July 4, 2010

Ponting's Ashes kryptonite

It might seem a wild suggestion, but just like Jardine used Larwood against Bradman, Strauss could consider bringing back Flintoff for a couple of Ashes Tests

Playing in a period that has often been dominated by batsmen, Ricky Ponting is comfortably among the three best willow-wielders of his time.

In the early part of his career, when good fast bowlers were still reasonably prolific, he was overshadowed by the glittering deeds of Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. However, Ponting was able to reel in this mighty pair by becoming such a dominant No. 3 batsman that he was able to dictate terms to almost any attack. Then when Lara retired and Tendulkar's powers waned, Ponting moved to the head of the batting class, and although there are signs age is now catching up with him and the Indian maestro has gathered a second wind, Ponting is still the most influential batsman in the Australian side.

Never has this been more evident than during the five-game ODI series against England. Ponting is no Sir Donald Bradman, but then again nobody else has got within a decent career average of the player who virtually averaged a hundred in Tests.

And neither is Andrew Strauss another Douglas Jardine; he bats left-handed, and rather than baiting Australians, he married one.

However, there are parallels with what's happening between this pair and the machinations of the infamous Bodyline series. With his desire to beat Australia aroused, Jardine decided that if you decreased Bradman's influence on the contest, it dramatically increased England's chances of winning. He virtually halved Bradman's average in 1932-33, with the help of Harold Larwood's well-directed missiles, and hey presto, Ashes reclaimed.

Strauss is a shrewd captain and he's figured out that if you keep Ponting relatively quiet, the rest of the Australian batting line-up is easier to subdue. In the first three ODIs, the England bowlers got the better of Ponting and poof, just like magic, a series victory was claimed.

However, in game four Ponting finally broke the shackles and Australia returned to the winner's circle via their favoured route: by posting a big total and then pouncing as a demanding chase proves too much for a side trying to combat a solid bowling attack backed by athletic fielding.

England currently have a versatile attack but the one thing they lack is a man with the speed, accuracy and aura to shake up good batsmen on bouncy Australian pitches. The one England bowler with those credentials is Flintoff

It's a formula that has often worked for Australia but it's most successful when Ponting has a long stay at the crease to oversee proceedings. There's no doubt Michael Clarke is a class player but he can't dictate terms like Ponting. And Shane Watson can hammer the faster bowlers but too often his dominance is snuffed out shortly after he gets to 50. Strauss will be aware that dealing with Ponting is like a night at the casino: sometimes you're lucky and others you're not.

However, the evidence is irrefutable. In the two Tests England won to claim the 2009 Ashes series, England kept Ponting quiet, particularly in the first innings, and Australia were never able to dominate when batting. If Strauss wants to reach the dizzy heights, he could learn another lesson from Jardine.

Jardine was quick to realise that you need good fast bowling to win in Australia. Jardine not only provided Larwood with a blueprint for unsettling Bradman, he also made sure he had plenty of fast bowling back-up. England currently have a versatile attack but the one thing they lack is a man with the speed, accuracy and aura to shake up good batsmen on bouncy Australian pitches.

The one England bowler with those credentials is Andrew Flintoff. Apparently Flintoff is amenable to returning for one last Ashes series. Just like Jardine courted Larwood with plans to bounce Bradman before the 1932-33 series, Strauss would be wise to advise Flintoff that if he's fit, he'd like him in the touring party, even if it's just for two or three specific Tests.

England already has one small piece of kryptonite to weaken Ponting: throughout his career he's had problems with good offspinners and Graeme Swann is currently the best in the game. However, Swann and every other England bowler will present a stronger challenge to Ponting's authority if a fit Flintoff is lurking in the shadows. Some might say it's a panic move, others would complain on the score of disrupting team unity. Then there are those who might deem the move a practical one in an attempt to win a series in Australia, and never has there been a more pragmatic cricket captain than Douglas Jardine.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist