December 19, 2010

Ponting's captaincy is hurting Australia

He's trying too hard to prove he's worthy. When he quits, Haddin might be Australia's best option as a stop-gap leader

Reports of Ricky Ponting's demise have been greatly exaggerated. His Test captaincy has been prolonged by a player who himself was in danger of disappearing off the cricketing map just a few days ago.

Mitchell Johnson continued his love affair with the WACA pitch by producing another electrifying spell to rip the heart out of the England batting order. If it wasn't the work done with the Australian coaching staff that fixed the ailing Johnson, then a visit by the Fremantle Doctor provided the ideal tonic.

Nevertheless, Johnson's epic resurgence shouldn't camouflage the fact that Ponting's captaincy is starting to hurt the Australian team. In what appears to be an attempt to prove the critics wrong, Ponting has become impatient for success and his constant changes to the field placings only served to distract the bowlers from their task. He looks like a captain trying too hard to prove he's worthy, rather than a steady one with a firm grip on the levers. There's no need to be a cricketing genius at the WACA ground; if you bowl to encourage the drive, mix in the odd bouncer and keep as many catching fieldsmen behind the wicket as possible, success will generally follow.

If it hadn't been for Johnson's remarkable revival, the series could have been England's for the taking. If the pattern of the game had continued to follow that of the first day, Ponting's captaincy would now be under immediate threat. It hasn't helped that Ponting went cheaply in Perth after failures in the first two Tests. He's currently a batsman out of luck rather than out of form. In this series he's either got a good one early or he's edged to the keeper down leg side - a batsman's worst nightmare. Ponting's footwork is still intact and this generally means, for a player of his calibre, a big score is just around the corner.

While Ponting is coming to the end of his Test captaincy reign, the path to the future leadership has suddenly became a rutted road. Just a few weeks ago it appeared that Michael Clarke was certain to take over. However, the English bowlers have discovered his Achilles heel. They have made a concerted effort to unsettle him with the short stuff and it's starting to have a debilitating affect on his batting. If Clarke doesn't arrest this slide before the end of the series, the selectors will be loath to appoint him captain with such an ominous cloud hanging over his head.

Haddin has already had some success as captain of New South Wales and he's a good, aggressive cricketer with an eye for what keeps the game moving forward

If Clarke does continue to struggle, Australia could be forced to deviate from their time-honoured method of choosing a long-term captain. If they opt for a stop-gap captain, Brad Haddin would be a good choice. Haddin has already had some success as captain of New South Wales, and he's a good, aggressive cricketer with an eye for what keeps the game moving forward. He's also brutally frank about his own performance and if he adopted similar principles as Australian captain he'd be on the right track.

Former champion keeper Ian Healy dismisses worries that Haddin may feel overloaded with the captaincy. Healy believes the spin-bowling quotient is not the factor it was when Adam Gilchrist kept to Shane Warne's many quality overs for Australia.

It may not be the ideal solution but it's better to have a stop-gap captain than make a glaring error that haunts the team for a couple of series.

The other player who has advanced his credentials is allrounder Shane Watson. His cricket has improved dramatically in the last 12 months, and the adjustments have all required a lot of thought and mental courage. These are both good ingredients for a captain. However, Watson's body language in times of stress hasn't progressed at the same pace as the rest of his game. A captain can't afford to display his mood for all too see, and Watson also hasn't had any previous captaincy experience.

Johnson's resurgence was the most dramatic turnaround by a fast bowler in an Ashes series since Frank "Typhoon" Tyson in 1954-55. The Typhoon changed direction after taking 1 for 160 in the opening encounter at the Gabba, as Australia battered England. He then administered the battering in the following Test at the SCG, taking 4 for 45 and 6 for 85, and went on to claim 28 wickets in the five-Test series as England retained the Ashes. Johnson's resurgence has followed a similarly devastating path. Whether it is ongoing like Tyson's and further prolongs Ponting's career remains to be seen.

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

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