The Ashes 2009 August 24, 2009

Australia must face harsh reality

Ricky Ponting regularly says Australia play at their best when their backs are to the wall. It's not true with this side

T-I-M-B-E-R. That loudly cracking gum tree at The Oval on Sunday was Australia crashing towards earth as they tumbled from first on the ICC rankings to a record low of fourth. Michael Hussey, the last man out, might not have reached the dressing room by the time the official email arrived, confirming what had been coming since Australia were so outplayed in India late last year. Ricky Ponting's world champion tag now lies in history next to the exploits of those from the Beijing Olympics.

That it was England who sent them through the trapdoor adds to the pain. After the game, Ponting was hurt and disappointed, but dignified and composed. The planning to move back up the ladder has already begun, and will be helped by playing Pakistan and West Indies at home over the summer. However, an era of severe inconsistency has followed the decade of dominance that began under Mark Taylor, continued through the Steve Waugh period and started to waver when a series of greats left Ponting stranded with an unrecognisable outfit.

Despite the defeat, their third to a major nation in less than a year, the influential figures in Australian cricket remain happy with the progress. James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's chief executive, and Andrew Hilditch, the often under-attack chairman of selectors, have expressed their disappointment in the result without pointing any fingers. A review will occur - of course it will - but the pair remained committed to this regenerating outfit.

"I'm comfortable with where we are at," Ponting said as he wondered why things had turned so bad at The Oval. "We've been rebuilding for 12 to 18 months, with guys who have a few Tests under their belts who are still learning about the game. There couldn't be a better example for the young guys than the last couple of months. They all should be a lot better off for being part of this series."

That might work for the newer faces, who become toughened and gnarled in defeat, but it's unlikely to help the older players, particular Ponting, Simon Katich and Michael Clarke, who have now lost twice in England. They had their chance for revenge and failed against a far inferior outfit than the 2005 vintage. Only Clarke stood out consistently, but then he flopped in the final Test, first the victim of a rash drive and then to an unfortunate pin-ball run-out. A home series win in 2010-11 can't exorcise their England issues over the past four years.

What has been hardest to understand is the regular yo-yo of performance, something for which the inflated coaching staff must accept some of the responsibility. How can the coterie of hangers-on and strategic planners not see problems unfolding when they spend so much time with the squad? All drills at the daily training sessions are designed for peak performance under searing pressure, but the tracksuits were blinded by optimism following each strong Test before re-discovering reality the next week.

The fright arrives when the team loses so badly in two Tests after saying how well everybody is going, how great the "preparation" has been, how strong the belief is in the group. By manufacturing this in-public spirit, lying about team developments and hiding struggling figures until they gain a high-paying tell-all media deal, the followers and players feel nothing is wrong. None of the professionals sensed the threat of the crash.

"Excitement" was Ponting's buzzword in the lead-up to The Oval. He didn't want to talk about the pressure on his men because he didn't want his young players tensing up. It wasn't just the fresh ones who couldn't deal with the strain of a winner-takes-all game, but the experienced campaigners as well, particularly in the first innings when they were flattened for 160. Modern-age team psychology and management babble masks truth. If players are told they are going well all the time how can they cope when things, suddenly or slowly, turn bad? They need to learn how to deal with fact.

To move on this unit must start by forgetting the high of South Africa, the one-off steamy holiday romance earlier this year, and focus on what happened in England. The day-to-day problems, the failure to turn hours of talk into action and recognising the ability and limits of those in the squad, particularly the fast bowlers. This is an outfit that can't transform any situation into a win, especially under extreme conditions.

When it mattered most, they failed. It happened at Lord's, where they expected to take a 1-0 lead at their overseas fortress, and was repeated at The Oval in the most important contest. In between they hung on for a draw at Edgbaston and had the best of the conditions in Leeds. Ponting regularly said Australians play their best when their backs are to the wall. It's not true with this side, which is why it currently sits in fourth behind South Africa, Sri Lanka and India. Mighty England remain fifth.

Despite it all, Ponting feels hurt but sees sunshine. "We're definitely heading in the right direction," he said. "I'm really proud of the guys." A tour that began with a first-round exit in the World Twenty20 has been followed by a second consecutive Ashes defeat in England. That's more like a dead end.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • nikhil on August 26, 2009, 7:01 GMT

    I agree with the point that Australia needs quality spinner because I feel their pace battery is still pretty strong. This is one thing other than now changing the captain. Same has happened with Rahul Dravid when he himself thought that Indian team needs change and then cricket world got Dhoni with new plans and imaginations. Ponting as a batsman still one of the best. We all need strong Australia because they bring a lot of professional and competative cricket, and mind you they are still very strong.

  • Neil on August 26, 2009, 1:43 GMT

    If Australia had taken one more wicket at Cardiff or if the selectors had used their noggins and selected Hauritz for the Oval Test then Peter could well be writing an article extolling the virtues of this young and very inexperienced team. Sure there were moments where they lost the plot but they also didn't have much luck with tosses and umpiring either. Hopefully with more time the bad days will get a little closer in quality to the good days. The absence of a quality spinner remains a real worry but I suspect Hauritz, like Swann, could well have taken 8 wickets on that road. Hauritz certainly had the better of that contest before he was forgotten. At the end of the day England didn't perform much better, just a little bit, and yet they are suddenly heroes of mythic proportions. It'll be interesting to see what next year brings and even more what the next ashes series in England brings. I know where my money will be.

