Ponting answers SOS and returns for Sydney
Ricky Ponting's surprise recall to the Australian team was portrayed by his coach, Tim Nielsen, as a positive move, but the broader implications are less rosy.
Ponting engaged in a rare act of public defiance last week when Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, decreed that he be rested from the second and third one-day internationals against New Zealand. Riding a three-game losing streak, and with team confidence eroding by the match, Ponting made clear his preference to play through the Chappell-Hadlee Series and postpone his scheduled break until the storm clouds had passed. Hilditch, though, won out and Ponting played no role in the six-wicket defeat at the MCG on Friday.
That result took Australia's losing skid to five games, and handed Daniel Vettori's men an imposing 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. But Ponting has persuaded Hilditch that, with the series on the line, it was imperative he miss no further matches and be recalled immediately for Sunday's third ODI in Sydney.
The selectors' prompt about-face will raise questions as to the wisdom of their move to rest Ponting at such a critical juncture of the season, even if their intentions were noble. The decision will also do little for the confidence of Michael Clarke, who had hoped to stamp his authority on the one-day team after a week in which his leadership qualities were called into question.
Nielsen announced Ponting's recall on Saturday and despite his best attempts to portray the move as an affirmative action, he could not completely gloss over the selectors' muddled handling of the situation. "He was really keen to play and he made sure that everybody that is involved with the team understood that," Nielsen said. "The biggest challenge we face at the moment is the amount of cricket we play.
"The players always want to play for Australia, which is something we really encourage and look for them to do, but it's difficult finding a break for them. You try and plan a break for players and you lose a couple of games and you're under pressure because the scoreboard says you're 2-0 down. Ricky understood the reasons for his rest. He knew he had played a lot of cricket."
The pressure is coming from all quarters at present. A depressing losing sequence, injuries to key personnel and damaging reports of a scuffle between Clarke and Simon Katich have placed the Australians in unfamiliar territory. The tension is even being felt at executive level - James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's chief executive, spent much of Saturday speaking to an irate David Gyngell, the Channel Nine supremo, who was aghast that the Australians were considering not playing Ponting on Sunday, the first day of the television ratings season.
There is no suggestion that Gyngell's calls were the catalyst for Ponting's recall, but they do indicate just how intense the situation within Australian cricket has become. Nielsen suggested as much when discussing the factors that led to Ponting rejoining the team.
"We are obviously 2-0 down in the series and he was very keen to play even though we talked about, and worked out, a resting plan for him," he said. "Obviously us being 2-0 down has forced the issue a little bit and, with his keenness to play, the selectors believe it's the right move.
"We feel as though we're getting close. We've been involved in a couple of close tussles with New Zealand and I don't feel in any way, shape or form that we're playing anywhere near our best. With Ricky back around the group hopefully that will add that edge for us and get us over the line [on Sunday]."
The Australians arrived in Sydney on Saturday aware that another defeat would not only cost them the series, but also guarantee them an inglorious place in cricket's annals. Only once in the 38-year history of ODIs has Australia lost six matches in a row, and Ponting will be desperate to prevent his team from adding its name to the list.
The inclusion of Ponting will bring starch to Australia's top order, and can only help the team in its bid to keep the series alive. But the more pertinent point was why, with the Australian team in its most fragile state in years, was the captain benched against his wishes in the first place? At a time when Australia needs clear, strong leadership, the mixed signals from Hilditch's panel are hardly reassuring.
"Ricky has today made a strong appeal to be allowed to play given that this is a 'decider' game," Hilditch said. "Given the circumstance, we have made an on-balance decision to support his request and we will continue to monitor his workload closely. It should be noted that selectors were pleased with Clarke's leadership and batting form in Melbourne, where he was Man of the Match, but this decision will bolster our batting. We also understand Ricky's desire to lead from the front."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo