Australian news February 2, 2009

Waugh questions Ponting rest plan

Steve Waugh says it is hard for players like Ricky Ponting to justify taking a break from playing for their country when they sign up for extra duties such as the IPL © Getty Images

Steve Waugh has questioned the decision to rest Ricky Ponting from the next two one-day matches against New Zealand to allow him to be as fresh as possible for this month's tour of South Africa. Waugh also said it would be a gamble to take the struggling Andrew Symonds on the trip and endorsed Phillip Hughes as a must-pick player.

Australia depart for their three-Test tour of South Africa immediately after the Chappell-Hadlee Series wraps up in a fortnight. One of Australia's most in-form men in a below-par batting order, Ponting will rest from the second and third matches and perhaps the entire series having played every game of a busy summer.

Ponting has not had a break since the start of October's tour of India but leaving him out must have been a hard decision in a side that is out of form. Waugh, his predecessor as captain, said it was difficult to justify players resting from representing their country when they were happy to sign on for extra duties such as the IPL.

"There's never an easy time for a captain to rest," Waugh said. "In these days, with so much cricket happening and the players choosing to play IPL and choosing all these other opportunities, I guess there's got to be question-marks thrown up when people say they want to rest because they're committing to playing more cricket and you are playing for your country.

"It's a tough one to answer and really Ricky's the only one who can answer that. Is he mentally and physically fatigued? Is he better off having a couple of games [off]? Will he come back fresher and stronger for the team? They're the questions that people in and around the side have got to answer."

Waugh was speaking at the MCG on Monday after being announced as the latest addition to the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame. He said the selectors would also face a tough call on Symonds, who has had a number of off-field issues in the past six months, has been below his best form and is returning from knee surgery.

"He gives that side that x-factor and that's something special that can win a match," Waugh said. "But he's got to be very clear in his head and he's got to be concise in his thinking and right now he doesn't seem to be playing his best cricket. If he was selected for South Africa I think it would be a gamble."

The selectors will meet on Wednesday to choose the squad for the Test tour and Symonds and Hughes will feature heavily in their discussions. Hughes, the New South Wales opener, proved he could handle the spotlight this week with a perfectly timed combination of 151 and 82 not out against Tasmania.

"Right now he doesn't seem to be playing his best cricket. If he was selected for South Africa I think it would be a gamble."Steve Waugh on Andrew Symonds

At 20, Hughes is the same age that Waugh was when he made his Test debut in 1985-86. Waugh said he would definitely choose Hughes if he was a selector and he said that the batsman's season tally of 891 runs at 74.25 showed that he was prepared for a national call-up.

"I think he's much more ready to play at 20 than I was, looking at the way he plays the game," Waugh said. "All you can say about Phillip Hughes is he's done everything expected of him.

"He's scored runs under pressure, he's obviously in the frame for a Test spot in South Africa and he comes out and gets 150 and 80-odd not out in the second innings. That shows to me that he's got fantastic temperament and can handle pressure and that, at the top level, is probably the main ingredient."

Whatever combination Australia choose for South Africa, the squad will be under intense pressure as a series loss would hand their opponents the No. 1 Test ranking. Waugh said while there were some similarities between the current group and the side he joined in the 1980s, he felt Ponting's men would remain near the top of world cricket for some time.

"We're in much better shape now than we were in the mid-80s," he said. "The big difference was that we lost 20 players out of the system. We had 16 players go to the rebel tour of South Africa. Lillee, Marsh and Chappell [retired], so that was a massive chunk of Australian cricket gone. It really was the new beginning.

"It's not as if we're going to drop back and be the seventh or eighth best side. I still think we'll be in the top two or three sides in the world for quite a while to come."

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo