November 11, 2008

In defence of Punter

Ponting may deserve criticism for his moves on day four at Nagpur, but he deserves a measure of sympathy as well

Ponting's fault was not bowling whom he did but in getting as far behind the over-rate as he did © Getty Images

When Australia beat England narrowly in the dead Sydney Test of January 1987, having already lost the Ashes, a journalist at the press conference put a proposition to the visiting captain, Mike Gatting. Wasn't it really rather good that the hosts had won a consolation victory? Didn't he, deep down, feel a little sorry for the Aussies?

Gatting wasn't a man for baleful glares or even Simon Katich-style brush-offs, but he imparted some advice to remember. Beating Australia was always great, he insisted. And nobody, but nobody, should ever feel sorry for a cricketer in green and gold.

Under present circumstances, however, it's hard not to extend some sympathy to Ricky Ponting, who stands accused of surrendering the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with a single stroke of captaincy: a decision that seems to have set at nought all his previous achievements. Even the newspaper for whom Ponting writes, the Australian, has joined the accusers, having spun for him like Alistair Campbell all the way through Bhajjigate.

Indeed, Ponting might well have lost Australia the Test, but if so, he did it on the first day, when he lost the toss; ditto Mohali. It's no fluke that Australia's best performance during the series came the only time they won the toss. The way the Australian bowlers that Ponting didn't use have been described, meanwhile, you'd think he had Ray Lindwall, Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath at his disposal. In fact, the pace attack at Ponting's disposal had taken five wickets for the match, and on tour had paid 45 runs per wicket.

Where Ponting does deserve criticism is not in bowling whom he did when, but in so marooning himself behind the over-rate that such a choice became necessary, although that bespeaks a lapse in concentration rather than a failure of judgment. Having watched Dhoni's captaincy on Saturday, he may have been suckered into slowing the pace of game without realising the pressure it might put him under later. Australians are not hugely adept at defensive cricket, and weren't so even at their peak. In the context of the Antigua Test five years ago, where West Indies successfully chased 418, Adam Gilchrist comments in his new autobiography: "We were great frontrunners and liked to accelerate the tempo of a Test match; but when the momentum moved away from us we didn't seem able to arrest it. Once we were slipping, we couldn't slow things down. Our liking for a fast attacking tempo turned against us." If not then, it is now.

So in the cool light of day Ponting might wish he had made different choices, chivvied his bowlers earlier, thought ahead about his narrowing options. But cool light of day is hard to find in Nagpur in November at the end of a gruelling tour, especially without the senior helpmates on whose wisdom he has been able to call for so long. On Saturday, the ABC radio commentary team threw every toy out of the cot - pacifier, diaper and all - and they were only contending with a lost satellite link to Australia. Ponting made other captaincy calls that earned him no praise, but at which a lesser leader might have baulked, like first choosing then persevering with Jason Krezja.

Ponting has done the game a favour, by showing how neurotic we have become about Test cricket in these Twenty20-centric times

With all the praise and blame flying around, I suspect we are missing something. To my mind Ponting has done the game a favour by showing how neurotic we have become about Test cricket in these Twenty20-centric times. On Saturday critics were lamenting the day's poverty of entertainment, the teams' insensitivity to the legitimate expectations of the paying public. On Sunday they turned to lamenting an attempt by a captain to meet one of the arbitrary indicators that those legitimate expectations are being met: the requirement of 90 overs in a day.

By a mixture of ICC regulations and critical consensus, we seem to have arrived at a quantification of what constitutes a good day of Test cricket: a minimum 350 runs from a minimum 90 overs (bowled, according to the latest insistence, by specialists). The fine print in various broadcasting contracts probably dictates 375 advertisements and 87 pop songs too.

Yet how many great days of Test cricket have ever been exactly like that? Three of the most dramatic days of the Ashes of 2005 involved 407 runs for 10 wickets, 282 for 17 wickets, and 104 runs for two wickets - each of them super-saturated with tension, and yielding memories to last a lifetime. Glorious uncertainty sometimes entails profound disappointment; but without disappointment, excellence becomes prosaic, banal. Why is it that we are so anxious to guarantee Test cricket as an entertainment package? After all, this is a game, not a pop concert. It can only be because we live an age where a game crossed with a pop concert - Twenty20 cricket - is imposing its standards on everything else.

This has been a good series. Tight, tough, intriguing, rich in variety of skill, full of stuff to write about - for which every journalist can be grateful. In fact, the wrangling of the moment is a kind of tribute to the game's long form. What Twenty20 game could rattle so many bones of contention? For this reason, Punter, while Gatt reckons I can't feel sorry for you, I'd like to offer my thanks.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer