Ricky Ponting pays heavily for overconfidence
Ricky Ponting has experienced major bouts of discomfort over the past month but his team's self-inflicted pain on the opening day in Sydney could turn into the most damaging of the summer. Boosted by Australia's resurgence in Melbourne last week and convinced that his hastily re-jigged order could perform like his men of three years ago, Ponting ignored the specks of green across the pitch, won the toss and batted. Just like Mark Taylor or Steve Waugh would have done.
Ponting doesn't have charge of the same quality as that duo and just when he thinks his side is ready to dominate again in every terrain, his emerging men show they aren't. After 44.2 overs of struggle in extremely challenging conditions, Australia dripped to 127 on a slippery day, their third total of 160 or under since The Oval in August.
Since Edgbaston in 2005, when England scored 407 in a day on the way to a series-turning victory, Ponting has stuck rigidly to a bat-first policy during 23 toss wins. Despite his leadership and tactical gains over the past year he refused to be flexible and the decision has given Pakistan an opening to level the three-match series.
Still remembering those increasingly hazy days at the start of his captaincy reign, Ponting expected his openers to shoulder arms and shovel through the hardest situation of the summer. Except he no longer has a Matthew Hayden or a Justin Langer. Not even a Simon Katich, who was scratched shortly before the toss with an elbow problem. Even before then it was always going to be a day for the bowlers whenever the showers stopped, which they did after lunch.
Michael Hussey didn't have a say in the decision, but he knew what Ponting would do. "I did joke with Ricky a day before the game saying he batted at Jo'burg in first Test against South Africa [early last year] and that wicket had branches growing on it," Hussey said. "I didn't think he'd bowl first on any wicket in the world and there's proof again today."
Ponting's over-confidence in his outfit left Shane Watson, a stroke-maker in conventional conditions appearing in his third series as opener, as the senior partner with Phillip Hughes, a 21-year-old in his sixth Test. Hughes has little experience of green tops, although the conditions were similar to his debut innings when he lasted four balls, and had a rushed entry after replacing Katich. Ponting demanded his openers to swim in the damp conditions, but by the time they had both sunk, the captain had joined them at the bottom of the dressing room.
It's acceptable to flap about after being sent in, but there is less sympathy for a side after it has selected the method of execution, and then added to the torture by sharpening the tools. Mohammad Sami and Mohammad Asif were outstanding, but both were helped by some Australian gifts on a day when reputations could have been made or, in Ponting's case, reconfirmed.
Ponting knew it would be tough and understood that intense application would be required to survive the swing and seam. Then he played a soft shot to his opening ball, being hurried into a pull to deep square leg. Other batsmen contributed to their respective dismissals, but none was more culpable than Ponting.
Mark Taylor had been this brave at the toss at Old Trafford in 1997, but he was certain someone would emerge from that jungle and watched Steve Waugh return with two centuries. Ponting doesn't have anyone of that class except himself, and he hasn't been the same since his left elbow was squashed by Kemar Roach's bouncer in Perth. At the WACA he was caught at short leg fending in the second innings, a justified reaction to another Roach lifter given the bruise in his arm, but in an effort to protect his injury and show he is not frightened by the fast men, he has been determined to pull. Twice in a row he has fallen that way against Pakistan.
A captain needs to realise when self-expression and personal battles have to be shelved to show an impressionable team how to wade through a Test's most difficult day. That can't be done when the No.3 exits at 2 for 2 in the fourth over.
Hughes had already departed for 0, being fortunate to stay for as long as 10 balls on his comeback. Caught between swaying and swinging, he aimed a drive without moving either foot and was taken at second slip, missing out on a chance to impress at home. A gritty half-century would have created a lasting memory for the selectors and those seeing him bat in Australia for the first time.
Watson (6) was undone by his front-foot press and as he forced himself on to the back foot was unable to deal with the seam of Sami, sending a catch behind. Michael Clarke, Australia's most bankable batsman last year, stayed 51 minutes before his self-control departed on 3 and he walked a big drive at Asif. Having seen a couple of outswingers, he left a hole between bat and pad for an off-cutter to slice through.
A similar lapse occurred to Michael Hussey, who knew plays and misses were to be ignored, but he couldn't eliminate his occasionally compulsive tendency to hook. When the ball arrived faster than Hussey calculated on 28, he was caught off the top edge at first slip. It wasn't a shot to be playing at 4 for 51 and he called it "silly".
Marcus North edged behind in familiar fashion and Brad Haddin walked out wanting to smash his team to 300 before stumps. Some days it works - usually when the wicket lacks spice - but today it didn't. He left after an ugly skew to mid-off and seven specialist batsmen had gone for 62.
Under these conditions batting a long time is the key, and defence the most important weapon. The surface looked like how distracted parents paint ceilings, with a decent coverage through the middle and patchy sections closer to the edge. Bowlers crave such green patterns and Australia's fast men begged to use it first but were over-ruled by Ponting. At the end of the day the attack, led by Mitchell Johnson's team-high 38, had already batted on it, praying it would retain its darting seam for another day.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo