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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Aditya on November 13, 2008, 13:22 GMT

    I don't think that Ponting captained badly, only that India played well. However, Ponting comes with the badge to India, of being one of the best, if not the best captain of Australia. In the first test, Ponting captained in a manner, which would have made Greg Chappell proud. It seemed, that Ponting was following Greg Chappell's mantra, on how to captain a test side. Greg Chappell is perhaps, a coach whose time is yet to come. I am glad that Mr Chappell is based in Rajasthan, and is working with the Rajasthan Cricket Association.

  • Biso on November 13, 2008, 4:20 GMT

    Julian, I have stated facts. Aussies could not win the first test because of their poor bowling stock. Those who believe that Aussie quicks would have run through the tail, for sure and their batsmen would have got the 300 odd runs on the last day are positively speculating. The team has neither shown the resolve nor the capacity all through the series. No point fooling ourselves with fantastic speculation. The former greats who are crying about a 100% opportunity lost are only venting their frustration and covering the fact that the Aussie team had limited capabilities.Finding a scapegoat in Ponting is the real excuse for not willing to face the facts on the ground. I say again, if Indians had caught better, Aussies would have struggled to reach 150 on the last day. Hayden was patchy all through and his success upfront is a must.Haddin is no Glichrist. Even, Ghilchrist had mixed success in the sub continent. Ponting is yet to prove himself in India.He did not have the Ammo. Period.

  • Anupam on November 12, 2008, 12:39 GMT

    Those who truly understand the beauty of test cricket's impetousity and languidness can really know what you are saying. I enjoyed those sessions too that were described by Mr. Ian Chappel and company as boring though they were entralling. the real beat of test cricket was shown in this series of wits. Cricket is a cerebral game not like some 20twenty baseball that only requires brawns. I think the "death" of test cricket should rather be attributed to lack of appreciation & undersatnding of the transedence which test cricket offers and marketers pandering to Indian audience for lure of money who dont even have basic understanding of the game.

  • Pradeep on November 12, 2008, 9:50 GMT

    This is by far the most balanced article on the series. At the end of this, India has no doubt gained but cannot call themselves number 1. Likewise, Australia have dropped the high standards set by them and need to look for a sharper and more balanced bowling attack. SA is also a great team but don't have a balanced bowling attack and are therefore not considered number 1 team. Lots of comments were made on over rate in the last test. But as the author pointed out, if you are looking for 20-20 cricket, look elsewhere. If you enjoy test match and the original game, over rate should not bother you. Its the quality of cricket that matters. Anyone can employ a 8-1 field but to have a an accurate bowling attack consistently exploiting it is an entire different matter and can be appreciated by only those who understand the game well.

  • Julian on November 12, 2008, 7:15 GMT

    Biso, you can come up with any amount of statistics to prove your excuses. It's the result that matters and Punter let go of a golden oppurtinity to square the series and retain the trophy rather than worrying about being banned for the next match.He allowed India to regain the momentum and win the match instead of snuffing them out as we have come to expect of him based on previous contests.Downright stupid and shows a lack confidence.

  • Ramakrishnan on November 12, 2008, 6:44 GMT

    Excellent article by Mr Gideon and as rightly observed by Mr Sanjiv Gupta, the Australian captain has been at the receiving end of criticisms by his own former team mates. Australia did not lose the series due to bad captaincy, but because of factors like failure of their fast bowlers, White's ineffective bowling, loss of toss etc. It is a fact that Ponting lost the plot when India were 166-6 on the fourth day, but then he alone does not deserve to be blamed for the tactics.

  • jothirmayanantham on November 12, 2008, 6:30 GMT

    I completely agree with the writer. It was the same people who hailed ponting's move to bring micheal clarke to bowl in the sydney which the australians won. Even though there were controversies the last three wickets clarke took was legitimate. If the same thing had happened in nagpur everyone would have hailed ponting. Sicne it did not work starting from alan border to every tom and dick are blaming ponting. If he had used the fast bowlers and stiil dhoni and bhajii had played well what would these same say? they would say that ponting should have used slow bowlers to get wickets. It's easyto say something from off the field. Ponting did not have a great team of fast bowlers to fall upon like steve waugh or mark taylor or alan border. lets not make ponting the scapegoat. Even the so called stevewaugh lost to india in india. Mcgraths and warnes could not bowl out laxman and dravid after india was following on. its completely absurd to blame ponting on this.

  • Yogesh on November 12, 2008, 5:23 GMT

    Agree. On the last two days over rates should have been irrelavant. Game was exciting as it was.

  • Biso on November 12, 2008, 4:15 GMT

    Have a look at these interesting stats which prove my earlier statement in this blog.

  • Julian on November 12, 2008, 3:40 GMT

    Not persevering with Shane Watson, after having India on the back foot in the 2nd session, was absolutely stupid on Punters part. You could argue that Brett Lee had little success through the series, but bowling Watto and Krejza in tandem could have wiped out the Indian tail before they knew what had hit them. Had they kept the momentum, the Australian batsmen would have risen to the occassion and carved out a win in all probability. This attitude illustrates the lack of confidence in the ability to win and thus play defensively rather than attack which has been the cornerstone of his captaincy previously. This cowardly act has turned what could have been a massive victory into a major demoralising set-back.

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