  • Ujjal on August 25, 2009, 23:48 GMT

    Australia team for the next two years should be: Jaques, Hodge, Clark,Ponting- Captain, North, Haddin or Tom Payne (who ever is in the best batting form), Johnson, Lee, Kreza (properly coached to stop leaking runs) , Bryce McGain, Shaun Tait. Stand bys: Shaun marsh, Phil Hughes (technique rectified), Chris Rogers,Voges, Callum Ferguson,Bollinger, Haurtiz (comes in if Kreza is expensive), Cullen Bailey ( groomed as future repalcement of Bryce Mcgain).Peter Siddle (injury cover for Shuan Tait) , Hilfenhaus (as a back up for swinging conditions). PS: 1. Johnson, Kreza / hauritz and Lee combined can score enough runs to make a meanigful contribution than Shane Watson. 2. Personally I would prefer Tim Payne. 3. Always play with two spinners and three of the best and the fastest bowlers around, not trundlers. 4. Coaching Staff: Batting - Greg Chappell, Border.Bowling - Lillee (for the pacemen), Warne and Saqlain /Mallett for the spinners, Captaincy - Steve Waugh, Warne,Ian Chappel

  • Shivanker on August 25, 2009, 23:09 GMT

    Time to go, Ricky. No question he is the best batsman in the side. His leadership leaves much to be desired. Sydney, SA loss in Aus, Indian series loss in 2008-09, and now the Ashes 2009 (not forgetting the Ashes 2005). You are kidding me if you think Ponting is still being considered as the right man to lead Aussies. Maybe the right side to lead the Aussies further down the rankings! He lacks imagination, lacks the inspirational moves (a la Imran, Ganguly, Vaughan). This is the time to hand over the reins to a captain who can build the side back like Border did. Time for a Clarke perhaps. Let Ponting guide with his experience as a player -- let a new captain start a fresh chapter in the glorious Aussie cricket history. Time to go, Ricky.

  • Greg on August 25, 2009, 13:02 GMT

    I think Peter has made an assumption that the Australian team and administrators actually meant all the positive "booster" statements made during the series. My view is what James Speed has to say probably gives more insight into what was actually thought. This is essentially a highly inexperienced team who fought a relatively tight contest against a team of similar ability. Sport and sporting outcomes are essentially a bit of a crapshoot and England took their chances and all credit to them. I tend to agree with what Bobby Simpson said a few years ago about Australia's dominance: it is just luck. The luck being they had two of the greatest bowlers of all time (McGrath and Warne) in the same team at the same time. Since their departure Australian success has been spasmodic at best. I think this Australian line up will develop into a solid side. I would argue against going down the English path of team instability and multiple captain changes.

  • Ramakrishnan on August 25, 2009, 11:09 GMT

    The saying "the Cat is a Tiger in its own alley" applies aptly for the England team.. They won back the Ashes from the Australians because they utilised the conditions well apart from being benefited by the benevolence the Umpires in most of the matches, especially from Rudi Koertzen. To call for the head of Ricky Ponting at this stage will not help their cause in any way. The blame should be squarely shouldered by the selectors and none else.

  • Ajay on August 25, 2009, 11:03 GMT

    Guys, Just one good Australian Summer and Ponting and his side will be back on track... Mate, it is just a passing phase... I am sure, Australians will fire again in the ODIs against England and in the Champions Trophy....

  • Bismarck on August 25, 2009, 9:19 GMT

    The reality is that Ponting's comments and his team selections in the series are built on hope rather than belief. If he were honestly analyse the series, he (and selectors) will realise that he overutilised Johnson when he should have had the "corridor of uncertainty specialist" Clark in the series earlier... And how can you bench the express pace of Brett Lee?

  • Suda on August 25, 2009, 8:58 GMT

    It was very simply a potent combination of a mediocre team with very pedestrian captaincy and a complete misjudgement of conditions that led to this downfall.

    Once again during this series Punter showed how he missed the wood for the trees by getting spinners to operate where the need was to take one wicket. Similarly first by not selecting a good spinner and then by not selecting the one that they had they have compounded their misery.

    What it also shows is that while the main stream was on the ascendency during the entire 90's and early 2000's their bench strength has not really kept up with the same kind of growth.

    This should show all countries and the IPL franchises that just because a coach is Aussie in origin does not mean that he will deliver the goods look at their new crop ??

    Seems like the Aussies -especially the coaches have got caught in a web of their own creation.

  • Rohit on August 25, 2009, 8:30 GMT

    I still feel Ponting's not to blame. England had their Lady Luck siiling at them with a wide grin. The 2 run outs were crucial especially of Ponting. Unlike Mark Taylor, who was able to stretch his career on the basis of his captaincy record and skills, Ponting is still the best batsman of the team. He is is the best guy to lead the team. Besides, Australia's downfall in tests is owing largely due to absence of Hayden and Langer at the top. The two had always shielded a middle order which may not have always stood up. With no Hayden or the Mr Prolific Langer, Australia never had great starts from where Ponting & Co could build up an innings into 500+ totals. I guess if Ricky's reading this he would not disagree with me !! Australia need openers..awe inspiring dashing openers...

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