“In a pond with no fish,” goes an old Russian saying, “a crab is a fish.” Twenty-first century Australian cricket throws up numerous variations on this. Such as: in a pond with bugger all fit and capable opening batsmen, Shane Watson is an opening batsman.
To his credit, Watson is an opener whose plant-foot-and-plunder style of driving the ball has cemented in many of his countrymen’s hearts a warm sort of feeling. This feeling falls just short of affection. It is more a grudging, qualified trust, the kind that at 10.29 this morning persuaded the pink-shirted lad at Q23, on the fourth tier of the MCG’s Great Southern Stand, to lean in towards the blue-shirted lad next to him.
“Watto’s on strike,” announced the lad in pink, “so I’m pretty confident.”
For a couple of beats, the lads considered this and said nothing.
“Unless,” he added, “they duck one into his pads.”
Five runs, two spilt catches and 12 anxiety-laden deliveries it took. Except this ball didn’t duck in, it popped up instead. From Watto’s gloves to gully, the ball duly looped.
Out to the middle hustled skipper Ricky Ponting. Up on the giant screen flashed Ponting’s career average – 53.85 – a mere 0.01 shy of the great Greg Chappell. When the worries of age crinkled Chappell’s once-smooth brow, he relinquished the captaincy and slid down the batting order, freeing his mind for one last run-filled summer. Ponting would see that as timidity, as leaving his men in the lurch. And so, in a pond with no obvious alternative captain and no obvious alternative number three, Ponting is captain and number three.
The roaring applause of 84,000-odd well-wishers turned to a fretful 84,000-strong murmur for the second half of Ponting’s walk to the wicket. A near-trademark swivel pull took him from two runs to six – not quite trademark, in that instead of sailing high and handsome, this pull shot was punched low and safe. It suggested steely determination on Ponting’s part. Another swivel pull took him from 6 to 10 – but this one really was trademark, being a little higher than good sense dictated. It suggested determination was faltering. Without further ado, he thrust hard hands at an away-steepler he’d have been better off ignoring and departed in the now familiar way.
Boxing Day in Melbourne means a bumper day for phone companies. My first text message, sent on behalf of one-month-old Dylan, had landed while I was still on the route 96 tram: “Dylan says it will be Hussey to save the day again, if the day needs saving!”
But there is a limit to how many salvage jobs one previously out-of-form man can engineer. Soon Australia were four wickets down and wishing for the emergence through the gates of an unflappable, technically sound, tough-as-a-barndoor number six. Alas, in a pond with apparently no such number six, Steve Smith is a number six.
Today might go down as the day when reality finally sunk in: the pond, at this particular brief moment, is nigh on bare. Here’s another reality, even grimmer. Somewhere along the line, and it coincided roughly with the introduction of round-the-clock, finicky coaching methods, Australia’s elite batsmen lost the instinct and the know-how to guts things out on a sporty pitch.
Before long their bowlers were bowling on that same sporty pitch, a pitch where 10 Australian wickets had fallen to catches off the outside edge, and they were bowling to a field of two slips. Seeing that field setting of Ponting’s, those two pitiful slips… Well, that was the grimmest realisation of all. There was nothing left for it but to peer at the heavens, to peer and to pray and to invoke a half-remembered old Australian saying: “If it don’t rain for four days, we’ll all be rooned.”
Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country