Ponting's absence affecting Australia's energy
Dare it be said that 17 days after the national selectors deemed it the right time for Ricky Ponting to move on the Australian one-day team is missing him? Perhaps not his batting, which had offered nothing in his final five innings, but certainly his dressing-room influence, energy, drive and focus.
While Michael Clarke and Shane Watson seek to establish their leadership axis on the eve of the West Indies tour, the team around them has looked listless in the field since the 30th over of the first CB series final, in Brisbane. Clarke's face has looked sterner in the past 48 hours than at almost any stage of his captaincy so far, and Watson's anger when a concerted caught-behind appeal was refused in Adelaide on Tuesday night was obvious to all. This team must now work out who will lift them out of their fast-onset slumber.
"I said when I took over the captaincy there were going to be some challenges and this is probably one of them," Clarke said after the first final. "We're playing against a very good team full of confidence, and we have to play our best cricket and turn things around very quickly to win the third final. But it is 1-1 in this finals series, so I don't think we're doing that badly, that's for sure. I'm confident the boys will get out there in a couple of days and play our best cricket."
Both Clarke and Watson have their own problems to confront. Clarke is now sidelined by a serious hamstring strain, and will be out of action for about a month. In a trice the team has lost its best batsman and most capable leader. Watson must assume the mantle in Clarke's absence, as he fights to re-establish himself after a three-month injury layoff. While his bowling has been sound since his return, Watson is battling for timing and rhythm with the bat.
Under them is a team that is confronting its first significant flat spot for some time. With the exceptions of stormy Test matches in Cape Town and Hobart, the team led by Clarke has been operating on a steady upward curve for almost 12 months. Limited-overs series wins in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa, coupled with steadily improving Test results, have demonstrated plenty of discipline, focus and the desire to improve. Ponting was a part of all those squads.
In his absence this series, Australia have performed passably, have alternated wins with losses, and have now struck a particularly poor phase in the field. Bowlers are struggling to maintain their line and length, fielders are proving sloppy, and even Clarke's usually sharp judgement has been questionable at times - note his angry slap of the turf after positioning only one slip for James Pattinson's outswing in the second final.
"We're giving away too much width more than anything else," Clarke said of his bowlers. "We're getting a little bit of swing but we're giving good players width, and you can't afford to do that on good batting pitches like that [Adelaide]. We've got to be more disciplined with our areas, I said that the other night [in the first final] and unfortunately once again we didn't execute anywhere near as well as we would have liked. But it's all facets contributing to the loss: our fielding was sloppy and we were probably 40 runs short of the total we wanted on that pitch, with fairly small square boundaries."
Australia's coach Mickey Arthur is in no doubt that Ponting has left a significant gap in the team. Ponting's relentless pursuit of fitness, success and consistency often left him as the last man on the field at training, long after younger and fresher legs had been exhausted. Arthur said Michael and David Hussey had filled some of the breach, while David Warner also acted as a source of energy, and runs.
"We've certainly asked for other guys to take on that mantle and the guys have tried to step up," Arthur said. "But you don't replace that intent, that ability to execute his [Ponting's] all-round [game], that aura that Ricky had in the dressing room, you never replace that easily. But it is a team in change now and the other guys need to step up to the plate.
"I've certainly seen Michael Hussey stand up a little bit, David Hussey has stood up a little bit, and we're hoping Davey Warner stands up as well, and certainly with his form he's taken that mantle on properly."
The difficulties faced by the Australian team towards the end of a long and demanding summer - it is set to continue in the West Indies - go beyond the decision to jettison Ponting. But it is significant that the downturn has accompanied his absence. Watson, Clarke and the selectors are now aware of precisely how much was lost with Ponting's removal. It will be a major step for the team if they can conjure the right result without him in the third final.
Edited by Dustin Silgardo
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here