India v Australia, 4th Test, Nagpur, 5th day November 10, 2008

Not feeling the love

Ali Cook
If he had to sit in the Gabba stands for next week's first Test against New Zealand for doing everything in his power to win here, he would have been celebrated


Ricky Ponting has now slipped below Steve Waugh as the game's most successful captain - his winning percentage is 68.75 next to Waugh's 71.92 © AFP
 

Winning at all costs no longer seems to be the Australian way, but it doesn't feel like supporters have gained a team to love instead of an uncompromising steamroller. The tourists still walk on the confident-arrogant border, sledge in times of strength and weakness, insist there is only one way to play the game, and mention "the spirit of cricket" as a defence when their behaviour or tactics are challenged.

It was one of the reasons Ponting gave for calling on his part-time bowlers instead of looking to his fast men when the over-rate became more of a concern than winning the fourth Test and retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Bowling 90 overs in a day, something the Australians hardly managed over the past five weeks, suddenly came under the banner of a "spirit of cricket" issue. It's not the sort of response that makes you feel all warm and cuddly for the players' commitment.

There were many stages that cost Australia this game, from India's strong opening partnerships to the visitors' failure to attempt to disrupt India's negative line, to the inability of the fast men to strike regular blows and the illnesses experienced by Brett Lee and Michael Clarke. But no point was harder to understand than Ponting using his spinners on Sunday - and then watching them ease the pressure on India - instead of looking for a quick kill and thinking "stuff the consequences".

If he had to sit in the Gabba stands for next week's first Test against New Zealand for doing everything in his power to win here, he would have been celebrated. That's the sort of attacking outlook that would charm people. Ponting chose the defensive option instead and his side suffered and he has been heavily criticised.

Ponting has now lost two of the major Test trophies for similar reasons. In England in 2005 Australia was slow to catch on and unable to innovate. That happened again in India, unless picking Cameron White as a specialist spinner for three matches is creative. Old tactics were used with defensive field settings and bowling plans, but new trends were missed, especially with reverse-swing.

 
 
The home-and-away battle against South Africa over the next six months will determine whether Australia head to England for the 2009 Ashes as a world leader or a challenger. Despite a 13-point lead over second-placed India, Australia's No. 1 spot is no longer undisputed
 
When Mahendra Singh Dhoni was in charge of India the side looked vibrant and in control compared to the outfits of Ponting and Anil Kumble. It can't be a fluke that the two games Dhoni led, India won in dominating fashion. Dhoni was helped by a firing unit, but he provided the energy.

Ponting can manage that only when a team is in front, which is probably a product of him not being behind too often. That is changing. Ponting has now slipped below Steve Waugh as the game's most successful captain - his winning percentage is 68.75 next to Waugh's 71.92 - and it looks like it will drop further.

This is not a side that will dominate all-comers any more and the home-and-away battle against South Africa over the next six months will determine whether Australia head to England for the 2009 Ashes as a world leader or a challenger. Despite a 13-point lead over second-placed India, Australia's No. 1 spot is no longer undisputed.

For the past three Tests, Australia have been behind as soon as they have lost the toss. The fast bowlers have not had regular impact and Jason Krejza showed how much a specialist spinner could achieve with his 12 wickets on debut.

Krejza's performance was the only significant bright spot in another difficult game for the tourists, but he must now wait until the series against New Zealand to discover whether he can make it at home. Without Krejza's performance here, Australia would have been humiliated. Instead they were beaten badly.

"This tour we've just been totally outplayed," Ponting said. "With the exception of the first Test, where we pretty much dominated that game, in any other game we've got back to level, but never really got in front. Losing three tosses in a row, if you don't actually get yourself back in front after the first innings, it's very hard to win here."


It can't be a fluke that the two games Dhoni led, India won in dominating fashion. Dhoni was helped by a firing unit, but he provided the energy © Getty Images
 

On the third day in Nagpur, with Australia resuming at 189 for 2, Ponting hoped his side could draw alongside India's first-innings 441, but they were unable to innovate against the negative bowling of the morning session and the hope of parity was soon extinguished. "Coming here on the third morning I was really positive about how the game was going," he said.

"India adopted a certain style of play that made it very difficult for us, they chipped in with a few wickets and the scoreboard was going nowhere. Being behind on first innings again wasn't ideal and chasing 380 today was exceptionally difficult."

Australia needed a miracle and it was not possible for this team. Waugh's side only collected a chase around that size once. How Ponting and his men recover will determine how far they fall. Spirit will have to be shown in stomachs and hearts rather than being something that is talked about in times of trouble.

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