoralising home series defeat to South Africa; he was able to lead a young and inexperienced team to a 2-1 victory in the same opponent’s backyard. Not many teams win series in South Africa. He managed this with a rookie opener (Hughes), a middle-order batter making his bow (North) and several inexperienced bowlers (Siddle and Hilfenhaus). This triumph speaks volumes for Ponting’s ability to motivate his team, instil self-belief and mould them into a unit that is clearly hard to beat.
So far during the current Ashes series Australia have not had the rub of the green. They should have won in Cardiff after losing the toss and at Lords they were on the receiving end of a number of poor umpiring decisions. Also, no-one could have predicted that Mitchell Johnson was going to turn into a pie chucker, that Phillip Hughes would struggle as he has, or that Brett Lee would be injured.
Of course like every captain he has made mistakes. Putting England in at Edgbaston in 2005 after McGrath’s injury smacked of complacency and even a touch of arrogance. Also bowling North at the end of the Cardiff test instead of Hilfenhaus was a strange decision. However, his good decisions have definitely outweighed the bad.
The English media in particular tends to focus on his mistakes, which is to be expected given the rivalry between the two countries. Also as the newspapers and TV pundits in England are dominated by former players who were all on the receiving end of batterings from Australian teams over the last 20 years, maybe we should take the criticism with a pinch of salt.
As for the public and the booing at Lords, unfortunately more and more of a football mentality is creeping in to some cricket supporters and maybe Punter should take it as a compliment that he is being singled out for boos. He’ll probably score a double century now to shut up the critics and the boo-boys.
As a Pom, I wish that Ponting was a poor captain unable to motivate his troops, but I don’t believe that is the case and expect Australia to come roaring back at Edgbaston, weather permitting. I suspect that Johnson and Hughes will both return to form and perhaps the inclusion of Watson and/or Clark will give Ponting a bit more firepower in the bowling attack.
So, here rests the case for the defence.
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